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Friday, October 14, 2005  

Technology: There's more to Apple than polishing

Jack Shafer at the Internet magazine Slate is in curmudgeon mode. He is beside himself because of the latest news from Apple Computer Inc. Shafer believes the company, progenitor of the increasingly ubiquitous iPod, gets too much good press. He describes reporters who write about it as "Apple polishers." The occasion for Shafer's tech temper tantrum is the announcement of Apple's new Video iPod and an accompanying deal to sell videos of the most popular new television shows at the iTunes Music Store. Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the latest Apple events Wednesday.

The pairing of the V-iPod announcement with news that the iTunes store will sell Desperate Housewives and other ABC fare drove the story to Page One of USA Today and onto the biz fronts of the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Among American newspapers, the New York Times is easily the most enamored of things iPod, having run 63 stories with the word "iPod" in the headline in the last 12 months. That's almost as many as the Post and the Los Angeles Times combined.

. . .Apple manipulates several narratives to continue to make its products interesting fodder for journalists. One is the never-ending story of mad genius Steve Jobs, who would be great copy if he were only the night manager of a Domino's pizza joint. The next is Apple's perpetual role as scrappy underdog—reporters love cheerleading for the underdog without ever pausing to explore why it isn't the overdog. (This is why the Brooklyn Dodgers will always rate higher in the minds of writers than the superior New York Yankees.) Apple incites fanaticism about its products via ad campaigns and evangelist outreach programs designed to make its customers feel as though they're part of a privileged and enlightened elite. One unnamed loser at Slate says today's V-iPod news made her want to rush out and buy one, even though she already owns two iPods, one of which she bought three weeks ago.

The problem with Shafer's argument is that he lacks much good ammunition. A person can bemoan Steve Jobs' charisma hours on end, but it is the success or failure of the products his companies produce that really matters. Contrary to what Shafer implies, there have not been that many Apple failures. More often than not, the tendency to upgrade tech products in two or three years explains the demise of past Apple computers. The only relatively recent computer to be dropped from the line because of poor sells was the Macintosh G4 Cube in 2001. It retains a community of admirers, as does Apple's Newton, an early personal digital assistant, discontinued in 1998. Shafer's claim that the iPod Photo was scrapped is false and suggests he should have done more research before penning his piece. The iPod Photo is simply the first color screen iteration of today's full-size iPod. Once Apple decided to add color screens to all of the model, the name became obsolete. Everyone who owns a current a full-size iPod owns what was formerly called an iPod Photo.

A more legitimate criticism of Apple is that it should have maintained more of its market share, about 12 percent in the 1991, than it has. The current American market share of at least 6.6 percent (online sales excluded) is an increase from a low of less than three percent in 2000. However, one should include in the analysis the fact that Apple's goal is be a successful boutique computer maker, not to unseat rival Microsoft, which has most of the market share, but not Apple's reputation for innovation. Arguably, a reasonable share of the market for Apple as a computer maker would be 8 to 10 percent.

Is it true that the media trumpets Jobs' teeth cleanings and praises every Apple product to the heavens? No. Apple's high visibility wins it negative as well as positive press. When environmentalists were looking for a computer company to scold over insufficient recycling of components earlier this year they chose Apple because of of its reputation for 'thinking different.' Even small flaws in Apple products are spotlighted because of that visibility. Apple is now the only manufacturer of MP3 players that will replace the battery and recycle the discarded devices partly because of unfavorable publicity in the media. Recently, use of flawed glass in a relative handful of the recently released iPod nanos resulted in a flurry of articles in the press and a web page hosted by an upset purchaser. Soon after, Apple promised to replace the small number of nanos with screens that cracked easily.

Shafer's tantrum may have felt good, but he has not supported it with proof of his hypotheses. He offered no proof that Apple's products are sows' ears being sold as silk purses. Apple's popularity with the press is not monolithic. Not only is Apple sometimes criticized, the business press keeps a wary eye on whether it can maintain its 74 percent of the portable music player marker. Furthermore, Shafer has said nothing to disprove the widespread belief that Apple's innovation in design is good for the tech world in general. That alone would be reason enough for the media to pay attention to the company.

Reasonably related

The Washington Post reports on Apple's newest products. Rob Pegoraro considers the pros and cons of purchasing a Video iPod.

10:00 AM