Hypenotized by Apple

Watching the cloud of hype around last week's release of the new iPhone, I was struck by the way Apple's psychological influence over the tech industry continues to grow. I'm having trouble thinking of any recent technology product, let alone a smartphone, that got such heavy coverage for both its announcement and its initial shipment.

Apple's PR miasma is also starting to twist the thinking of people in the tech industry who ought to know better. Apple's gradually becoming the yardstick against which other tech companies are measured -- and since Apple is such a unique company, it's almost impossible for anyone else to measure up.

Case in point: A recent commentary by a CNET reporter, writing about RIM (link):

"There is no RIM hype machine and when a new BlackBerry is released, hardly anyone in the major media outlets care. And if they don't care, neither will the average consumer who doesn't know too much about the tech industry and won't read columns like this; they rely on the NBCs of the world to get by. So if RIM wants to more effectively compete against Apple, it needs to do everything it can to follow the Steve Jobs formula: secrecy, compelling products, and a great PR team. If it does, look for RIM to not lose as much ground as you may think. But if it doesn't, Apple will run amok."

Problem number one with this thinking is that Apple and RIM don't sell to the same markets. RIM's core is middle-aged business professionals; Apple's is hip twentysomethings. I'm not saying there is no overlap, but I've spoken to plenty of RIM users who would be embarrassed to carry a music-playing, video-watching hunk of eye candy like the iPhone into a business meeting. It's like announcing to a client, "I spend my work time on YouTube."

The second problem is that Apple's skill at PR has somehow turned into an excuse for reporters not to do their jobs. The implied message in the CNET article is, "if you don't put on a spectacle, the press will ignore your products." Excuse me, but isn't the press's job to dig out the real value and separate it from the hype? Don't we pay you (or sit through your ads) to look past the PR and fancy speeches and advise us on what really matters? If we just wanted someone to echo the latest hype, we could get all our news from blogs.

But the third problem is the one that worries me the most. Apple is almost uniquely good at marketing. Its communication power is a combination of longtime company history, Steve Jobs' personality, and a culture that values perfection in marcom. Any tech company that makes its goal to match Apple's flash is going to look bad by comparison.

If anyone from RIM is reading this, please listen to me closely. I beg of you, don't be chumps. You're Canadian, for God's sake. You don't do sexy. You do humble and inoffensive.

Steve's from California. He's a pop culture icon from the '70s; the Madonna of technology. If you try to imitate him, you're going to look like mom and dad pogo-dancing when Rock Lobster comes on at a wedding reception.

Not pretty. Not pretty at all.

Which brings us to Microsoft's latest marketing plan.

Word on the street is that Microsoft is planning a huge advertising campaign this fall to pimp its image. Microsoft executives say they have finally tired of taking all that abuse from the Mac vs. PC ads, and they're going to fire back with their own cool advertising this fall.

Remember what I said at the start of this post about Apple twisting the minds of tech company managers? They have done an incredible number on Microsoft, the sort of thing I used to dream about when I worked at Apple.

Welcome, Microsoft. Seriously.

When I was at Apple, one the competitive team's central goals was to goad Microsoft and Intel into targeting us in public. We used all sorts of tactics to irritate them. We printed bumper stickers that read "Honk if your Pentium has bugs." We hounded them in online discussions. We did press and analyst tours demonstrating all sorts of annoying flaws we'd found in Windows.

The whole idea was to get them so pissed off that they would lash out at us in public. Because we knew that when a market leader attacks a challenger, it just makes the challenger more credible.

So what is Microsoft doing? It's attacking the challenger. Microsoft VP Brad Brooks specifically called out Apple in a recent speech (link):

"There are a lot of myths out there in the marketplace today, a lot of myths around Windows Vista...we know the story is very different than what our competitors would like our customers to think.... Windows Vista is the safest OS in terms of security vulnerabilities in its first year of operation, safer than any other commercial or Open Source OS in its launch. Now, I don't hear Apple making claims about security around a product that is that great.... The other big thing that's different this time around is that we've got a pretty noisy competitor out there. You know it, I know it. It's had an impact, been a source of frustration for you, but today, that line, we're going to start to challenge. We're going to get our story back out into the marketplace.... We've got a highly vocal minority out there in Apple. They kind of look at this and say, hey, you know what, you're kind of boring with the mundane message; it's not cool. They tell you it's the "i-way" or the highway. Well, you know what--we think that's kind of a sad message."

Macintosh share is still just a small fraction of Windows' share, but Microsoft is treating Apple like not just a challenger, but as the opinion leader. Microsoft is responding to Apple's marketing, and what's worse, it's bragging about it in public. What an incredible turnaround from Steve Jobs' first days back at Apple, less than ten years ago, when Bill Gates appeared on the big screen and Jobs publicly kowtowed to him.

It's easy to say what Microsoft shouldn't do, but a lot harder to say what they should do. They do have an image problem, and they do need to do something about it. Here's my take: Apple has always been the cool one, and always will be. Microsoft has traditionally been the safe one. Not as flashy as Apple, but dependable and prudent; the choice that'll never get you fired. That's why 80% of the public has chosen Windows over the years. Rather than trying to act cool, which is destined to end in embarrassment, I think Microsoft should apologize for the problems with Vista, give a timeline for fixing them (I think many of them actually are fixed by this point), and then move heaven and earth to make sure people see them deliver on that promise.

The ironic thing is that Brooks actually did some of that in his speech:

"We had an ambitious plan. We made some significant investments around security in this product. And you know what, those investments, they broke some things. They broke a lot of things. We know that. And we know it caused you a lot of pain in front of your customers, in front of our customers. And it got a lot of customers thinking, and even yourselves and our partners thinking, "Hey, is Windows Vista a generation that I want to make an investment in?" "

That's not a bad start, but in today's Apple-soaked industry atmosphere, the snide comments on Apple dominated the coverage. The best example was the Wall Street Journal's business and technology blog, which headlined its article, "Microsoft Ready to Hit Back at Mac Guy" (link).

So now every Microsoft ad in the new campaign is going to be judged on whether or not it's as clever and cool as an Apple ad. I'd like to ask for a show of hands -- who thinks Microsoft can out-cool Apple?


And as for RIM, well, I'm sure you could do a better job of PR than you do today. But don't try to be sexy. A message more like, "real men use a thumb keyboard" is probably the ticket for you.


Thanks to mjelly.com for featuring Mobile Opportunity in the latest Carnival of the Mobilists.