Bracing for the other shoe

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I’ll admit it, I’m starting to freak out a little bit here. I’ve been writing about Apple and the Macintosh for so long that readers routinely begin messages to me with Dear Mr. Breen , which is just about as welcome as when your doctor first intones, “A man of your age…”

No, no, I’m fine with the aging thing, really I am. What’s freaking me out is the kind of attention Apple is getting—in the media, on Wall Street, among my friends and family. We old-time followers of Apple are like the dogs you get from the pound that were poorly treated by their original owners. After years of Beleaguered This and Low-Market-Share That, we’re skittish, just waiting for the next “Bad Dog!” and wallop upside the head.

Yet suddenly, the world is in love with Apple. The iPod, great. OS X, better than the rest. The Mac, the glamor computer to feature in big-budget movies, hot TV series, and slick furniture catalogs. The iTunes Store, putting traditional record retailers to shame. The iPhone, God’s own telephone.

You mean I can stop cringing now?

Probably not. The buzz around Apple is too hot. It smacks of a fad—a media darling that, like all similar darlings, will be trashed the second it puts a foot wrong.

In the hope that I might bring a measure of balance to the Apple accolades—and thus, perhaps, fend off the worst of the blow-back when the media inevitably tires of Apple—I’d like to offer a few lessons learned over the years.

It’s Just Stuff Apple makes some very good products. The fact that it controls both the hardware and operating system side of its computer business allows the company to create machines that perform very nicely and, I will venture to say, more reliably than Windows PCs I’ve owned. Ditto with the iPod and iTunes—great integration. But Apple is not going to cure cancer. It’s not going to end global warming. Nor will it make the world’s citizens link arms and, as one, yodel Kumbaya . It makes stuff. Elegant stuff that brings great joy to my life. But just stuff nevertheless.

Apple is Not Going to be Your Best Friend: Media Edition I understand that you work for a major television network, yack on the biggest radio station in your market, are syndicated in 127 newspapers, have a well-travelled weblog, produce a popular podcast, routinely sit in Amazon’s top-100 for technical publications, or just know a lot of really, really important people. Unless your name is Walt Mossberg, David Pogue, or Steven Levy, or you’re planning a big spread for BusinessWeek , Forbes , or Time , Apple is going to treat you pretty much like any journalist who isn’t a blogger. PR may take your calls. Heck, they might even return them. But you’re not getting the next iPhone, iPod, or Macintosh before the rest of the world. Get in line and get over it.

Apple is Not Going to be Your Best Friend: Customer Edition Just because Apple makes stuff that’s as hip as you are doesn’t mean it wants to hang out with you. Having an Apple product doesn’t give you any extra right to moan “How could Apple do this to me!?” when, six weeks after you purchased Cool Apple Widget A, the company releases a less-expensive and far cooler Cool Apple Widget B. Likewise, you needn’t launch petitions against the iTunes Store because the bulk of the media it sells is protected and compressed in some way. Apple is a business trying to make money in the best way it knows how. This model makes money for the company, which, in turn, keeps it in business, which, in turn, means it’ll make more cool stuff for you to possibly complain about.

Some Things You’ll Hear Will Be Untrue The Apple community has a long history of rumor-mongering. This is due, in part, to Apple’s culture of secrecy. There’s nothing more satisfying than learning something you’re not supposed to know. However, there’s this large grain of salt: Some people so desperately want something to be true (to make a name for themselves, because they believe it’s the next logical thing, because they’re incurable Monday-morning quarterbacks, whatever) that they make stuff up—and they write about it. In the past this was usually handled by a cadre of rumor sites, some more reliable than others. It now seems that today even Wall Street analysts are rooting through Apple’s dumpsters (read: patent filings, component suppliers) in search of the company’s Next Big Thing. Again, grain of salt.

Steve Jobs is not God Steve Jobs is brilliant, yes. He’s charismatic, sure. His force of will has made Apple much of what it is today. But the idea that Apple and the future of technology lives or dies by the man is not healthy. Apple has a culture of innovation that goes beyond Steve. When he steps aside, this culture won’t disappear, provided the person who steps in doesn’t squash it. What is likely to disappear, however, is the confidence, both inside and outside Apple, that the company can carry on as it does today.

You can help by not feeding the monster and keeping it all in perspective. Steve Jobs is only a man. Apple is only a company. One can survive without the other.

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