What I would have told the BBC about the Apple iPhone antenna, if they'd actually wanted to hear it

I got an email this morning from BBC World Service radio, asking if I'd like to participate in a debate to "discuss whether the Apple bandwagon is grinding to a halt" in the wake of the iPhone antenna problem. I said sure, and they asked a couple of questions about my views.

Unfortunately, when they saw my reply, they decided that my opinions were too similar to those of Computerworld columnist Mitch Wagner (link), who was also appearing on the program. It wouldn't lead to a good debate. They were very polite about it, and there are no hard feelings on my part.

(By the way, Mitch pointed out the most interesting line I've seen so far on the antenna issue -- Microsoft COO Kevin Turner compared the iPhone 4 to Windows Vista. "It looks like the iPhone 4 might be their Vista, and I'm okay with that." (link) That single sentence summarizes so much of what's wrong with Microsoft today: grasping at straws, in denial, not focused on what they must do to win, and a tin ear to what their comments sound like in public. The scariest thing is, I think they might actually believe the stuff they say.)

Anyway, back to Apple. I thought it would be good to share my thoughts that were too boring for the BBC. If they'd put me on the air, it would have gone something like this:

Q. On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is this for Apple?

A. About a 1.5, with 1 being utterly meaningless in the long term. Unless there is some huge, hidden problem that Apple still isn't telling us about, the story is now over.

Q. One newspaper headline here goes 'Apple has lost its touch.' Is that fair?

A. It goes beyond unfair, it's utterly ludicrous. Apple just shipped the iPad, a major new category device, and it's selling far better than most people (including me) expected. For comparison, the Apple Macintosh, which we all cite as a huge success today, sold about 70,000 units in its first hundred days of availability (link). The iPad sold 70,000 units in the first four hours (link).

Most companies would kill to lose their touch that way.

If you want to look at a company that has lost its touch, check out BP. Or Toyota. Or Dell, which allegedly shipped twelve million computers that it knew were destined to fail (link). But even that sort of huge mistake isn't usually enough to kill a company. Remember when Intel knowingly shipped millions of Pentium processors that couldn't do math properly (link)? No, you don't remember? I rest my case.

If you want to know what Apple would look like if it lost its way, go back in time and look at the company in about 1997.

But Apple today? They made a mistake, and they handled it poorly. Hopefully they've learned from it. Giving everyone a free case is a reasonable solution. The cost of the cases is less than the cost of the accumulated bad PR (not to mention the cost of the class action lawsuits, which were the next step).

The average customer pays almost no attention to this sort of inside-the-beltway news. A company has to screw up repeatedly over a long period of time, or do something flagrant like killing people, in order to really damage its image. As long as there isn't any other big problem hidden in Apple's products, I think this story will be forgotten in a few months.

That's not to say everything is going great for Apple...
-Google Android is gaining momentum.
-Many mobile developers would love to have a better alternative to the App Store.
-Various governments might decide its walled garden approach to computing violates the law.
-At some point, I still believe the web is going to make proprietary platforms like Apple's less relevant.
-Apple is getting so big that I wonder how long it can continue to grow at the same rate.

And maybe most importantly, Apple is gradually learning that the rules of behavior for a successful industry leader are different than the rules for a scrappy upstart. Aggressiveness that's cute in a five-year-old kid will get a 25-year-old football player arrested.

Compounding Apple's challenge, its very effective marketing and design has set a higher standard for its products than the one applied to most other companies. Apple needs to learn that standing in the spotlight shows off your scars as well as your beauty marks.

One step in that process if for Apple to be humbler and more open. I think that's a lesson they started to learn this week.

(PS: I listened to BBC World's coverage of the iPhone this evening (link). One report called the antenna "the biggest PR disaster in Apple's history," which shows that BBC reporters have very short memories. As for what Mitch said, yeah it would have been a boring debate.)