The misplaced schadenfreude of antennagate

There’s already been more written about the so-called “antennagate” affair than it probably deserves. At this point, I’ll leave the final verdict to the mass-market consumers, who appear to be unfazed by the story and apparently keep purchasing the iPhone 4 in large numbers with little complaints.

I’ve been hesitant to write on the topic, as it seems everything that could be written about it has been written… several times, in fact.

I did ask the representatives of one media outlet if they didn’t feel silly running stories about every aspect of this story, including what bookmakers were setting odds for at the Apple press conference. Their response made it clear why this was happening: the Apple stories they posted generated the most traffic of any stories posted on a given day.

Enjoying the mayhem

There is, however, one topic I’d like to explore briefly. (And yes, I appreciate the irony of that given what I said just a few lines up.) It’s the schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, that seems to have permeated the stories about the iPhone 4 antenna from day one. Sometimes it’s subtle, and sometimes it’s quite explicit. But it seems that a lot of folks are enjoying Apple’s troubles of late.

I’ve thought a lot about why that’s the case. Perhaps it’s because Apple is no longer the scrappy upstart competing against the giant Microsoft empire. (It seems on any given day, Apple’s market cap can actually be larger than Microsoft’s.) Perhaps there’s a measure of success that we in this country culturally accept, but only up to a point: cross a certain threshold and it’s game on. (We’ve certainly seen that type of behavior before, whether it’s IBM, Microsoft, Google, or the ’78 Yankees.) Perhaps it’s that Apple is not perceived as the most humble of companies, coupled with the notion that pride goes before a fall.

I’m not sure any of it matters in the long term. But one thing is clear: Apple’s age of innocence in the mass media is over. Every move that Apple makes is going to be analyzed. Every word an Apple executive utters (or e-mails late at night) is going to be scrutinized. Every potential flaw, problem or mishap is going to be put under a microscope and examined from every possible angle.

It may not be fair. It may not be right. But that’s the way it’s going to be from now on. (Of course, if you look at all the media coverage that Apple is able to generate just by being Apple, perhaps that’s a fair trade-off.)

Mudslinging won't work

What was most interesting to me about “antennagate” was the response of Apple’s competitors, most of whom argued that their products were superior to Apple’s design while at the same time denying that any similar problem occurs with their devices. (In fact, a number of phones do indeed come with warning stickers about where not to touch them if you want to keep a strong signal.)

While the media, analysts, press and pundits will likely continue to weigh in on every single aspect of the situation—the merits of Apple’s design, the language and tone Steve Jobs used at the Apple press conference, the timing and departure of Apple executives—and debate a multitude of conspiracy theories, I’d advise Apple’s competitors to use caution in their tone and how they react.

It’s important to understand this: the mass market appears completely unaffected by this story. As I write this, it’s still quite hard to find an iPhone 4 to purchase.

Rather than focus on Apple, antenna design, and attenuation, Apple’s competitors in the smartphone business should be telling more compelling stories about why their devices and platforms are best-of-breed. That’s the only argument that will ultimately win the hearts and minds of users, period. Bashing Apple’s devices simply won’t work.

If Greek mythology has taught us anything, it’s just how dangerous hubris can be. I’d argue schadenfreude is right up on the list of traits to be avoided at all cost. The market is not a zero-sum game. Apple need not fail for others to succeed and compete effectively.

Remember: the misfortune you rejoice at today might well befall you tomorrow. Worse, your enemies’ misfortune might not turn out to be a misfortune at all in the long run. At that point, it’s no longer schadenfreude—it’s just plain old grumpiness. We don’t need even need the ancient Greeks to tell us how useless that emotion is.

[Analyst Michael Gartenberg is a partner at the Altimeter Group.]

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