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AntennaGate and the Future of Apple

A lot of people saw Jobs' tone at the press conference on the iPhone 4G's "AntennaGate" flap as contempt for his customers. His attitude seemed to be: look at all that I’ve done for you people — and now you quibble over some trifle?

by
Michael S. Malone

Bio

July 20, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Is this enough to drive users away from Apple? Of course not. But make no mistake:  it has wounded the relationship between Apple and its loyal users — though to what extent is as yet unknown. But you only have to surf the Web and look at the comments about AntennaGate. Apple competitors and haters are, of course, piling on. But what’s new and surprising is that Apple users, famously arrogant and protective of their company — and willing to attack any doubters in the most vehement terms — are remarkably silent this time.

Innovation Exhaustion — History honors the winners, so it is easy to forget that Apple neither invented the MP3 player, the smartphone, or the tablet computer.  What the company did do was to brilliantly improve on those technologies, add its massive army of dedicated customers willing to buy any new offering from the company, and turn a new niche market into a cultural phenomenon and a new mass market.

The question now is: What is still out there awaiting the Apple treatment?  Internet radio?  Television?  Personal biometrics?  The answer isn’t clear.  That, in fact, is the main reason my friend raised his doubts about the continuation of Apple’s Golden Age.  Indeed, when you think about it, the iPhone 4G is essentially just an upgrade from the original model.  And the iPad is mainly a great, big iPod Touch — and have you noticed how quickly the buzz faded on it?

And there is another factor as well:  with the iPod and iPhone, Apple caught the rest of the electronics industry off-guard — and gave it a well-deserved smackdown.  But the industry has awakened, learned some of Apple’s tricks … and if it still can’t match the Wizards of Cupertino, it can stay very close behind.  Look at how quickly iPad clones and Android 4G phones have hit the market.  This strategy won’t catch Apple, but it will strip the company of some of the future profits it will need both to innovate and, as is Jobs’ way, to serve as the sole provider of all its customers’ needs.

Needless to say, Apple can continue to upgrade and further slick-up its current products almost forever — and make a lot of money in the process.  But in the end, that isn’t what its followers are in the game for:  the world isn’t going to notice your new iPhone 5G or iPad II when you whip it out at Starbucks.

The Burden of Jobs — Steve Jobs’ behavior at last Friday’s hurriedly called news conference was, to us old-timers, most reminiscent of another, similar event more than twenty years ago:  the Intel Pentium Bug.  Then, as now, a tiny flaw blew hugely out of proportion and threatened the image of a giant electronics company.

Then too, the company CEO, Andy Grove, dismissed the problem as inconsequential and all but described his complaining users as foolish and hysterical — and the media and government as “piling on.”

But Grove, a better businessman than Jobs, quickly realized his error, swallowed his pride, and made amends to the public.  There is no indication that Jobs will, or even can, do the same.

The compliant press described Jobs’ tone at the press conference as feisty and fearless. But a lot of people saw something else:  contempt.  His attitude seemed to be:  Look at all that I’ve done for you people — and now you quibble about some trifle? Even his announcement of a giveaway of a free case to fix the antennae problem was presented almost as a dismissal.

I would hardly be the first person to point out the authoritarian nature of Steve Jobs. Crushing clone makers, leaning on retailers, and forcing strange hardware and software decisions (Remember optical? No mouse on the first Mac?  No Adobe Flash on the iPad?  No adult content in the Apple Store? etc. ) on users, Jobs’ attitude has always been “my way or the highway.”  So, even if you agree with these choices, there is always the sense that in joining the Apple family you are not only surrendering some of your personal liberty, but also putting yourself to some degree at the mercy and whims of the mercurial Steven P. Jobs.

That relationship goes both ways:  Jobs too needs his army of true believers to cheer him on and buy his latest products, both good and not-so-good.  So now, in light of recent events, what might happen if that army, and the social contract on which it was built, suddenly finds that it is both a little embarrassing to own the Apple products they have — and that there are no “unbelievably cool” new products coming down the pipeline?

And, at the same time, what happens to Steve Jobs?  He’s already a billionaire, he has a large family waiting at home, and he’s already made history as the Rockefeller or Carnegie of his era.  He also knows that for health reasons he may not see a long life.  So, what if he begins to look ahead and see only years of endless product upgrades and a once-worshiping, but now increasingly restive and ugly, user base?

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Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years.
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