AntennaGate and the Future of Apple

Steve Jobs may have publicly dismissed the recent iPhone 4G flap as “AntennaGate,” but this Silicon Valley veteran can’t help thinking that we may look back and see this moment as yet another point of inflection in the long and crazy story of Apple.

By coincidence, a few weeks ago I found myself in an online conversation with two old friends and long-time Valley players, one a major figure in the media world, the other a resident entrepreneur at one of the largest high-tech companies. As was often the case in recent years, the conversation came around to Apple and its amazing run of landmark products over the last decade -- one of the most astonishing in modern business history.

What made this conversation so memorable, especially in light of subsequent events, was its change in tone.  Each of us, over the years, had suffered our run-ins with the mercurial Jobs, so, as always, there was a sardonic touch to most of our comments -- our endless amazement at the stunning disconnect between the real-life Jobs and his cult image as the greatest business leader of our age.

At the same time, each of us, as regular Apple customers, were in awe of what Jobs’ company had accomplished since his return a decade ago.  The iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad … no company in tech history -- not even Hewlett-Packard, Sony or Intel at their peaks -- had ever pulled off such a string of earthshaking new products.  If Steve Jobs is a superstar these days, it’s because he more than deserves the title.  Moreover, having survived what seemed like a death sentence from pancreatic cancer, Jobs now seems larger than life -- his notorious solipsism and occasional cruelties transformed (at least in the eyes of true believers) into the understandable weariness of a demigod having to deal with the weaknesses of mere mortals.

But what I found most interesting, and perhaps prescient, in our conversation was a comment by one of my correspondents -- who used to work at Apple. It was that there was a growing feeling by a number of his contacts that the iPad/iPhone 4G introductions, so close together and so eagerly awaited, might represent the last great peak in Apple’s amazing run.

Why? I’m not sure my friend could fully verbalize an explanation.  But if you live and work in high tech long enough, you begin to sense deeper patterns and forces that don’t always show up on the balance sheet ... at least not for a while.  Six years ago, I got just such a sense about Microsoft. My subsequent ABC column suggesting that the company had begun a long, slow decline into inconsequence, was heavily disputed at the time -- but I suspect few people today would disagree with my prediction.

Is the same thing about to happen to Apple?  I think it’s still too early to tell.  But my friend’s comment struck an odd resonance in me.  And here’s why:

A tarnished image -- The Cult of Apple, like all such relationships between fanatical followers and idealized organizations, is built upon a social contract.  In the case of Apple, it is that the company will regularly provide its users with new products that are sufficiently innovative, beautiful, and "cool" that they will not only improve their lives, but also help them gain considerable social and cultural cachet in the process.  In exchange they will have to make sacrifices in terms of price, available applications software (such as games), and even hardware.

This process, which began with the Apple II, reached its initial zenith with the Macintosh and reached its fullest glory with the iMac and the iPod.  Apple, which had largely been dismissed as a niche company with a small army of acolytes, suddenly became a serious purchase consideration by every consumer.  Soon, this process became self-perpetuating, with millions of people putting in their orders for new products even before they appeared.  It’s hard to put a value on the feeling one got for being the first person in his or her office or group of friends or neighborhood to have the first of a new Apple product -- an experience amplified by the general dreariness of offerings in the 21st century by the rest of the consumer electronics world.

But again, all of this is based upon that social contract -- that Apple will deliver not just an innovative new product, but that the product will also feature all sorts of other intangible assets.

That’s what makes AntennaGate more than just -- and Jobs is correct on this -- a minor little design flaw. For the first time in a generation, it’s kind of embarrassing to own the latest Apple product.  Your friends, with their Androids and Blackberries, get to pity you -- and ask with mock concern whether your calls are getting through. They ask you to demonstrate the proper way to hold the phone so you get a full signal.  And then, of course, there’s that rubber band you have to put around the phone … which not only compromises the sleek Apple look, but serves as a perpetual reminder of the company’s failure.