Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tim Cook: About Those Dividends...

Dear Tim,

When a company decides to pay dividends it is essentially saying, “Look, we’re just fresh out of ideas around here and have no concept of how to turn this money into something valuable. So here, take the money and maybe you guys can figure out what to do with it.”

Please don’t tell me that Apple is out of ideas.

Your pal,


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Samsung's Super Bowl Commercial

Short take: Self-absorbed, mindlessly identical hipster dudes and dudettes are bored stupid standing in line for some (apparently) Apple device. Cool frood with a Samsung Galaxy Note walks buy, shows them it has a stylus and they immediately launch into some hybrid Bollywood / Skatetown song and dance number. Stupid line-sitters become dynamic and excited because they switched to Samsung...

So who exactly is the Samsung ad meant to persuade, and what are they trying to persuade them of?

Taking the second question first, I guess the pitch is that people who stand in line to buy an iPhone--implying, of course, that they are typical of all iPhone users--are a bored and boring group of mindless, faux hip followers who are only awaiting something better (a Stylus!) to snap them out of their delusion. Maybe I’m missing something but that seems to be about it.

So, on to the first question: Who is Samsung trying to reach with this message?

Is it the tens of thousands of people who do stand in line for Apple products now? If so, I think Sammie just scored a giant miss because these people do not see themselves at all like those portrayed in the commercial.

Could it be that Samsung is aiming at Apple users in general? I sincerely doubt that. An enormous percentage of people in art, music, literature, entertainment, science and education are, these days, pretty avid Mac users. They also happen to be some of the most interesting, independent, dynamic and creative people around. Not saying Windows users can’t be cool as well, but I can pretty much guarantee that the bulk of Apple’s customers would not recognize themselves in that commercial and, at most, it would just piss them off.

What about the average potential customer weighing whether to buy an iPhone or a Galaxy? Does Samsung figure that this hypothetical average person can be shamed into not buying Apple by association with the brainwashed crowd in line for the iPhone? Doubt it. People who don’t hang out on tech blogs--which is 99+ percent of the population--simply aren’t in on the joke. The Apple hate we read about online accounts for such a pathetically microscopic piece of the general public image of Apple and its users that the stereotyping will simply be a giant non-sequiter.  “Who are those people again, Ethel?”

Perhaps Samsung is aiming at the group that may already see Apple users as sedated line-sitters--intensely loyal Android fans--who might be otherwise inclined to buy HTC or Motorola or something. But sheesh, convincing a prospective HTC buyer to go to Samsung by bashing Apple users? Might work. Maybe. But a Super Bowl commercial wasted on that? Besides, the concept that because someone likes an Android phone they will surely mock Apple and its fans is a pretty juvenile idea limited, again, to the tiny fraction of people that get worked up over stuff like that.

Now some might say that the Get A Mac ads with Justin Long and John Hodgeman were similar to Samsung’s recent ads. But no, Hodgeman didn’t play a PC user, he played an actual PC. And the character he played was witty, likable and fun; if perhaps a bit desperate. But the ads never made fun of PC users. No PC users were harmed in the making of those ads.

In fact, the worst Apple commercial ever aired is widely acknowledged to be the famous “Lemmings” commercial of the last century. In it, Apple compared the users of IBM PC’s to lemmings, mindlessly following each other off a cliff. It turned out that this was so insulting to the users of IBM compatibles that it actually cost Apple users.

So I can’t figure out who this commercial is for and what it is really trying to accomplish. It is a vague insult aimed at an obscure group for the benefit of a public that by and large doesn’t care about techie sub-culture put-downs.

My guess is that the ad was dreamed up by an ad agency manned by a bunch of self-absorbed, self-styled hipster techies who are plugged into the tech culture just enough to know about Apple hating, and just self-absorbed enough to think that they are representative of America at large.

Two  thumbs down.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Cellphone Hustle

Scene: [Miss Android Handset Manufacturer is out on the street, leaning against a lampost. She's got a tight, lacy,  midriff revealing top, a slit-skirt, fishnet hose and a six inch heels. She's wearing lipstick the color of blood. She's approached by Android User--a young, awkward fellow.]

Android User: [breathing heavily] Say, Miss Android Handset Manufacturer, I’d sure love me some of that there Android goodness you got baked into those phones of yours. How about you give me a freebie?

Miss Android Handset Manufacturer: I sure do appreciate your attentions...but, you have to start paying for my fine Android assets. No more freebies.

Android User: But, but...why would you start charging me more? I mean, your operating system is free, isn’t it?

Miss Android Handset Manufacturer: Well come on now, these phones and operating systems don’t grow on trees, you know...well actually Android does grow on trees but a girls gotta maintain a lifestyle, you know. I have to invest in customizing Android anyway to differentiate my handsets from all the other Android handset girls and since the carriers all demand we make a gazillion models to cover all their insane marketing goals and to cover every OS in the whole fucking world; not to mention we need a new model every three months because our customers get tired of the old models since we can’t get a new version of Android on it.

And we have to cover the costs of creating our own operating system from scratch (well, actually we need to graft an iPhone clone user interface on to some Linux instance and call it new--still, that’s hard for a girl) because we don’t want to be Mr. Google’s bitch forever you know. Besides that iPhone hussy is making me look bad and costing me some serious coin. I want more money because I need it...I mean, because I’m worth it.

Android User: But Android is free! And Open! And you should be cheap because free and open means cheap.

Miss Android Handset Manufacturer: Fuck off.

Mr. Google: [Barging in. Wearing full pimp bling.] Harummphh! Son, just step aside for a minute while I take care of your issues with this young lady. [Mr. Google, making soothing noises to Android User, forcibly shoves him into a nearby ravine.]

Mr. Google: [Turning on Miss Android Handset Manufacturer] What the hell are you telling him? As long as he thinks he’s getting free, open and cheap you can sell him phones all day at the same price as Miss iPhone and he doesn’t even notice. So now all of a sudden you think you’re high class? What do you think you’re doing?

Miss Android Handset Manufacturer: [Dryly] Losing a lot of money at the moment. And dignity. Why do you ask?

Mr. Google: [Looking hurt] Hey don’t blame me, we’re giving you a free and open operating system and free and open means cheap and...

Miss Android Handset Manufacturer: Oh shut the fuck up. You promised me wine and roses but since we’ve been together, my reputation, and pocketbook, has gone to hell. That horny little Android User just wants me because he thinks I’m open and cheap. And I’m getting poorer everyday. [Wailing] What’s a girl to do?

Mr. Google: [Placatingly] Never mind that, Baby, we can fix this all up. As I was telling our friend Mr. Reporter just the other day after Miss Motorola moved in, that we...

Miss Android Handset Manufacturer: You did WHAT!

Mr. Google: Oh...uh, yeah. That. Hey it’s not like it seems, she’s just a friend you know. Platonic. Yeah, that’s it, Platonic.

Miss Android Handset Manufacturer: You bastard. You’re sleeping with her aren’t you?

Mr. Google: Well, yeah, but, uh...no really, I mean, I did it for you! [whispering] And keep it down will you, we have to keep up appearances here. If Mr. Carrier finds out were not together he’ll dump us both like a year old feature phone. Remember what happened to ol’ Mrs. Featurephone? 

Miss Android Handset Manufacturer: Oh, yeah! Well I got news for you Bub, [fanning herself Scarlet O’Hara like] Mr. Carrier has always loved me and has supported me with the most generous subsidies...

Mr. Google: Oh crap!

Miss Android Handset Manufacturer: It’s too late to be sorry now, you cad.

Mr. Google: [scornfully] Not you, Ditz! It’s your best friend Mr. Carrier. He coming our way and it appears he HAS. A. FRIEND.

Miss Android Handset Manufacturer: [Spinning around hopefully and then shrieking] AAUUUGGHH! He’s got that little tart Miss iPhone on his arm. And look at the size of the diamond on her finger... Oh God! First you, then him. I’m all alone. I’m doomed!

Mr. Google: [Taking her by the shoulder and cooing gently] There, there; it will be alright. A little bit of an Apple makeover and slide on some of those sexy Miss iPhone clothes and nobody will know the difference.  Just close your eyes and keep saying “open and free.” In time I think you’ll even come to like Miss Motorola.

Miss Android Handset Manufacturer: [Stomping off angrily] Fuck off asshole. I'm looking up Mr. Microsoft. HE knows how to treat a lady.

Mr. Google: [Despondently] How am I going to explain this to the kids?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs Greatest Gift: The Reality Distortion Field


    "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
                                    -- Philip K. Dick

Shortly after Steve Jobs became the CEO of Apple, during the very darkest of Apple's darkest days, he spoke at his first press conference and was asked this question, "How long would it take to turn Apple around?"

Now, before I repeat for you his astonishing reply it is important for you to recall the mood of the times, for his answer was an extraordinary statement from the new chief executive officer of any multi-billion dollar corporation. The response was not glib, well-rehearsed, happy-talk of the sort usually issued to impress Wall Street. There was no clipped, technical, business-speak of cost reductions, inventory management, restructuring or reorganization that any other new executive might have made to reassure stockholder's that he had their interests in mind. Neither did he pander to the assembled business press with the tired but expected allusions to market share targets and the spectre of open competition from a monstrous PC industry.

To be sure, this wasn't just any circumstance: Apple was in desperate straits. After quarters of red ink and declining market share, the company's press had been one, long-running obituary and the sacred honor of the company that had given the world the personal computer was fast becoming a sad joke. The Windows dominated industry had declared Apple dead, its contributions irrelevant and considered its faithful followers to be little more than poorly informed, sore losers who didn't know when to quit. Years of broken promises, half-hearted execution and ineffectual reorganizations had withered Apple’s credibility. Time had run out: A doubting world needed to be persuaded that the company would survive.

But who could convincingly deliver this terribly vital message that Apple would indeed, against the odds, come back? Perhaps some grey headed veteran of corporate turnarounds might possibly, just possibly, have had the credibility to persuade the world that Apple, parted out like a junk car, could be saved. A highflying executive from the entertainment world might have promised to salvage the bones of Apple as a vapid new incarnation in a different market, a market without such mighty competition as Microsoft. The president of Sony or AT&T or Sun or IBM or, God help us, Microsoft might have claimed to deliver a Faustian salvation in the form of trainloads of money. It would surely take that kind of clout to convince the world of two years ago that there was any hope for Apple. Anyone of less lofty stature would certainly seem inadequate, a second-stringer -- a desperate company’s final roll of the dice.

But Steve Jobs was no titan of industry, in fact, he had no history in turning around any company. His resume mentioned only one corporation which had made a real impact on the business world and that company was the very one he was now being called upon to save. He carried a reputation as an impetuous, arrogant, and borderline manic manager and while his more recent endeavors were touched with greatness they carried no persuasive evidence that he was up to this challenge. Though his strengths were renowned, they were not of the sort that would earn many points in the cold, sterile atmosphere of high finance. Standing there in front of the assembled press without even the minimal business credentials needed for such a difficult task, he must have realized what an unlikely messiah the world would see in him. He had been Apple's creator and then its prodigal son - now he was to be its savior?

Anyone else in his shoes would have thought long and hard about that skeptical and ever so cynical audience. Anyone else would have prepared the rote answers to the difficult and technical questions he would surely be asked. The investment crowd would need to hear certain things, the public something else, the pundits in the crowd needed entirely different answers. And of course there was THE question, the single most important and surely the most difficult question, the question upon which the survival of Apple depended:

"How long would it take to turn Apple around?"

This was his reply:

He paused for a couple of seconds and then answered, very simply: "We aren't going to turn Apple around, we're just going to make the best computers in the world."

It was like Babe Ruth pointing to the left field fence.
It was John Paul Jones declaring that he had not yet begun to fight.
It was Lindbergh climbing into the sky.
It was Steve Jobs putting a dent into the Universe.

It was ingenious, courageous, inspiring, unexpected and it worked. Something palpable in the collective consciousness of the crowd saw the rightness of not betting against Steve Jobs. Anything else he might have said would have been weighed harshly against the thousand technical details involved in the monumental task of making Apple whole; but if Steve Jobs said that Apple would make the best computers in the world, then in all probability that is exactly what would happen. The room was lit with the glowing blue aura of the famed Reality Distortion Field.

Nowadays, when the Reality Distortion Field of Steve Jobs is mentioned, the term seems laden with an air of disrepute, as if “Reality” were some golden truth and its manipulation was some crime of arrogance and dishonesty that leads others astray. But reality is seldom so pure that it should be treasured like some hallowed article of faith, and Apple’s reality of the moment was dreadful; it hung over the company like a foul blanket that suffocated the spirit of the faithful and hid the future from any light of possibility. Steve’s pronouncement threw off that blanket and it cut through the darkness of a thousand obstacles with a bright, clear goal: To make the best computers in the world. Everything else was detail.

What an audacious thing to say, that a company given up for dead would not only survive, but become the best of all. The sheer audacity hung in front of the entire Macintosh world like some wistful hallucination that wouldn’t go away, and over the months it began to take on a new form, that of a new reality.

First though, came a dark time, with painful layoffs and the loss of entire product lines. Thousands of man-years of experience were lost and millions of investment dollars were axed, but the new reality slowly grew. Then a new corporate strategy began to form, along with the outline of a credible product plan. Then there emerged a new, streamlined Apple infused with the best of Next. Apple urged us all to “Think Different.”  Then came the iMac.

With the arrival of the iMac there was finally something to cheer about. Not just a relieved little hooray either, but the huge crowd noise of a winner and the joy that comes when a bright vision is revealed to be real. The iMac was more than a great computer, it was a blazing success at a time that Apple truly needed one. It fed Apple’s depleted coffers but more importantly it distorted reality even more. Apple was once again a force to be reckoned with.

On the iMac’s heels came a truly gorgeous laptop and a beautiful, blue and white tower that was technologically the most powerful personal computer in the world. New display monitors showed how rapidly the Apple design ethic was growing into a coherent, revitalized, Macintosh family. The fine but aging legacies of the original Macintosh began to yield to new technologies: The noble QuickDraw3D was to be replaced with OpenGL, LocalTalk ceding to USB, even the venerable MacOS would soon have a heart of Unix. The finest products of Next’s superb software engineers migrated to the Macintosh, establishing a solid beachhead on the World Wide Web. Firewire and a newly invigorated QuickTime opened up a new era in multimedia and, guess what, the PC industry began, grudgingly, to once again follow Apple.

Bit by bit, the details of the new MacOS came to light and it was too good to be true. Carbon promised to make the transition from old applications to new more painless than thought possible, and Objective C and Java were awarded a native environment to ensure a path of future technological growth. There were tantalizing possibilities that Windows applications might be little more than a recompile away from Macintosh compatibility. Apple's release of FinalCut Pro seems to say that the Mac would become the multimedia platform “for the rest of us.” Then came the announcement of Quartz, a state of the art windowing system that will surely turn on its head our concept of print and display capabilities. On the horizon lay the AltiVec wonder of the G4 with its promise of computing power that will astonish us and the P1 portable should be a world-shaking, people liberating product.

Apple is again making the best computers in the world.

We now see an Apple emerging from its also-ran past to again become the leader in practically every part of the personal computing landscape. Even more heartening; this ascendant Apple seems as vibrant and alive as the Apple of old, the one that has twice already revolutionized the personal computing industry. Rescuing us from the boring sameness of the PC hegemony, the new Apple points to a future that is brimming with potential, alive with excitement and full of the old Apple panache that has so enriched our entire culture.

If all this is the result of Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field, so be it. I see nothing base or unpraiseworthy in his making my life a better one by simply helping me believe in the future. Some may dredge through Steve Jobs’ distant past to diminish both the man and his accomplishments, to make him something of a villain even, but by their standards I wouldn’t fare so well either; in the cold light of history who among us would? I’ll not judge a man harshly through a murky lens of revisionism and false myth. I know what he has done for the world, the evidence is all around us. The new life he has breathed into Apple can only be the work of a man with supreme vision and enormous courage; a man that deserves my respect and my heartfelt thanks.

That, my friends, is reality.

#  #  #

Postscript: This story appeared in my “Difference Engine” column on MacOpionion  -- in 1999. Amazingly, it still works. Steve Jobs bent our view of reality to make our world a better place. I'm so grateful.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Why do these people call me a Fanboy? Why are they so angry?

So, I'm a fanboy. Apparently. At least that is what’s implied by countless postings spread across the techweb like some bad case of Apple-directed Tourette’s. Oft times these commenters render the term as "fanboi" in the peculiar hope that an oh-so-clever misspelling will cut deeper into my sensitive feelings. Odd, don’t you think? Not only do these folks clearly and wildly underestimate the thickness of my skin, but they completely fail to realize that, at this point in my life, calling me a boy of any sort merits but a grateful hug. Besides, as a decorated veteran of the First, Second and Third PC Wars I've seen real nastiness--of the "We're taking your Mac away from you...you ignorant Mac person, you!" sort--and trust me, this Android vs iOS thing is merely a panty-clad pillow fight in comparison.

Who are these people, anyway?

Still, I just don’t get these curmudgeonly sorts who can't even purchase a piece of consumer electronics without disparaging those who happily make another choice. Can there really be that many people who just can't abide others having a good time? I mean, here's a video of a thousand people lined up in front of an Apple Store waiting for the Next Big Thing, and what I see is a party; all smiling faces and camaraderie; a bright spot of expectation and fun in a tech world that too often misses the entire point of consumer electronics--to have fun! Isn't that wonderful!?

Yet my screen is soon filled with spittle-flecked diatribes (If, that is, you’ve enabled the Internet Spittle Transport Protocol) impugning the character, intelligence and motivations of these people, summed up in that most hideous of all insults: Fanboys! To document these aspersions, there usually follows some discussion of lemming behavior, pointless usage of "Crapple," "MacSheeple," etc., a gratuitous insult thrown, for some reason, at Steve Jobs, a misinformed mention of sweatshop labor, and finally, a breathless, run-on sentence based primarily upon badly misunderstood history declaring that Apple is overpriced, overrated, a walled garden,  purely evil, doomed to extinction in the face of the inevitable repeat of last century's desktop market wars and the strong implication that anyone who feels otherwise is fool and a loser. Or, in the vernacular, a fanboy.

Mind you, much of this anti-Apple ankle biting arrives in the comment section of sites and blogs that are Apple centric to begin with and which exist only for the pleasure and education of the Apple community. It is oddly ironic that so many people who clearly hate Apple and its fans will haunt Apple oriented publications for the sole purpose of condemning Apple fans of, get this, fanaticism! It is here we find that Apple fanboys are just not good people. "I might have a Mac if it weren't for those smug, arrogant, holier-than-thou fanboys,” goes the accusation, generally expressed in a smug, arrogant and holier-than-thou cloud of steaming pique. Which, by all the laws of highly reflective surfaces, sort of identifies them as fanboys themselves, now doesn’t it?

For the sake of argument...

Are these real people, anyway? The nature of the internet puts a poster outside of physical punching distance, and consequently breeds in a sort of pathetic false courage, imbuing them with the online demeanor of a dyspeptic badger when in person they would more likely exhibit the dauntless courage of Bambi. So all this stridency might actually be just blowing out the testosterone circuits in a sad piece of compensatory drama. Maybe I should show a little compassion.


Hey, I’ll discuss Mac vs. PC, Android vs. iPhone with you all day long and have a good time in the process because I really like to talk about this Apple stuff. It’s fun. But this kind of enthusiasm is just too much for the delicate sensibilities of some. Folks, enthusiasm means finding happiness and joy in the world around you. The world needs more of this, not less, and if you (not to be pointing fingers here) can't tolerate some honest to God joy in those around you I would advise you to seek out some of those prescription drugs on TV that promise you either happiness or four-hour erections. As if there’s a difference. Or at least back away from the comments section, willya?

And your point is?

So, to pose my rhetorical questions  to the fanboy bashers: What, exactly, do you want from us? An apology? For what? For liking something? Would you be satisfied if we were less happy? Or do you really just demand that we agree with you that your choices are the best ones and our choices are crap? Is that it? Is that what you want? To be right? To have everyone agree that you’re right? About a phone? Is that what this is all about? Your diseased ego?

Well, agreeing with you about everything would certainly cut down on the contention quotient but what's the point? Are your precious sensibilities so delicate that the fun we fanboys have in our little neck of these technology woods bruises your self confidence and the only way you can feel better about yourself is to lash out at some folks who just happen to like different things than you? You should know that's a position most people outgrow by about the age of nine.

But it ain’t going to happen anyway, Bucko. I'm an Apple Fanboy and suspect that I will remain so for a long, long time. And why not? Apple is the most interesting company in the technology sphere; the company that essentially invented the personal computer, revolutionized the PC market again with the first mass market GUI, remade the music industry, turned the phone industry on its ear, and, with the iPad, created the first significantly new computer product market in over a decade. Apple always has something fun coming out. Why not enjoy it?

As for the charges that fanboys would buy anything Steve Jobs commanded us to buy: Maybe. But Steve Jobs has been named the best CEO in America by Forbes, Fortune, Barron's, Businessweek, the Economist, Time, Marketwatch and every other business magazine I can think of. Doesn't it make sense that I should pay attention to this guy? Doesn't a high level of respect seem appropriate here? And the products themselves are so regularly at the top of consumer satisfaction surveys that at least a bit of product loyalty seems not only justifiable but downright unavoidable.

Oh, and Mac people tend to be really nice. And enthusiastic. I know lots of them.

Get over it

So in spite of your disdain for enthusiastic people, I shall continue promoting Apple and its products and I shall have a thoroughly splendid time doing so. For if I hadn't been such a fanboy for all these years there would today be a crowd of friends, family and businesses that otherwise might not have switched to Apple products--and they would have been less happy for it. And you might as well stop calling us a cult or a religion because we are neither. We are just a quarter of a billion people who know what we like and who enjoy talking about it.

Now look, I don’t care if you like Androids or Xooms or whatever non-Apple product you choose and if you wish to express your delight and satisfaction with these choices then I’m deliriously happy for you and I hope that golden rays of light and joy rain down upon you for all eternity. In return, I don’t think it unreasonable that you grant me a little respect. If, on the other hand, you’re the sort of person who would rather avoid all that tedious mucking around with reason and civility and instead just leap to the shorthand of personal insult, go right ahead and call me a fanboy.

I kinda like it.