apple

Apple is Losing The War – Of Words

 

Besides its ads, Apple says very little, confident numbers will do the talking. This no longer works as others have seized the opportunity to drive the narrative. 

The day before Samsung’s big Galaxy S4 announcement, Apple’s VP of Marketing, Phil Schiller, sat down for an interview with Reuters and promptly committed what Daring Fireball’s John Gruber calls an unforced error:

“…the news we are hearing this week [is] that the Samsung Galaxy S4 is being rumored to ship with an OS that is nearly a year old,” [Schiller] said, “Customers will have to wait to get an update.”

Not so, as Gruber quickly corrects:

But it ends up the S4 is — to Samsung’s credit — shipping with Android 4.2.2, the latest available version. Not sure why Schiller would speculate on something like this based solely on rumors.

To Samsung’s delight, we can be sure, the interview received wide coverage in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, just hours before the S4 was unveiled, complete with the month-old Android operating system.

This didn’t go over well. Even before the “year old Android version” was exposed as unfounded conjecture, reactions to Schiller’s trash talk were uniformly negative. Apple was accused of being on the defensive.

But, the true-believers ask, isn’t this something of a double-standard? What about the trash talk Samsung ads that depicted the iPhone as old-fashioned and its users as either cult sheep or doddering golden agers, weren’t they also a form of defensiveness? Why were Samsung’s mean-spirited ads seen as fun and creative, while Schiller’s slight misstep is called “defensive”?

Yes, Apple is held to a (well earned) different standard. Once a challenger with an uncertain future, Apple has become The Man. Years ago, it could productively poke fun at Microsoft in the great I’m a Mac, You’re a PC campaign (the full series of ads is here), but the days of taking potshots at the incumbent are over. Because of its position at the top, Apple should have the grace to not trash its competitors, especially when the digs are humorless and further weakened by error.

Schiller’s faux pas will soon be forgotten — it was a minor infraction, a five yard penalty — but it stoked my enduring frustration with a different sort of Apple-speak characteristic: The way Apple execs abuse words such as incredible“, “great“, “best when they’re discussing the company’s products and business.

My accusation of language molestation needs examples. Citing a page from W. Edwards Deming’s gospel, In God We Trust, Everyone Else Brings Data, I downloaded a handful of Apple earnings calls, such as this one, courtesy of Seeking Alpha, and began to dig.

[Speaking of language faux pas, Deming’s saying was shamelessly and badly appropriated — without attribution — by Google’s Eric Schmidt in a talk at MIT.)

Looking just for the words that emanated from the horses’ mouths, I stripped the intros and outros and the question parts of the Q&As, and pasted into Pages (which has, sadly, lain fallow since January 2009).  Pages has a handy Search function (in the Edit > Find submenu) that compiles a list of all occurrences of a word in a document; here’s what I found… .

  • Across the five earnings statements, some form of the word “incredible” appears 7, 9, 9, 11 and 9 times. The Search function offers a handy snippet display so you can check the context in which the word was used:

  • “Tremendous”, in its various forms, appears 12 times.
  • Amazing: 8
  • Strong: 58
  • Thrilled: 13
  • Maniacally focused: 2
  • All told, “great” appears 70 times. A bit more than half are pathetic superlatives (“great products”, “great progress”, “we feel great about…”), some are innocuous (“greater visibility”), but there’s an interesting twist: The snippet display showed that six were part of the phrase “Greater China”:

“Greater” or not, China is mentioned 71 times, much more than any other country or region I checked (Korea =  1, Japan = 6, Europe = 12).

(In the interest of warding off accusations of a near-obsessive waste of energy, I used a command line program to generate some of these numbers. Android? give me a second…4. Google=0, Facebook=4, Samsung=2.)

Now let’s try some “sad” words:

  • Disappoint: 0
  • Weak: 7. Six of these were part of “weak dollar”; the other was “weak PC market”. By contrast, only five or six of the 58 “strongs” referred to the dollar; the rest were along the lines of “strong iPad sales”.
  • Bad: 0
  • Fail: 0

The dissection can go on and on, but let’s end it with a comparison between more and less . Eliminating instances of less as a suffix (“wireless”), the result shows a remarkable unbalance: morewins each of the five sessions with a consistently lopsided score: 28 to 3…more or less.

But, you’ll object, what’s wrong with being positive?

Nothing, but this isn’t about optimism, it’s about hyperbole and the abuse of language. Saying “incredible” too many times leads to incredulity. Saying “maniacally focused” at all is out of place and gauche in an earnings call. One doesn’t brag about one’s performance in the boudoir; let happy partners sing your praise.

When words become empty, the listener loses faith in the speaker. Apple has lost control of the narrative; the company has let others define its story. This is a war of words and Apple is proving to be inept at verbal warfare.

In another of his sharply worded analyses titled Ceding the Crown, John Gruber makes the same point, although from a different angle:

The desire for the “Oh, how the mighty Apple has fallen” narrative is so strong that the narrative is simply being stated as fact, evidence to the contrary be damned. It’s reported as true simply because they want it to be true. They’re declaring “The King is dead; long live the King” not because the king has actually died or abdicated the throne, but because they’re bored with the king and want to write a new coronation story.

I agree with the perception, but blaming the media rarely produces results, we shouldn’t point our criticism in the wrong direction. The media have their priorities, which more often than not veer in the direction of entertainment passed as fair and balanced information (see Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman). If Apple won’t feed them an interesting, captivating story, they’ll find it elsewhere, even in rumors and senseless hand-wringing.

Attacking competitors, pointing to their weaknesses, and trumpeting one’s achievements is better done by hired media assassins. A company, directly or through a PR firm, engages oft-quoted consultants who provide the required third-party stats, barbs, and encomiums. This isn’t theorizing, I once was a director at a company, one of many, that used such an arrangement to good effect.

A brief anecdote: When Microsoft was Microsoft, Waggener Edstrom, the company’s PR powerhouse, was an exemplary propagandist. I distinctly remember a journalist from a white-shoe East Coast business publication coming to my office more than twenty years ago, asking very pointed questions. I asked my own questions in return and realized that the individual didn’t quite know the meaning of certain terms that he was throwing around. A bit of hectoring and cajoling, and the individual finally admitted that the questions were talking points provided by the Seattle PR firm. A few years later, I got a comminatory phone call from one of the firm’s founders. My offense? I had made an unflattering quip about Microsoft when it was having legal troubles with Apple (the IP battle that was later settled as part of the 1997 “investment” in Apple and Steve Jobs). PR firms have long memories and sharp knives.

The approach may seem cynical, but it’s convenient and effective. The PR firm maintains a net (and that’s the right word) of relationships with the media and their pilot fish. If it has the talent of a Waggener Edstrom, it provides sound strategic advice, position papers, talking points, and freeze-dried one-liners.

Furthermore, a PR firm has the power of providing access. I once asked a journalist friend how his respected newspaper could have allowed one of its writers to publish a fellacious piece that described, in dulcet tones, a worldwide Microsoft R&D tour by the company’s missus dominicus. “Access, Jean-Louis, access. That’s the price you pay to get the next Ballmer interview…”

Today, look at the truly admirable job Frank Shaw does for Microsoft. Always on Twitter, frequently writing learned and assertive pieces for the company’s official blog. By the way, where’s Apple’s blog?

The popular notion is that Apple rose to the top without these tools and tactics, but that’s not entirely true. Dear Leader was a one-man propagandastaffel, maintaining his own small network of trusted friends in the media. Jobs also managed to get exemptions from good-behavior rules, exemptions that seem to have expired with him…

Before leaving us, Jobs famously admonished “left-behind” Apple execs to think for themselves instead of trying to guess what he would have done. Perhaps it’s time for senior execs to rethink the kind of control they want to exercise on what others say about Apple. Either stay the old course and try to let the numbers do the talking, or go out and really fight the war of words. Last week’s misstep didn’t belong to either approach.

One last word: In the two trading days bracketing the Samsung S4 launch Schiller clumsily attempted to trash, Apple shares respectively gained 1%, followed by a 2.58% jump the day after the intro. Schiller could have said nothing before the launch and, today, let others point to early criticism of the S4’s apparent featuritis.

JLG@mondaynote.com

The Next Apple TV: iWatch

 

Rumors don’t actual Apple products make, see the perennial Apple TV — and the latest iWatch rumors. This is an opportunity to step back, look at Apple’s one and only love –personal computers — and use this thought to sift through rumors. 

Every week brings new rumors of soon-to-be-released Apple products. The mythical Apple TV set is always a favorite: Gossip of an Apple buyout of troubled TV maker Löwe has sent the German company’s stock soaring. We also hear of a radio streaming service that will challenge Pandora and Spotify, and there’s the usual gaggle of iPhone, iPad, and Mac variations. More interesting is the racket surrounding Apple’s “stealth” projects:  an iWatch and other wearable devices (and “racket” is the right word — see these intimations of stock manipulation).

There is a way to see through the dust, to bring some clarity, to organize our thoughts when considering what Apple might actually do, why the company would (or wouldn’t) do it, and how a rumored product would fit into the game plan.

The formula is simple: Apple engineers may wax poetic about the crystalline purity of the software architecture, execs take pride in the manufacturing chain and distribution channels (and rightly so), marketing can point to the Apple Customer Experience (when they’re not pitching regrettable Genius ads or an ill-timed campaign featuring Venus and Serena Williams). But what really floats their bots, what hardens Apple’s resolve is designing, making, and selling large numbers of personal computers, from the traditional desktop/laptop Mac, to the genre-validating iPad, and on to the iPhone — the Very Personal Computer. Everything else is an ingredient, a booster, a means to the noblest end.

Look at Apple’s report to its owners: there’s only one Profit and Loss (P&L) statement for the entire $200B business. Unlike Microsoft or HP, for example, there is no P&L by division. As Tim Cook put it:

We manage the company at the top and just have one P&L and don’t worry about the iCloud team making money and the Siri team making money…we don’t do that–we don’t believe in that…

Apple’s appreciation for the importance and great economic potential of personal computers — which were invented to act as dumb servants to help us with data storage, text manipulation, math operations — may have been, at first, more instinctual than reasoned. But it doesn’t matter; the company’s monomania, it’s collective passion is undeniable. More than any other company, Apple has made computers personal, machines we can lift with our hands and our credit cards.

With these personal computer glasses on, we see a bit more clearly.

For example: Is Apple a media distribution company? Take a look at Apple’s latest 10-Q SEC filing, especially the Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) section starting page 21. iTunes, now reported separately, clocked $3.7B for the last quarter of 2012.  Elsewhere, Horace Dediu sees $13.5B for the entire year. A big number indeed, and, certainly, iTunes is a key to Apple’s success: Without iTunes there would have been no iPod, Apple’s “halo product“, proof that the company could come up with a winner.  Later, iTunes begat the App Store, a service that solidified the App Phone genre.

Some misguided analysts look at the numbers and argue that Apple ought to spin off iTunes. They use the old “shareholder value” gambit, but the “value” simply isn’t there: Horace Dediu puts iTunes margins in the 15% region, well below Apple’s overall 38%. iTunes is a hugely important means to the personal computer end, but it’s not a separate business.

How about Apple as a retail company? The success of the Apple Store is stellar, a word that’s almost too weak: The Apple Stores welcomed three times more visitors than all of the Disney parks, and generated more than $20B in revenue last year — that works out to an astonishing $6000 per square foot, twice as much as the #2 shop (Tiffany and Co.). But Apple’s 400 stores aren’t a business, they only exist to create an experience that will lead to more sales, enhanced customer satisfaction, and, as a consequence, increased margins.

Apple as a software company? No. The raison d’être for OS X, iOS, iWork, and even Garage Band is to breathe life into Apple hardware. By now, the calls for Apple to see the error of its ways, to not repeat the original sin of not licensing Mac OS, to sell iOS licenses to all comers have (almost) died.
During my first visit to Apple’s hypergalactic headquarters and warehouse in February 1981, I was astonished at the sight of forklifts moving pallets of Apple ][ software. The term “ecosystem” wasn’t part of the industry lingo yet, but I had witnessed the birth of the notion.
Apple had a much harder time building a similarly rich set of applications for the Macintosh, but the lesson was eventually learned, partly due to the NeXT acquisition and the adoption of object oriented programming. We now have a multi-dimensional macrocosm — a true ecosystem — in which our various forms of personal computing work together, share data, media, services.

Where does the current Apple TV device (the black puck, not the mythical TV set) fit into this scheme? Apple TV runs on a version of iOS, and it knows how to communicate with a Bluetooth keyboard — but that doesn’t mean the device is a personal computer. Perhaps Apple will (someday) provide a TV Software Development Kit (SDK) so developers can adapt existing iOS apps or write new ones. But I still see it as a lean-back device, as opposed to a lean-forward PC.

In any case, sales of the $100 black puck don’t move the needle. Four million Apple TVs were sold in 2012; even if ten million are sold this year — and that’s a very optimistic estimate — it won’t make a noticeable difference, at least not directly. Apple TV is a neat part of the ecosystem, it makes iPhones, iPads, Macs and our iTunes libraries more valuable, but it’s still just a member of the supporting cast.

This brings us back to the putative iWatch. Computer history buffs will recall the HP 01 watch. Buoyed by the success of its handheld calculators, including the programable HP 65 with its magnetic card reader, HP convinced itself it could make a calculator watch, introduced in 1977:

A technology tour de force, fondly remembered by aging geeks, but a market failure: too expensive, too hard to use, ill-fitting distribution channels.

Apple is in a different spot. Today, you can find a number of iPod watchbands such as this one:

It’s hard to imagine that Apple would merely integrate an existing accessory into a new iPod. Sales of the iPod proper are decelerating, so the iPod-as-iWatch could give the line a much needed boost, but it’s difficult to reconcile the rumors of “100 people” working on the project if it’s just a retrofit job. Is Apple working on an iWatch that can be experienced as an Even More Personal personal computer — an “intimate computer”? If so, many questions arise: user interface, sensors, iOS version, new types of apps, connection with other iDevices… And, of course price.

This would be much more interesting than the perennially in-the-future Apple TV set. Of course, iWatch and Apple TV aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. If the Löwe buyout rumors are true, Apple could do both — the company could develop its own watch device and repurpose Löwe’s TV. (I still doubt the TV set part, as opposed to enhancing the black puck.)

But once we understand what Apple’s only business is, and that the related software, retail, and services are simply part of the supporting cast, Apple’s attitude towards big acquisitions becomes clearer. Apple isn’t looking at buying a big new business, it already owns The Big One. So, no movie studio, no retail chain or cable company, no HP or Dell, or Yahoo!. (But… a big law firm, perhaps?) Integrating a large group of people into Apple’s strong, unbending culture would, alone, prove to be impossible.

A small acquisition to absorb technology (and talented people) makes sense. The cultural integration risks remain, but at a manageable scale, unlike what happened to Exxon in the early eighties when it burned $4B (that was real money, then) in a failed attempt to become an information systems company — you know, the Oil of the Twenty-First Century.

Let’s just hope Apple doesn’t talk itself into a “because we can” move.

JLG@mondaynote.com