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How to avoid sounding dumb when you write about Apple


So, you want to write about Apple? Lots of people do these days. The company is a household name, its financial performance is virtually unparalleled, and it makes products that millions upon millions of users enjoy every single day. I can tell you from personal experience that getting paid to write about Apple, something I would do on my own anyway, is quite rewarding.

But first you have to decide what kind of Apple writer you'll be. Will you be the kind of writer who takes a step back from the linkbaiting Controversy of the Week, calmly and logically analyzes the situation, and then writes objectively about it? Will you keep your BS detector active and not believe every single rumor that blooms on your RSS feed? Will you have the patience and foresight to analyze past trends before predicting future performance, even if it means dragging yourself across a desert of spreadsheets and financial statements?

If you're saying to yourself, "Nah, that all sounds like work," and you're not worried about sounding dumb when you write about Apple, then by all means, write whatever comes into your head without putting it through a logic filter first. You'll have absolutely zero credibility among anyone who doesn't actively loathe Apple, but at least your page views will be through the roof.

On the other hand, if you'd rather not wind up the laughingstock of the Internet every time you write something about Apple, I have a few points of advice to offer.

Leave "fanboy" and the cult metaphors on the cutting room floor

I'm declaring a fatwa on the word "fanboy." I've said before that I stop reading any argument that uses the word "fanboy" as soon as I see it, and that remains true. But the word still gets tossed around like a hacky sack at Burning Man, and it's gone from overused and tired to straight out offensive and stupid. I look at people who use the word "fanboy" as an epithet with the same disdain I have for people who use racially-charged insults.

Seriously, it's 2012, and Apple has rocketed past Exxon Mobil as the most valuable corporation on the planet. You don't get to that level of success driven along by a handful of dedicated, froth-flecked fans, nor do you achieve what Apple's achieved by having a "cult" of people who will buy what Apple sells no matter what. Think logically for just half a second: Apple sold 37 million iPhones in 3 months. 37 million. If that's a cult, it's one damned huge cult.

How many posts do we see about Exxon Mobil "fanboys" or cultlike people mindlessly lining up their cars at Exxon stations and worshipping at the altar of the almighty unleaded octane 92? Exactly none. Because that would be stupid.

Whether you like the company and its products or not, Apple is now thoroughly mainstream. Maybe in 2002 you could've gotten away with painting Apple's users with the "cult" brush, but doing so today just makes you sound brainwashed yourself.

Don't predict Apple's doom

How many times has Apple actually been doomed in the past 15 years? None. How many times have people said Apple is doomed? I bet if you spent all day counting, not only would you not finish, you'd seriously start to question your life and the way you choose to spend your free time.

Look at Apple's ledgers, specifically the giant pile of cash it's sitting on, and tell me with a straight face that Apple as a company is going to disappear anytime in the near or even far future. At this point, for Apple to fail or be truly doomed would require close to a decade of deliberate, malicious mismanagement. I'm not saying Apple's "too big to fail" -- Microsoft is moribund proof of how far the mighty may fall when men of vision aren't holding the reins. But if you think that "Apple is doomed" will come true eventually if you just repeat that mantra often enough, I humbly suggest that you instead repeat to yourself, "I won $10 billion in the lottery and the Swedish Bikini Team moved into my guest bedroom." That has a far better chance of happening, and it'll likely be far more personally fulfilling if it does.

Now if we're talking about a more specific subset of Apple being doomed, the story's still the same. To this day I can still hear faint echoes of my laughter from 2006 when John Dvorak tried to convince us the Mac was doomed unless Apple switched to Windows. If you thought the iPhone was doomed in 2007 because the thing would just never catch on, then congratulations: you're capable of running Microsoft. If you thought the iPad was doomed in 2010 because it didn't ship with support for Flash Player, then man have they got a gig open for you at Adobe, you scamp. If you thought that either the iPhone or the iPad would be crushed and fade into obscurity because of Android's market share gains in 2010 and early 2011, then... well, maybe we can get you a job corralling the shopping carts at Target.

Take Apple's expectations for quarterly revenue and multiply by 1.15

If you intend to write about Apple with the least bit of credibility in forecasting its financial performance, you must follow the company's quarterly performance reports. As a publicly-traded company beholden to its shareholders, Apple quite carefully lays out its expectations for the quarter to come, including factors it expects to impact its performance for good or ill. Being the secretive company it is, Apple doesn't connect the dots for you, but the picture isn't all that hard to comprehend anyway. It can't be, because Apple has a responsibility to the people who've invested in it, and deliberately misleading those investors would get the company into seriously hot water.

Apple isn't run by idiots. These are very smart people who know what they're doing. Apple's success isn't a fluke; it's the result of an expertly steered company with some of the best business minds on the planet at the helm. If Apple saw something in the forthcoming quarter that it expected to have a significant impact on its earnings, and there was nothing it could do to avoid that financial iceberg, you can bet it would adjust its financial guidance accordingly. We saw that two quarters ago, in fact, when Apple said it didn't expect great Q4 results due to a "product transition" - i.e., the iPhone 4 hanging around for an extra 3 months. Apple still beat its own guidance but (heavy sarcasm quotes) "missed" Wall Street's expectations.

Every quarter, a gaggle of "financial analysts" pull Magic 8-Balls out of their Park Avenue closets, blow off the dust, and forecast financial doom for Apple. "Sell AAPL now," say these people who somehow still have jobs telling others how to invest actual money.

To avoid sounding like someone dropped an anvil on your head, here's what you do when it comes time to discuss Apple's financial future. It will require two minutes of research first, where you'll learn what Apple's own revenue guidance for the forthcoming quarter is. Once you have that number, multiply it by 1.15. Use a calculator if you must. That number is about what you can expect Apple to actually return for the next quarter. It sort of takes all the fun out of the earnings announcement, like mathematically determining on Labor Day exactly what you'll get for Christmas, but it sure does stop you from saying stupid stuff like "Apple can't possibly earn $30 billion in revenue in one quarter" when the company turns around and earns $46 billion instead.

Keep your product expectations moderate and realistic

One surefire way to make yourself sound ridiculous: take any article from Popular Mechanics circa 1950-1960, slightly update the retro-futurist themes to suit the modern era, and tell us Apple will usher in this new age all by itself. Use Siri to talk to your car! Multi-Touch screens on your refrigerator! A FaceTime watch (just like Dick Tracy!!!)!

In the leadup to every one of Apple's product announcements, the speculation gets so rampant and so out of control that the only surefire way to separate fiction from reality is to believe none of it. That's essentially what I decided to do two months before the iPhone 4S launched; after overdosing on fever dream rumors of the supposed iPhone 5, I asked myself what Apple was actually likely to do. "Apple's redesigned the exterior of the iPhone twice in four years," I said to myself when my wife wasn't home to stare at me for saying such things aloud. "How likely are they to do another major external redesign just over a year after the iPhone 4 launched?"

If you asked yourself this same question and answered, "Not likely in the slightest," then I bet you weren't one of those people beating their chests in early October and screaming, "But it looks just like the iPhone 4! Where is the iPhone 5?! So disappointing, Apple blew it, they're doooooomed!"

See also The Rumor That Will Not Die: the Apple-branded HDTV.

How to do it wrong: "Apple will introduce an HDTV with a 42-inch LCD screen, FaceTime camera, built-in App Store, and eleventy billion gigabytes of onboard storage. The entire interface will be voice-activated via Siri. The whole thing will cost $1500. It's going to be a total revolution in the way we interact with our TVs, man, you don't even know."

How to do it less wrong: "Apple might introduce an HDTV, but for a whole lot of (logical, well-thought out) reasons it sure doesn't seem likely."

Apple makes technology that occasionally seems like magic, but as far as I know Apple doesn't employ any actual magicians, sorcerers, or wizards among its design staff in Cupertino. Adjust your product expectations accordingly.

Don't try to tell us what Apple "must" do

Any time I come across a headline that reads like a gauntlet thrown at Apple's collective feet, I brace for The Stupid. These "Apple Must (x)" headlines usually follow like derp-derp jetsam after the rabble-rabble hurricane of whatever the "-gate" Controversy of the Week happens to be. The iPhone 4 drops signal when held a certain way, so Apple must issue a full recall. The iPhone contains buggy code that causes people's location info to be held for longer than necessary, so Apple must go before Congress and explain itself. Siri doesn't return results for Planned Parenthood when users ask it to find abortion clinics, so Apple must apologize to women everywhere for stealthily promoting a right-wing agenda on reproductive rights. Apple's EULA for iBooks Author says you can only publish iBooks-formatted books on the iBookstore, so Apple must be subjected to antitrust hearings before the week is out.

In the increasingly rare respites from storm-in-a-teacup controversy, there's the usual roundup of typically myopic suggestions from "analysts" and the blogosphere at large, all of which manage to sound hilarious in hindsight. Remember when Apple had to put a netbook on the market if it wanted to stay relevant? Or how it had to build an iPhone with a physical keyboard? Or how the iPad had to support Flash Player?

Occasionally people do come up with some decent advice for Apple, and I'll find myself nodding along in agreement. But those times are about as rare as sunny days in Cleveland, and just as fleeting before the usual gray, dummkopf skies return.

Think first, type later

I saved the most important advice for last. Some bloggers are so quick to rush to judgement on absolutely everything Apple does that I often find myself wondering if there's any actual thought behind what they write or if they're just spitting out pure rage like the father character in A Christmas Story. "Apple broke my lamp on purpose! NOTTAFINGA!"

We can't go a single week anymore without some "-gate" suffixed scandal surfacing that's supposedly proof everlasting of Apple's nefarious intentions, leading directly to the company's ultimate downfall. Just recently, a simple boneheaded mistake in Apple's writing in the EULA for iBooks Author had bloggers jumping over one another to launch ICBMs full of monkey poo toward Cupertino, with one guffaw-inducing example classifying it as "mind-bogglingly greedy and evil."

The only truly mind-boggling thing was the swift rush to judgement without even a breath's pause for logical evaluation of the facts at hand. It was clear to me from the beginning that Apple had no interest in owning anyone's content, only the iBooks format. A week went by, Apple updated the iBooks Author EULA, and people everywhere who don't spend their afternoons sticking pins in an iPhone-shaped voodoo doll looked at the rest of the blogosphere and said, "Duh."

So many bloggers (and an exponentially greater number of commenters) are used to seeing Apple as this grand dystopian force in their lives that literally everything the company does must have some mustache-twirling, villainous motivation behind it. That mindset is both sad and dumb.

If you're going to write about any topic, but particularly one as widely read about as Apple, for your own sake be sure to think first and type later. If you just take that one small step, everything else I've said here will follow naturally, and the chances of your writing being subjected to eternal ridicule will be much smaller.

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