Apple in the Era of 24/7 News

September 23rd, 2009

I never cease to be amazed at the fact that Apple Inc. can so easily dominate the media, probably more than you and I might want, and I suspect more than even they sometimes desire. Sure, Microsoft can get headlines too, but it seems that Apple, nowadays at least, is treated with far more shock and awe.

Yes, Microsoft’s alleged new products are announced as well, but in the sense of how they plan to come out with something to match someone else’s product. When they deliver what is supposed to be a new technology, you get something akin to Surface, which is a product in search of a purpose with little evidence of being anything that would ever cater to more than a very specialized market.

You can see how it goes. Apple creates a smartphone and succeeds, so Microsoft says that they’re gonna do it too, perhaps next year. I just wonder how many times the media will repeat this mantra before they have the courage to ask Microsoft why it can’t come out with something new, rather than a warmed over imitation of a product someone else built. Instead, far too many stories out there simply reek of direct quotes from the standard corporate press releases.

Stories about Apple aren’t immune from the lazy journalism disease. How many reports do you read that are simply direct quotes from the Apple press release, without any additional reporting to provide an insight into where the new product or service fits into the marketplace and how well it might do.

Understand that such slipshod reporting isn’t new, nor is it confined to the online world. In my days as a broadcast journalist, I would often receive wire service copy that was nothing more than a regurgitated press release. Many local newspapers would often fill their pages with similar content.

Now when I was covering local news and had nothing but a a handful of reports off the police blotter and a few press releases to write about, I tried to be a little different. I would contact the organization that issued the announcement and try to get some additional comments from a spokesperson. Where necessary, I’d call a second source — often a competitor — to provide fair and balanced coverage. Sure, I’d occasionally summarize the press release on a busy day, when I was inundated with hard news. But I would never consider it normal operating procedure.

Maybe I’m wrong?

I’m also concerned about the all-too-common practice of writing an online rant, not because it’s necessary, but to get hits and raise ad revenues for a publisher. Now I have nothing against real criticism, and expressing one’s emotions honestly is certainly acceptable. But sometimes the flames are so totally off base you wonder if the writer is simply incompetent, or had a more sinister motive in mind.

So while Microsoft has always released  a steady stream of patches for its operating systems, when Apple gets a maintenance release out within a few weeks after a major system upgrade, they’re accused of poor quality control. It seems to me that some of those hack writers haven’t a clue about the software development process, and about the tradeoffs a company has to make to get a product out the door.

Yes, that means that Apple and Microsoft both ship products with known bugs. Waiting until the software is perfect means it will never be released, so they weigh the impact of the defects. At some point, the developers and marketing people will make the decision that enough is enough, release the OS and fix the rest later.

You can certainly be assured that Apple was already at work on 10.6.1 when Snow Leopard was declared Golden Master, just as Microsoft didn’t stop working on Windows 7 when the so-called Release to Manufacturing version was shipped to the DVD pressing plants. It would be irresponsible to expect otherwise.

The key question is whether marketing prevailed over programming a little too early in the process. I’ve ragged on Apple from time to time because I felt they released something prematurely. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that some of the serious shipping bugs went unnoticed, or were too random to duplicate or determine a trend. When Leopard was first released, I’m sure Apple didn’t intend for files to get mangled when moved, rather than copied, to another drive or network share. Maybe the circumstances where that defect occurred couldn’t be duplicated, or the problem was somehow overlooked.

You could probably say the same for some of the more serious shipping bugs in a Windows operating system, but I think Microsoft is far more cynical about such matters. That’s why they constantly change names to convey the illusion that the new version of the product or service is vastly different from the old.

The arguments about premature releases and buggy products will never end. There’s too much profit in emphasizing the bad over the good. Didn’t someone once say that a dog biting a man isn’t news, but a man biting a dog definitely deserves coverage. And how many reporters in our audience were told by their editors or publishers, at one time or another, “if it bleeds it leads”?

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