TECH FEBRUARY 27, 2013
In the history of commerce, only one corporation could fairly be compared to a major religion, in that it's amassed a devoted following and often is a source of public debate: Apple. But what happens to a group of believers when the object of their devotion disappoints them?
If you're Adam Engst, founder of the 22-year-old website and e-newsletter TidBITs (Tagline: "Apple news for the rest of us"), you convene a 45-minute staff roundtable—fittingly, via Google hangout—to psychoanalyze the question, "Why Do We Still Support Apple?"
"It was almost that sense of pranksterism. It's the ghost of Woz. That you could do really fun things on the Mac, maybe they were related to work maybe they weren't," Engst, who once ranked second only to Steve Jobs on a list of the 25 most important people in the Apple ecosystem, recalled of Apple's early years. "And that's something I feel is disappearing more and more from the Mac, and from Apple's approach in general. It's more, here's how things are gonna be, we know better." Matt Neuberg complained about bugs in the new iPhone/iPad operating system, saying "Apple is thrashing," and Joe Kissell likened the feeling to a lefty's disillusionment after the election of Barack Obama: "Well, I still like this guys' platform better than the other guy's platform. But I'm really kind of disappointed with what I see."
The TidBITs crew is hardly alone. Their generation of diehard Apple fans joined up long before the company sold 47.8 million iPhones in a quarter—way back in the mid-1990s, when it was often on the brink of collapse and its stock bumped around in the bowels of the Nasdaq. Then, Apple marketed itself not to the masses, but to the counterculture, the creative types, the serious nerds. The people it won over stuck with the company through its toughest times, evangelizing it to anybody who'd listen. Now Apple has grown to a point where some of those hardcore supporters don't even recognize the company they fell in love with a decade or two ago, and feel powerless to correct its course.
"I am no longer Apple's target market," declared blogger Jonathan Mergy last December, decrying new operating systems that "turned decent equipment into absolute pigs." Digital photographer Lloyd Chambers put together a litany of failures, centering mostly around the "dumbing down" of Apple software, garnering a chorus of agreement. Apple has also pissed off developers by requiring more onerous steps as a condition of entrance to its App Store. To the disillusioned enthusiasts, Apple has become an entertainment giant for the masses rather than a quirky tech company for geeks. In short, Apple has sold out.
Apple probably doesn't need their loyalty. (It's hard to see how being too popular would be a business problem.) But what does it say about about our odd modern age that an electronics company motivated primarily by profit could inspire a tribal fanaticism that most religions, sports teams, and politicians only dream of? And should we be so surprised when that brand fails to meet our expectations?
It's not just Apple's hardcore followers who are worried. The last few months have seen a reversal of the company's steep ascent in the stock market, the departure of a key top executive, a botched mapping app, prompting pronouncements of the company's impending demise. For Mac chroniclers, these recent stumbles aren't just a disappointment along the lines of seeing your favorite team get clobbered. It's also an economic threat.
Apple has become an economic ecosystem that supports an entire side industry of commentary. Multiple magazines, two yearly conferences, columnists in major newspapers and tech publications, legions of analysts, and a galaxy of blogs all weigh in on every gadget tweak and software update. That kind of chatter feeds on itself: Rendering any sort of opinion on Apple draws traffic because it incites a reaction from the rest of the blogosphere, allowing even a small site to turn a profit on ad revenue.1 As blogger Stephen Hackett says, "If Apple were to disappear, there would be a lot of writers out of work."
Mac loyalists, once animated by opposition to Microsoft, have found a new rival in Google's Android. Comment-thread skirmishes are a reliable source of pageviews on any post that disparages either operating system (Android fans despise iOS' closed nature, which prevents people from modifying the operating system, while Mac people just see the open Android as a source of malware). Mac fans say Android acolytes are akin to the Red Sox, motivated more by a desire to beat its rival—the Yankees being Apple—than anything else.
"There are camps forming. Not the way they used to, by camps of devoted tech fans, but more of plain regular people identifying themselves with a tech tribe," says Helsinki-based Horace Dediu, who writes the well-respected analysis site Asymco.com. "You can't really create something that has such a deep response without having people who are actually repulsed by it. They hate the person who loves it, because they say it should not be loved."
Here's how the Apple commentariat breaks down. There are the professionals, of various levels of journalistic quality, who review products and try to report what they can about Apple's famously secretive operation.2 There are the analysts, who simply want the company to keep introducing new products that will sustain its rapid growth (their enthusiasm drove Apple's stock to insane highs, and vaporized when—of course—it couldn't continue indefinitely). And then there are the bloggers, a vast network in which an elite pack of some half a dozen are frequently cited as thought leaders in the field.
These are the folks who—or so they'll tell you—pride themselves less on their traffic stats than on being right about what the company will do or should do. They have some technical acumen, which allows them to sift through the firehose of rumors, assess what's actually possible, analyze what the company's history would suggest, and come to a pretty close approximation of what Apple's going to do before it announces anything. Consider the new iPhone 5: If you'd been reading the right people, you'd have known before its launch that the phone would be a taller and have a Retina screen and smaller dock connector.
"It would almost ruin the game to have [Apple CEO] Tim Cook call you on the phone and tell you exactly what they're going to do," says programmer and freelance columnist John Siracusa. "What you'd rather do is demonstrate how well you understand the company, and create a set of solid predictions based on no inside information…within the fan community, we pretty much have Apple's number."
These people do tend to be, at their cores, Apple optimists. They identify as Mac users, and understand Apple to be an exceptional company that makes exceptional products; otherwise they wouldn't spend so much time writing about it. At the same time, they reject the charges of "fanboyism" leveled against them, saying that all their defenses can be supported by the evidence.
"It's pretty much a battle of everybody else trying to call other people a partisan," Siracusa says. "They love Apple, but they are trying desperately not to let their love of Apple blind them to the actual situation."
More often than not, that faith in Apple's essential DNA prevails over disappointment. Yes, the stock is sinking and Maps app sucks, but Apple still made $8.2 billion in profit! And it's products are still a lot better than anyone else!
"You're a reporter. You're not Tim Cook. If you could be Tim Cook, you would go run a billion-dollar company," Jim Dalrymple, widely acknowledged as the dean of Apple bloggery, says of the Apple pessimists. "It's frustrating to see people say Apple has lost its mojo and its innovation, when they've changed so many industries in a decade." (Dalrymple is also among the select few bloggers to whom Apple will give advance briefings on new products, which might strengthen his outlook on the company.)
The Mac fans aren't immune to anxiety over the future of their favorite company. But fundamentally, they want something different than Wall Street does. Apple enthusiasts are happy when Apple keeps incrementally improving its product lines rather than inventing whole new ones, like a TV or a watch or a refrigerator, which might distract the company from its original mission—prioritizing growth over excellence.
"When the MacBook gets a little lighter, a little faster, a little better battery life, nobody cares," says Marco Arment, a developer who created Instapaper. "But we care! We all write about that stuff! Apple doesn't have to be blowing away the whole universe for us to talk about the things they are doing."
That's why, despite the doubts, Apple would have to implode before it lost the loyalty of most long-time supporters. Those who complain, for example, about Apple's refusal to make a hardware keyboard for the iPhone, or license its operating system, do so because they believe Apple is the only company able to making products worth using. "Apple's competence is implied, and then people get upset because the one company that will do things without screwing things up, without filling their computers with crapware, is not doing what they want it to do," Siracusa says.
A disillusioned Washington Redskins fan could, with minimal effort and no economic cost, decide to root for the Baltimore Ravens instead. Likewise, a Methodist could easily switch to a Presbyterian church. Leaving Apple is much more costly and cumbersome, requiring a new phone, new tablet, new laptop—a whole new constellation of products, even the creation of a new identity (in the cloud, anyway). That's discouraging enough for your average customer. For those who make a living off of Apple, like TidBITs' Engst, it's professional suicide.
The response, then, is not to abandon faith—but rather to become a loyal opposition, like liberals flanking Obama from the left, applying outside pressure to keep their priorities on the agenda. "The real risk to our continued use and enjoyment of Apple products isn't some external threat to Apple's insolvency," wrote David Sparks at MacWorld, "but rather Apple's own failure to deliver the products and services we expect."
But does Apple, whose philosophy is that it knows what consumers want better than consumers themselves, care what its longtime fans think? At the end of the TidBITs colloquium, Engst threw the question out to his circle of Apple lovers—people who've defined themselves by allegiance to a single company for more than two decades. "Is there any way those of us who fall in that category can in any way affect what Apple is doing to make sure it remains our tribe?" he asked.
The faces in the Google hangout erupted in laughter. They know the company too well.