The 'stickergate' kerfuffle

If you’re not one of the people who follows the Mac blogosphere, you may have missed last week’s tempest in a teapot involving Intel Inside stickers, journalistic behavior, and the zealousness of that same blogosphere. As one of the people responsible for fanning the flames, I felt it was worth looking at what happened — and what it taught me about how different media and different points of view can make an innocuous comment into a strange sort of scandal.

Stickergate

This whole thing started during Apple’s August 7 announcement event at the Town Hall theater at 4 Infinite Loop on the Apple campus in Cupertino. I was there, along with three of my Macworld colleagues. As usual, we covered the event live, as did several other web sites. The way that coverage works is that we frantically type what’s going on, and you see it on the other end — either as a string of unprocessed blurts or, in the case of Macworld , as a constantly-updated news story. Suffice it to say that our Peter Cohen does a wonderful job of converting my unprocessed blurts into something that’s more readable than your average instant-message conversation.

Anyway, at the end of the event — which is now available as a video stream from Apple.com — there was a rare Q&A session with Apple executives Steve Jobs, Tim Cook, and Phil Schiller. The Q&A session wasn’t included on the video stream, so the world only got to hear about the Q&A session through the fingers of us rapidly typing and taking notes at the event in Cupertino.

By my notes, it was the second question of the Q&A that ended up generating the Web tempest last week. Here’s how Macworld covered it:

One question that came from the audience wondered why Apple doesn’t participate in the “Intel Inside” program, in which PC manufacturers affix the well-known labels to their computers.

“We like our own stickers better,” Jobs said. “Don’t get me wrong. We love working with Intel. We’re proud to ship Intel products in Macs. They’re screamers, and combined with our OS, we’ve tuned them well. It’s just that everyone knows we use Intel processors. We’d rather not tell them about the product that’s inside the box.”

Gadget blog Gizmodo wrote:

Q: Why aren’t you putting the Intel Inside stickers on your Macs that have Intel processors?

A: We like our own stickers better. We don’t want to make you tear off stickers and junk when we get a computer. Steve: What do we want on our products when we take it out of the box? The answer is nothing.

Gadget blog Engadget wrote:

“Why are you not participating in Intel Inside program and not putting stickers on your Macs?”

Steve: “What can I say? We like our own stickers better. Don’t get me wrong, we love Intel, combined with our OS, we’ve really tuned them well together. Everyone knows we use Intel processors, we’d rather tell them about the product inside the box.”

Phil: “Too much stuff on PC box, stickers on laptop, trialware, You don’t have to peel stuff off.”

In the room, the question seemed a little odd — I noted that it was asked by a newspaper guy, and that seemed about right because it was such an off-topic (and old-news) question. But on the Web, I guess those bare text reports made the question seem dumber than it seemed in person. Because the reaction was swift and strong.

“Jobs offers a rare chance for a public Q&A and someone asks why they don’t booger up their computers with horrid stickers?” wrote John Gruber. “Will someone please tell me who asked this question so I can name him jackass of the week?”

My Twitter list exploded with questions from across the Web. Who asked this question? Everyone wanted to know. Crazy Apple Rumors even invented an identity for the mysterious questioner. I knew that we recorded the event for our Macworld Podcast, and after a day of incessant speculation without any answers, I decided to dig up the audio file and find out who asked the question. I cropped out the question (and its answer), saved it as an MP3, and posted it to our web server. I also asked our own Dan Moren to write something up about it for MacUser, and suggested that being a bit tongue-in-cheek would probably be fitting for a story as ridiculous as this one, even suggesting the breathless “World Exclusive!” for the headline. Dan skillfully obliged.

Identifying Bob Keefe of Cox Newspapers as the guy who asked the question didn’t exactly require a huge amount of skill — I mean, he says his name right there on the recording . But it was like flinging bloody meat into the water off the Farallones.

Of course, that got the attention of the man himself, and Keefe wrote a reply that was much more good natured than I expected, but it was still clear that he had been stung by all the criticism. He specifically took MacUser to task, clearly not finding our tongue-in-cheek write-up to be funny, and complaining that nobody had actually bothered to call and ask him about it.

Fair enough. I immediately shot Bob Keefe an e-mail and asked him about the experience. “Frankly, I can’t believe the traction something so innocuous as a biz reporter asking a question to a CEO is getting,” he wrote to me in an e-mail.

Turns out that Keefe was writing a story about Intel’s “Intel Inside” marketing program. When he asked Apple PR for a comment, he says they gave him the brush-off and suggested he ask Steve Jobs himself. And so Keefe did.

So was it a good question?

Here’s the complete transcript of Keefe’s question and the Apple answers:

BK: Thank you, it’s Bob Keefe with Cox Newspapers. Can you say why you all are not participating in the Intel Inside program, putting the stickers on your new or previous Macs?

SJ: Uh. What can I say? We like our own stickers better. (laughter and applause) Don’t get me wrong. We love working with Intel. We’re very proud to ship Intel products in macs. I mean, they’re screamers, and combined with our operating system, we’ve tuned them well together. So we’re very proud of that. It’s just that everyone knows we use Intel processors. And so I think that putting a lot of stickers on the box is just redundant. And we’d rather tell them about the product that’s inside the box. And they know it’s got a great Intel processor in it.

PS: It’s not just about Intel inside. When you buy any off-the-shelf PCs, the boxes are covered with confusing logos and messages and icons. You open it up, there’s stickers to peel off displays and keyboards, they’re all over the place, and then you start it up and you find junkware all over your desktop and in your menus, they’re littered with it, trying to up-sell you on junk, and that whole philosophy… you know, we try to just give you a great product that you’re going to love, and you don’t have to peel stuff off to make it look better.

SJ: You know, we put ourselves in the customers’ shoes and we say, what do we want stuck on our product when we take it out of the box? And the answer is, nothing.

“I thought Jobs’ response was good and insightful and it’s high in my forthcoming story,” Keefe wrote to me. And I’ve got to say, any question that can get such a great response is probably worth asking, in the grand scheme of things.

However, as someone who covers the Mac every day, I felt like it was a question that had emerged from a wormhole from June 6, 2005, when Apple announced the switch to Intel processors. Not a bad question, but an old one.

Also, call me old-fashioned, but I am personally of the opinion that after a lengthy presentation, the most appropriate questions to ask of the presenters are ones that clarify information from that presentation. A few reporters asked questions about Apple TV and iPhone, and Jobs was very careful to point out that this was a Mac-related event and that he didn’t want to spend time asking questions that weren’t about the Mac.

Yes, access to Jobs is limited. So I can see why a reporter like Keefe would use the opportunity to ask Jobs a question and get a quote for a story he was working on. It’s not something I think I would’ve done, because to me it’s a selfish act that makes everyone in the room subservient to one writer’s deadline and story idea. But this is a business where reporters are often crawling over one another and shouting questions at people from George W. Bush to Paris Hilton. (Perhaps this is why I decided very early on in my career that newspapering was not the life for me.)

But I can’t condemn Keefe for asking the question. I wouldn’t have asked it, and it was a bit moldy and off topic, but damned if its end result wasn’t a great distillation of Apple’s product philosophy. (A later question from CNet's Molly Wood about Apple’s goals for Mac market share was also derided by some Mac pundits, but also generated a fantastic response from Jobs about why Apple doesn’t make cut-rate PCs.)

Of course, I asked my own question that day — a clarification about iWork ’08’s Excel compatibility — that elicited a one-word response from Jobs: “No.” (Turns out I shouldn’t have been asking about Excel Macro support in Numbers. If I had asked Jobs about AppleScript support instead, I might have struck gold: turns out Numbers is completely bereft of scripting support. Drat!) By the standards of many of Keefe’s critics, I am also a total loser, because I asked an uninteresting question that could’ve just been cleared up by Apple PR later. Okey dokey.

What I learned from all this

In these days of quick-hit Web reporting, it’s too easy to skip a step and not contact the person you’re writing about. Twice in the last three months I’ve been confronted with this fact. A few months back, I wrote a story about iPhone battery-life misconceptions in which I quoted Apple’s Greg Joswiak at length. A blogger who had covered the same story wrote to me and mentioned that he had wished he had talked to Apple and quoted them in his piece.

It’s basic journalism stuff, and yet we seem to be blowing by the direct quote more than we should. Maybe it’s because of time pressure, which we all feel on the Web. Or maybe it’s a bit more insidious, because it’s a lot easier to pull a “Gotcha!” on someone if they don’t have a chance to defend themselves. Keefe responded to my e-mail in less than an hour, and I should have absolutely asked Dan Moren to drop him a line and get a comment on the whole mess. It would’ve made that MacUser blog entry better.

I also learned that the plethora of media jackasses, as John Gruber is prone to call them, have trained many of us in the Mac world to shoot first and ask questions later. Yes, there are indeed many people writing about technology out there who are clueless about Apple and the Mac, who unprofessionally spread misinformation and fear. And yes, they need to be put in their place. I’ve done it myself, not that I consider it to be my finest hour.

But maybe we’ve gotten a bit too comfortable with the attacks on people who don’t behave exactly as we imagine we would.

(To be fair, not everyone on the web bashed Keefe. Matt Deatherage, Derek Powazek, and Andy Ihnakto all have interesting takes that vaguely jibe with my own. The Macalope, though, thinks ridicule has its place.)

“I have gotten plenty of hate mail from Mac aficionados in the past,” Keefe wrote to me. “My favorites have always been from folks who say I’m obviously a Microsoft lackey, even though I have four Macs in my home and Cox is probably the biggest Mac shop of any media company.”

I may mildly disagree with Bob Keefe’s choice of question, and it’s unfortunate that his knee-jerk response to the whole thing was to dredge up that old “Cult of Mac” business. But did he deserve to be ripped a new one by half of the Mac blogosphere? I’ve got to say no.

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