The Ongoing Apple Death Watch

January 15th, 2007

I don’t know what there is about Apple Inc. that makes people wish them dead. But that’s apparently something that a few tech writers — and certainly some Windows diehards — fervently wish will happen sooner rather than later.

It seems almost from the very first, Apple was belittled, marginalized. When the Mac first appeared, it was nothing but a plaything, a toy that only artists, musicians and novice users could possibly care about. No serious business user could possibly take such a thing seriously. A mouse instead of the command line? Get real!

Over the years, there were other excuses not to buy a Mac even when it became obvious that Apple’s computers were perfectly suited for the business environment, and new versions of Windows forced them to take graphical user interfaces seriously.

It’s not that Apple didn’t contribute to the death watch phenomenon. From the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, they seemed to do everything they could to wreck the company. The software graveyards were littered with failed and/or undeveloped products, and the venerable Mac OS itself became so creaky at the edges that some folks believed Windows had become equal or superior.

Even with Steve Jobs back at the helm, Wall Street perennially underestimated the company’s earnings potential, and some tried the best they could to cast clouds over the company’s possible chances for continued success.

The iPod’s stellar rise from what some regarded as an overpriced digital music player produced more excuses. Each new player from a rival company was dubbed a potential “iPod Killer,” and when Microsoft decided to try doing everything themselves — forgetting for the moment that the Zune was mostly a redesigned Toshiba product — the efforts were all doomed to failure.

I hate to say it, but Steve Jobs’ bout with cancer, though he recovered, made some worry about his potential future at Apple. Every public appearance he made subsequent to his hospital stay was examined under the microscope in search of evidence that he had lost weight, looked pale and wan, and acted sickly. Was his voice fully as robust as before, or did they forget that he always had that slightly thin tenor?

The most blatant example was at last summer’s WWDC, where Steve Jobs ceded the stage to his underlings for a large portion of the keynote. While this seems to be largely in the spirit of a developer’s event, some published reports had it that Jobs seemed to have lost weight, and just didn’t look very healthy.

Well, I can’t say that I am an expert in such matters, but I did see Jobs talking to what I presume to be an Apple employee about 10 minutes before he took the stage. He was roughly 40 or 50 feet from me, and I failed to notice any unusual symptoms in his behavior. He seemed particularly animated, and, when he began his keynote, I didn’t notice anything untoward either.

I rather doubt anyone watching a low-resolution playback of that event, or seated even in the first row would have noticed anything unusual, but I suppose it makes for good copy. After all, if Jobs is ill, we have to start considering whether he is indispensable to Apple’s continued success and whether the company actually has a successor anointed in case the CEO is no longer able to function.

To be sure, that sort of speculation has arisen again not because of illness, but because of that stock scandal where Apple backdated stock options granted to some of its executives. Now the common perception, based on Apple’s own report to the SEC, is that the company dodged the bullet and they can now concern themselves with more mundane affairs, such as selling iPhones and Apple TV systems.

Indeed, Apple’s stock price is sufficiently high to convey the impression that Wall Street accepts all the explanations and that there’s no danger of much in the way of further inquiry, or, worse, fines and/or prosecution for some present-day Apple executives.

Yet that hasn’t stopped some members of the tech and financial press from suggesting that Steve Jobs may still in a particularly uncomfortable position, and that he may have to leave Apple. This is interpreted as a potential disaster for the company. Without its co-founder/visionary/chief salesman/whip cracker, Apple will lose its way once again and this time won’t be able to rise from the ashes.

Now I don’t pretend to know the inner details of the state of Steve Jobs’ health, nor whether there will be further action on the part of the authorities. Of course this ongoing Apple Death Watch may make for good headlines, and plenty of hits, but without solid facts to go on, it’s time for these writers to deal with more important matters.

And I’m not talking about whether Britney Spears wears underwear or not.

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4 Responses to “The Ongoing Apple Death Watch”

  1. Ratty says:

    It does seem that a lot of the negative press is coming out from the UK. The Financial Times in particular seems to have an “Apple have to die” attitude that I find strange. It is odd when the mainstream press hammers home a point. It was one of the things I hated about the UK. If the press gets something in their bonnet they like to beat on it until the person concerns goes. Now with the tabloid press this seems to work quite well but with what is considered to be one of the leading financial papers in the world it just seems petty.

    And don’t get me started on the BBC! They used to be impartial – but these days not a single positive article appears about Apple without some smarmy comment or snide remark. This seemed to start when they got rid of Quicktime streaming on their site and signed exclusives with MS and Real. I wonder what actually happened and exactly what was the deal MS offered?

  2. Michael Bywater says:

    Couldn’t agree more with Ratty. I’m a British author & journalist and I have to say that there’s an awful mean-spiritedness in the UK press which perhaps reflects an awful mean-spiritedness in the nation as a whole. Sometimes I think we’re only happy when demanding clamp-downs, stampings-out, sackings, or predicting failure and general desolation.

    Perhaps it’s because — particularly in IT — we’ve a record of substantial failure. The British software industry? Forget it. The British hardware industry? Forget it. PET scanning was a British invention but, as usual (just like the web – British: Tim Berners-Lee – and the jet engine – British: Frank Whittle) we failed to make anything of it. We led the industrial revolution but after that we just seemed to get tired and grumpy. Lamentable, really.

    And yet who is behind Apple’s stunning industrial design? Jonathan Ive. An Englishman. Make of it what you will.

  3. ja says:

    I just don’t see this. Consider that any lesser performing CEO would have been sacked for Jobs’s stock option shenanigans:

    As the article points out, Jobs (and I’d say Apple too) is largely reveered with rock star status by most of the press and financial community. There’s much more Microsoft slamming for example. I mean look at Apple’s stock performance – where is this “death watch” drum beat?

  4. Ratty says:

    Well Ja I think it works like this… Have a look at the value of Apple when Steve returned and now have a look at their value.

    Here is a clue.

    The price of Apple shares when Steve returned was around 12 bucks a share – which I believe was a little less than what the company was actually worth as in I think they may have had MORE cash in the bank at the time than their book value.

    As of today they are at 96 bucks or there about a share. Which is pretty impressive. Except they have had two stock splits in the meantime SO if you had bought shares at 12 bucks then they would be worth around 384 dollars a share today.

    At the Macworld when Steve returned Microsoft put 150 million bucks into the company which they sold I think when the shares were worth around 86 bucks so Microsoft made a few pennies out of that deal to say the least.

    I think firing Jobs would probably knock around 25% off the share price which would be a considerably amount of money – PLUS the lack of vision of the company from this point forward would probably lead to Apple becoming irrelevant. BUT worse than all this is the lack of vision that would cascade throughout the industry.

    The “rock star” status comes with actually making a difference to the industry. Generally what Apple do others copy. Because Apple appears to be run by people who get it. Before we get a list of people typing blah blah blah Apple stole x, y or z… consider that Apple have made a difference to the software you use whether Mac, PC or Linux…

    I actually felt on the announcement of the iPhone that Apple have taken me back to 1983 again (yes, I am that old) and computing is actually interesting again. I know that it’s locked down and all the other arguments against it. But it IS interesting and we’ll see what it’s like and the effect that it has on the market in the coming months.

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