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Apple, AntennaGate, and Silicon Valley Existentialism

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Can you hear me now?

Silicon Valley existentialism:  If any other company in the world made a product, sold a ton of them, and then someone discovered that said product worked basically the same way as all of its competitors, would the whole thing make a sound?


I’m not even going to pretend to wrap up the whole Apple antenna shebang, not even close.  I have a feeling in my gut that says this thing is going to keep going, no matter how silly it makes all involved look. From the first YouTube video of the iPhone 4 accidentally left in a bar, to the space-age look inside Apple’s phone testing rooms, this has been, day by day, a nightmare for some poor novelist, now wondering how he or she could possibly come up with anything this nutty. In between, the subplot of Apple and the press only makes it even more like something that Christopher Buckley would have written about. Thank you for smoking?  How about, thank you for gripping?

And, gripping it’s been. Sort of.  For Silicon Valley types like myself, this has been another soap opera-like tale that you can’t look away from, but that you ultimately know will really not amount to anything. For other cell phone makers, yet another chance to look at themselves and say, why is it always these guys?

I can kind of answer that. Apple is, let’s admit it. the quintessential American story.  Success, hubris, failure, redemption, success again, controversy. Oh, and a larger-than-life CEO who doesn’t just release products, but launches them in elaborate stage shows. Even if, sometimes, the stage can’t get a proper wifi signal.

So Apple is larger than life. It’s followed more closely than other companies, both by users and those who dismiss it. Its profits and stock price are huge, and that can’t be ignored. Its relationship with the press is also strange and different. I’ll cop to being part of that. We in the news business cover Apple more closely than other companies, partly because we want to, and partly because the other guys do, and we don’t want to fall behind. That extra coverage means jumping on bad news (or even potential bad news), and beating it to death. It also means showing up to staged events, and showing off new Apple products. I often wonder if I’m erring on one side or another when it comes to Apple. It’s hard to tell, but I feel pretty good that half the Apple-related e-mail I get screams at me to lay off, and the other half accuses me of being in the company’s back pocket. For what it’s worth, I feel no hatred towards the company, nor do I feel it my duty to lift it up. I like the fact that tech still has big stories and cool products. Apple gives us both.


But does that mean it deserves all this attention? No, probably not. Again, it’s a tough argument to make to a news director that, hey, I’ve already done the story, let’s leave it to the other guys. But it’s also strange to gather at Apple HQ to watch videos of other cell phones being gripped. And to listen to a CEO give something of a mea culpa for a product that, even if you wanted to run out and buy one right then, you couldn’t. Not for two weeks, because they’re selling that fast.

Part of me wishes that these stories would go away more quickly. If Steve Jobs hadn’t told us to hold it differently (which not only was a silly, dismissive way to answer a criticism, but, thanks to a few of my iPhone-toting friends, the way I discovered the “That’s What She Said” app), he could have addressed the situation — and the comparisons with other phones — right off the bat, and the press would have had less to chew on. There are plenty of tech stories out there besides the iPhone, and I neglected to tell anyone watching NBC that day about test results for Qnexa, a diet drug made by Bay Area biotech company Vivus (didn’t go well), the newest Droid phone (things going quite well over there), or Facebook’s 500 millionth user (OK, those guys get a lot of press, too).

Either way, Apple, its events, and its strange relationship with the press won’t go away anytime soon. Because its products won’t go away anytime soon. We need too-cool stuff to test, the economy desperately needs the sales, and maybe tech-watchers, if they’re honest with themselves, need the drama. That’s not going away, either. I dare you to turn away.


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