The impending return of “beleaguered”

Through the last half of the 1990’s it was nearly impossible to find a news article that mentioned Apple in its opening paragraph without the word “beleaguered” appearing nearby. This trend continued long after the “beleaguered” epithet ceased to be truly applicable. In spite of positive financials and an innovative product line, pundits continued to preach the imminent collapse of Apple. Even the introduction of the iPod didn’t impress anyone (as Slashdot’s now famous assesment of “No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame.” best illustrates). Eventually Apple managed to turn perception around, to the point where media coverage turned into fawning hero worship in many cases.

Just as this was a series of overreactions, so to will be the backlash against Apple that is starting now. I predict that by this time next year, it will again be trendy to refer to Apple as “beleaguered”, though such a charge will be even less true than it was at the start of the decade.

Certainly, Apple has been doing a lot of unnecessary damage to its image. This is likely to get worse. At the same time, it now faces serious competition on the downloadable music front.

What strikes me about most about their latest stumbles, however, is an underlying cause of troubled interaction with other companies. It seems, in particular, that many of their recent choices have been driven more with an eye toward entanglements of deals they have made than a desire to make good products. This switch is taking them away from what their loyal fans loved about them, and is likely to do more damage than Apple expects.

In the famous dual interview with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the two were asked the following: “What did you learn about running your own business that you wished you had thought of sooner or thought of first by watching the other guy?” To me, this seemed to be the most illuminating of the questions they were asked. Gates said this:

Well, I’d give a lot to have Steve’s taste. [laughter] He has natural—it’s not a joke at all. I think in terms of intuitive taste, both for people and products, you know, we sat in Mac product reviews where there were questions about software choices, how things would be done that I viewed as an engineering question, you know, and that’s just how my mind works. And I’d see Steve make the decision based on a sense of people and product that, you know, is even hard for me to explain. The way he does things is just different and, you know, I think it’s magical. And in that case, wow.

Jobs thought a little while before answering. He ultimately said this:

You know, because Woz and I started the company based on doing the whole banana, we weren’t so good at partnering with people. And, you know, actually, the funny thing is, Microsoft’s one of the few companies we were able to partner with that actually worked for both companies. And we weren’t so good at that, where Bill and Microsoft were really good at it because they didn’t make the whole thing in the early days and they learned how to partner with people really well.

And I think if Apple could have had a little more of that in its DNA, it would have served it extremely well. And I don’t think Apple learned that until, you know, a few decades later.

If Apple’s interaction with NBC is any indication, they still have quite a ways to go in partnering. It very much seems as if Apple’s attempt to get more deal making into its DNA has caused it to forget the focus on product, style and people that Gates and others (including myself) so admire.

Doubly problematic is that Apple’s new style of dealmaking may actually wind up hurting them. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if media executives who have been dealing with Apple try to extract some payback against Apple, now that they have Amazon to go to. On the other hand, if this is what it takes for media execs to get their heads out of their asses enough to offer DRM-free music (like they could have done ten years ago), it might end up being good for consumers, if not necessarily Apple. Keep an eye on the differences between new music deals record companies sign with Apple and Amazon.

As a related, but more “long shot”, prediction, it could be that, after creating the first real innovation in cell phones in years, Apple gets so fed up with all the compromises needed to get deals done in the mobile space that they just abandon the idea.

At present, a Google search for “beleaguered Apple” returns around 292,000 results. Over the next year, Apple will sell tons of iPods, release funky products and make tons of money, but that won’t stop the result count on that particular search from increasing dramatically.

Rage against the machine

I have a theory. Well, “theory” may be to grandiose. Call it a hypothesis. It suggests a reason for why incidents of road rage have been rising in America over the last few decades. There are a few logical explanations for this, such as the simple fact of more cars on the road, hormones, economic conditions, self-defeating child-rearing techniques. No doubt people have blamed video games, liberals, conservatives and who knows what all else. One observation I like came from a comedian (I don’t remember who) who said that he didn’t remember much road rage before people started drinking sixty ounces of Starbucks and Big Gulps of caffeinated sugar-water. That became my working hypothesis until recently, when another culprit suggested itself. My new hypothesis is this:

Road rage is increasing because Americans are being slowly driven insane by the nine-minute snooze bar interval.

You can find a lot on the web about why this interval is nine-minutes. Most of it is wrong, and there seems to be no definitive answer. In 1999, Cecil Adams waded through it, reaching the conclusion that it was originally a decision driven more by the gearing of the first mechanical clock that had the snooze feature than any rational choice. When other clocks copied the feature, they kept the interval without thinking much about why. It was the “convention”. (This is the same reason that we continue to be plagued with the idiocy that is the fax machine.)

There is far less to be found on the net about what the ideal snooze interval really should be. It doesn’t appear that anyone has studied this. There don’t seem to be many studies on the impact of using the snooze bar in general, only a general notion that “short bouts of sleep are far from ideal”. Proof that snooze is driving the country insane currently relies on anecdotal evidence:

The modern alarm clock, or more to the point, its confounded snooze button, has dramatically altered my personality and stolen countless hours of personal productivity. It seems that the point of the snooze button is to prolong the agony of having to untangle from your partner and slowly acclimate to the inevitable nip of the morning air.…the snooze button has left me less than satisfied. Given this, I naturally wanted to find a place to lay blame. Who better than the inventor of the snooze button: Lew Wallace. It turns out that this very same Lew Wallace is the Lew Wallace who wrote Ben Hur. This amused me, since Ben Hur is nothing short of prolonged agony in its own right…

Without formal studies of this important issue, little progress will be made toward saving the nation’s sanity. There is hope, however. Many alarm clocks now come with adjustable snooze intervals. I suspect the psychologically “correct” interval is closer to 25 minutes, but only home experimentation can save us. Feel free to post your results here. (When responding, remember to indicate if you are sane or not.)

The dump part

Over two years ago, I suggested a way to destroy a modern record company, using their “pump and dump” strategy against them. The prime example of the strategy at the time was the handling of Britney Spears. Unfortunately, no one has implemented my advice, but evidently with a recent performance, Ms. Spears seems to have entered the “dump” part of the pump and dump strategy, with one reviewer claiming “it’s clear no one is telling singer how to fix career”. I didn’t see the performance, so have no idea if that is actually true or just the media being the media, but if it is true, it extends the case study of the pump and dump strategy. In my previous post, I quoted a prediction from Chris Johnson’s analysis suggesting there is “considerable evidence to suggest that when Britney stops being pushed on the market by her record company, sales will fall off a cliff.” Chances are this will happen fairly soon.

On the other hand, if the performance really was that bad, it actually kind of contaminates the experiment, because it might mean that fans are leaving because of taste (i.e. the bad performance turned them off to the star) rather than because the hype train stopped. Then again, you might see a double whammy effect, where both taste and the lack of hype contribute to a sales disaster of epic proportions.

Update: No mercy, though it sounds like they weren’t really “representing” her before the performance either.

Corruption sting

So, an international standards body recently held a vote as to whether a proposed standard from Microsoft should be “fast tracked” into acceptance, skipping the usual procedure for the standards the body regulates. The vote was “no”, as many still have gripes about Microsoft’s proposal. This is getting more coverage than it deserves, because Microsoft has evidently been manipulating the process. In an interesting study, a Finish group reports a high correlation between countries who voted “yes” in this vote with high levels of corruption in their governments.

I don’t particularly care about any of this, but the Finish study suggests an interesting idea: could you reverse the direction of the study to detect corruption? Could you, in essence, set up a “sting”, where anyone rational would say “no”, but someone who was bribed would say “yes”?