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.