Apple Apologists Sometimes Mean Well, But…

I started writing about Apple in 1999, when reporting for CNET, and quickly earned a reputation for being anti-Apple. As a Mac user, the accusation puzzled me, because I didn’t yet understand how zealots sought to undermine journalists who wrote anything less than positive about the company.

My reputation got so bad that I couldn’t even deliver welcome news. In a January 2001 scoop, two reliable sources confirmed that Apple would break the 500MHz gap with new Power Macs. One Mac enthusiast site—apologies, I can’t find the link—said the story only made sense if untrue, because my news pieces were negative. So I must have written to lift Mac users’ hopes so they would be crushed when then-CEO Steve Jobs didn’t announce a 733MHz Power Mac. 

The apologists had good reasons to be combative. Macs had tiny market share but accounted for the bulk of Apple revenues. There was no iPhone, iPod, or iTunes—nor Apple Store or OS X. The foundations for greatness lay in the future, and the Windows-Intel duopoly owned the personal computer market. Tech news coverage favored Microsoft. “The Faithful” really needed to believe in Apple, often without questioning any strategy’s soundness.

What interests me as a reporter: The tone of Apple apologist comments today are very much like enthusiasts’ responses a decade-and-a-half ago. There’s a better-than-you, know-it-all, Apple-does-no-wrong tone about them. When I wrote for CNET, there were no public comments. Readers emailed, and I saved every message and responded to many. So I see similarities that aren’t in the long-time public record.

When trying to explain how Apple apologists attack journalists, I often refer to Aug. 2, 2000, story “Apple misses the tune on CD-RW drives“. Excerpt:

Apple, which is often credited for making style and design a factor in PC purchasing, has not been able to effectively capitalize on one of the hottest options for PCs today: the CD-RW drive…

Rather than music, Apple has pushed hard into digital imaging, touting mid- and high-tier iMacs with DVD drives and FireWire ports for attaching digital camcorders. But in reality, consumers are more interested in CD-RW than DVD, analysts say. In June, for example, while more than 40 percent of systems sold included CD-RW drives, said Baker, only about 20 percent had DVD-ROM drives. And most of those computers also came with a CD-RW drive.

Some background: In the last days of July 2000, I looked over new iMacs at CompUSA and thought: “I wouldn’t buy one for my mother”. That was a gut reaction that made sense when I reflected about it over a weekend. The recordable CD craze was sudden, spurred by Napster’s rapid rise in popularity. Apple bet on video, not music. So I consulted analysts, who agreed, and I wrote a news story.

Why use a 14 year-old analysis as example? For one, I was right. For another, Jobs admitted Apple missed out and fabulously changed direction, for which I take no credit. I only express that because some Apple Cultist will accuse me of claiming credit. By early autumn the fruit-logo company had purchased SoundJam, which led to iTunes release in January 2001—along with those faster Macs. iPod arrived in October of that year, and the rest quite literally is history.

But there’s another important reason for singling out this example: The tone and tenor of emails apologizing for Apple and how much they are like commenter criticism today. Unlike, too, as in not as character-assassinating. That perhaps is the difference between anonymity and identity.

Tone Deaf
Here is a random sampling of emails, and let me make a few things clear. There were no popular tech bloggers in 2000, just journalists like me. Pageviews didn’t matter because the Google free economy didn’t exist. Readers taking time to respond generally weren’t anonymous. The majority identified themselves in message signatures or by name.

Professional Mac user:

I always find it funny when anti-Apple people invent reasons to knock them. This one has got to be the funniest yet. Now Apple is taking criticism for not encouraging the act of illegally pirating music. What a laugh! There inclusion of a DVD-ROM drive, iMovie software, and FireWire connectivity is a definite cutting edge strategy. Anyone who doesn’t recognize this is clearly impaired.

General Mac user:

CD-RW may be more popular right now but when these kids want to download huge files like movies off their cable connection, where is their CD-RW going to put it? Apple is thinking ahead of the game. They are thinking what is going to be useful 1, 2, or 3 years from now. DVDs are where it’s going. Maybe they are thinking a little too much ahead, but I think they will be praised in coming years for this choice.

Mac dealer:

Just want to say you may have missed the tune. iMacs have no cooling fans, which make them very quiet. CD burners run warm when used and most require a cooling fan. When you don’t have a fan in the machine you have to use a external device and I don’t think Apple is ready to go into the CD-RW business when they have well established manufactures with proven quality products that are compatible with the iMac. I think Apple has a sweet tune and computer buyers are beginning to get it. Try it.

Apple released iMacs with CD-RW drives and iTunes on Feb. 2, 2001, just six months after the Mac dealer gave the heat excuse.

General Mac user:

I seriously doubt if Apple missed the boat or anything on the CD-RW craze. Soon CDs will go the way of the ‘floptical’ drive and nobody will have anything but DVD-RAM drives (more data—less space) and they may even get into the new field of desk top video like I have. After all, what would you rather have in YOUR computer. An old CD-RW that takes forever to use or a state of the art DVD-RAM????

But then, maybe you just needed a topic to justify your paycheck, and this was the best idea you could come up with. I’m sorry to hear that and better luck coming up with a newsworthy idea next time. Maybe you could do a lengthy piece on how Apple has missed the boat by not staying with the beige color like everyone else. After all, according to PC data, more beige computers get sold every year than do colored ones.

P.S. If you want a CD-RW in your machines so badly, I’ll sell you mine (cheap)—so I can UPGRADE to a DVD-RAM and stay ahead of all those stupid people out there who still fight with a WinTel box every day. After all, I own a Macintosh and love to be ‘AHEAD OF THE CURVE’.

Computer specialist from a major university:

To say Apple missed the boat by skipping over 640Mb recordable media in favor of the more versatile DVD (and 5.2Gb recordable DVD-RAM) is just the PC box maker’s way of avoiding the fact that THEY missed the real boat, and that the WinTel platform’s Achilles Heel is in the continued chaos of incompatibilities of hardware, OS, drivers, software, and lack of communication between all the myriad manufacturers.

By December 2000, just four months later, Apple already looked beyond DVD-RAM to DVD-RW, which compatibility better fit home and professional movie discs. The company shipped the first CD-RW compatible, DVD-R SuperDrive on Feb. 19, 2001.

Highs and Lows
My Apple analyses are generally good, like this one, contrary to what Apple attack squads contend. But there are two major exceptions—one public and another not. In 2004, I was convinced that iPod was a fad that would peak and fade. However, release of the mini months later and nano the following year assured market dominance. I shared my mistaken analysis among colleagues but nowhere else.

The other example is quite public. In January 2010, I wrote: “The world doesn’t need an Apple tablet, or any other” before Jobs announced iPad. Six months later, after buying the device and experiencing its intimate and immersive attributes, my error was clear. “I was wrong about iPad” posted in June on BetaNews.

Some more recent, random examples of spot-on analyses:

1. “Why Apple succeeds, and always will“, December 2009, explores how the company resets the rules rather than plays by them and why it’s a winning strategy.

2. “iPhone cannot win the smartphone wars“, October 2009, which rightly compared iOS and Android to Mac OS and Windows during the PC era. Google’s platform ships on more handsets by large margins, with global market share about 80 percent.

3. “What 1984 Mac marketing reveals about iPad“, March 2010, looks at similarities in marketing the two devices and what they reveal about Apple’s design philosophy.

4. “Apple’s modern success story began with four investments made 10 years ago“, February 2011, explains how everything else follows from iTunes, OS X, iPod, and Apple Store.

5. “iPad 2 wasn’t Apple’s big March 2nd announcement“, March 2011, explains the importance of the software news and the company creating a platform continuum.

6. “Apple is better off without Steve Jobs“, April 2012, asserts the company needs a logistical genius like Tim Cook as chief executive.

7. “How Apple can get its mojo back“, January 2013: Get back to basics and make humanness a decision priority again.

8. “There’s something you should know about Apple“, January 2013, looks at the sudden, shocking revenue rise over three years and what it foreshadows for future quarters.

9. “Open letter to Tim Cook: Apple needs to be more like Google“, November 2013, by adopting similar marketing strategies to revive the brand.

10. “Why Apple no longer innovates“, May 2014, claims “Cook largely deserves credit for Apple’s amazing success”, but that he preserves the status quo rather than change the rules, like Jobs. “A COO, and the right one—to compliment Cook’s weaknesses—could make a crucial difference”.

But many of my stories are also deliberately provocative, because Microsoft software users make up the largest segment of BetaNews’ readership. I cater to my audience. You can see the difference here on my personal site, where stories are rarely as combative.

Photo Credit: Antonio Tajuelo