Apple continues to startle me, and I do not mean by its iPhone 4. (I haven’t yet seen it, so I can’t say anything useful about it.) No, what I mean is the ongoing Antennagate problems, and even there I do not mean the actual problem, but Apple’s way of dealing with it. And even there I do not mean Antennagate as an isolated PR incident, but as yet another chapter in how Apple spends 2010 to piss off the world at large.
The problem with Antennagate is not the actual technical issue itself. That issue may or may not be severe, may or may not occur on other phones, and is probably solved adequately by the covers Apple is now giving away. Frankly I don’t care about the details.
No, the problem is in how Apple handled the entire affair. Not its acknowledgement of the problem itself, or giving away the covers; those are proper, correct responses to the technical issue.
John Gruber made an interesting remark:
It’s telling that the criticism surrounding this issue has shifted, quickly, from speculation about a technical defect in the iPhone 4 hardware to criticism over the tone of Apple’s response to it.
The hardware defect is only a sideshow, and the way Apple is dealing with it is far more important to the world. Gruber is completely right in pointing this out, yet I believe he draws the wrong conclusions from it.
PR is crucial for Apple. Good PR has created a legion of Apple fanbois and a chattering class of tech commentators that consistently paints Apple in the best light possible. A serious PR flap is far more dangerous than a technical issue because it can cost Apple the support of the tech commentators (and possibly even the fanboi legion, but that will take more than a mere year full of Fuck Yous).
Thus I believe that Gruber is right, yet wrong. Weighing Apple’s tone and response is more important than the technical issue. Antennagate is about PR, and not about the iPhone 4’s antenna.
In that light, Tomi Ahonen points at an important mistake Apple made:
Why include that unnecessary hostile attack on the rest of the industry? That was a red flag to the rivals, and a clear challenge to the press to go compare. This is a lose-lose for Apple, even if others are implicated too, every time Death Grip is mentioned, Apple is the leading culprit of the news story. Every time the iPhone 4 is reminded to have Death Grip problems! And for every story where rivals are also implicated, there will be stories where at least one of the rivals is not shown as bad, or in the worst case, that Apple's iPhone 4 comes out worst at Death Grip. Apple's news coverage will be bad - or worse.
In other words, exactly because Steve Jobs wanted to implicate other phones in this problem, Antennagate will come back to haunt him. We can expect a string of press releases from other mobile players, saying something along the lines of “In contrast to Apple’s iPhone 4, our flagship product X does not suffer from an antenna problem.”
Note that it does not matter who’s right here. Even if Jobs is completely right and the other phone vendors are lying through their teeth, the world will again and again be reminded of Antennagate. That’s not disastrous, but it’s certainly a major annoyance that will hurt the iPhone 4’s sales figures somewhat.
Still, Antennagate alone will not spell doom and disaster for Apple. I would expect the hubbub to die down within a few months — if Antennagate were an isolated incident.
Problem is, it isn’t an isolated incident.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: this year, Apple is being serious about pissing off absolutely everybody in sight. I do not think this is a viable long-term strategy, and I do think that if Apple keeps this up long enough it will eventually run into serious problems.
So what exactly did Apple do wrong?
First things first: in 2007 it barged in on the mobile market, changed the rules, and succeeded beyond everybody’s wildest dreams. That’s of course a huge success for Apple, and rightly celebrated as such, but it has also created a host of enemies: basically all other powerful mobile players. That’s not a disaster, but it does mean wolves are on the prowl, and Apple has to keep its defenses in order.
Its main line of defense, as always, is PR. And it’s exactly here that cracks are starting to show. Let’s recap Apple’s year so far:
Besides, once again attention was drawn to Apple’s almost frivolous app rejections. The problem here is not that Apple rejects some apps, but that the rules aren’t clear.
The proposition is this: Apple is betting it can grow its platform fast enough, using any means necessary, that developers will stick around despite all the hardships and shoddy treatment. Each time it chooses to do what it thinks is best for the future of the iPhone OS platform instead of what will please developers, Apple is pushing more chips into the pot.
In other words, Apple may have bitten off more than it can chew. In any case it has aligned some of its most powerful competitors against it.
Apple could be hoping for a chilling effect from other handset makers looking to avoid a legal battle. But Apple is walking a tightrope. It needs to whack HTC without drawing Google and Microsoft into the fight. Riddle me this: Can you realistically just focus on the hardware here? If so perhaps Apple can prosecute a surgical strike on HTC. The reality is that the smartphone software and hardware are intertwined. You can expect that Google and Microsoft will defend their code at some point.
This is the flip side of the huge amount of attention the US tech world lavishes on Apple. Now that Apple is on the way to becoming a bully some media will gleefully report on it. It’s a new kind of Apple news, after all, and inherently more interesting that the next release of iWhatever.
If you think that Gizmodo shouldn't have shown you the iPhone before Apple wanted you to see it, you’re accepting that Apple should be the one to control news about its products. That's not an irrational position, but let's be honest about what it means.
It hands back the control of the story to Apple because some are more comfortable believing Apple's machinations are infallible than that they’re a company made up of human beings who try to control the news cycle — and that even the best laid plan can fall apart because of a single human mistake.
(Incidentally, there are two groups that Apple hasn’t pissed off yet, and that I don’t expect them to piss off, either. They are consumers, who get their covers against Antennagate, and web developers, who’re still allowed to play with the most advanced mobile browser in the world. I continue to believe that web development is Apple’s ace in a hole. If everything else goes wrong, Apple will still have the best mobile web platform in the world.)
Is any of these mistakes fatal? Certainly not. Apple handled the technical aspects of Antennagate correctly, its rejection of Flash and the new SDK license agreements are defensible from a UX perspective, its dissing of Mac developers is understandable in the light of its mobile strategy, and I don’t doubt the lawsuits against HTC and the prototype culprits have a solid legal grounding. Finally, the PR flap is manageable in every case taken by itself.
However, if we take all these issues together we see Apple spending 2010 by sending a cheerful Fuck You to people of all colours and all nations, and especially its own developers and former allies.
Is Apple suffering from imperial overstretch? Is Apple guilty of an old-fashioned case of hubris?
Judging from the evidence that’s certainly a possibility.
Fortune’s wheel. What goes up must come down. The throne of the once-almighty king is toppled because he grew overconfident.
Those are powerful story lines that have interested humanity for at least 2,500 years. Since they conform to some sort of basic human expectation of how history works, the tech commentators who are Apple’s PR mainstay could start to pursue them in order to present a different perspective and gain more readers. (Come to think of it, so am I.)
Right now Apple is doing everything in its power to push those story lines. In the long run that is not healthy.
I feel Apple has a PR problem, but isn’t aware of it, possibly because it doesn’t want to be aware of it.
Now let’s see how this plays out. The story isn’t done yet, and who knows, Apple might even see the errors of its ways before it’s too late.
I’ll be around at the following conferences:
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