Apple could use a polishing of Jobs-led arrogance with press

A few years ago, I joined a gaggle of technology journalists at the Cupertino, CA, headquarters of what was then called Apple Computer. (The company is called Apple now.) The occasion was an announcement of some sort; I've long since forgotten the specifics.

A few years ago, I joined a gaggle of technology journalists at the Cupertino, CA, headquarters of what was then called Apple Computer. (The company is called Apple now.) The occasion was an announcement of some sort; I've long since forgotten the specifics.

We milled around outside the auditorium, chatting with each other and some Apple PR folks and executives. Then we headed inside, to get the latest from Steve Jobs, who'd not long before that returned, after a long exile, to head the company he'd co-founded.
Across the room was a friendly competitor from another publication. I caught his eye and yelled, "Entering Reality Distortion Field, deflectors on full!"

The reference was, of course, to Jobs' incredible ability to turn anyone - even skeptical reporters - into near-mindless fanboys. Reality distortion wears off, but not before a blizzard of uncritical media coverage of what frequently are routine announcements.

All this comes to mind as Apple fans and media hordes (not always a separate group) gather this week in San Francisco for the annual Macworld conference. There will surely be some important announcements, but even minor tweaks to products will be greeted with worshipful prose.

I should note here that I'm a happy customer, the owner of several Apple products. But having stopped attending Jobs' keynote talks at Macworld and other events, I've emerged for good from the reality distortion field that he, alone among major CEOs, generates with such verve.

There is no question that Jobs has performed a near-miracle as a CEO. He and his team have turned Apple into a powerhouse. His passion for great products - his insistence on gadgets and software that get out of your way, not in your way - permeates the company's designs and innovations.

But he is a manipulative and often mean person. Those qualities also permeate the place, and are reflected in the way the company deals with journalists and the public at large.
My long-ago shout across the room in Cupertino earned me withering looks from Apple honchos. They may, in their private lives, have a sense of humor, but none will accuse their company of having one.

Perhaps it can't, not in the predatory landscape where it competes. But Apple's arrogance is not a requirement of doing business.

The arrogance is longstanding. It was manifested most blatantly last year when a software "upgrade" to the iPhone caused real damage to the phones of customers who'd done unauthorized upgrades of their own. Recently, we saw it in the still-murky legal settlement that led to the closure of a Web site that reported news and rumors of upcoming products, a form of journalism Apple has made clear it finds intolerable.

Steve Jobs' Macworld keynote won't have the drama of last year's iPhone show. We can, however, count on some announcement that is at least interesting and at most dazzling.
A kinder corporate culture would add to Apple's positive aura. Too bad that's not likely.

Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mail to dan@gillmor.com.

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