Is Apple Losing War Of Words?

Mar 19, 2013 (05:03 AM EDT)

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Apple is losing the war of words against Samsung and the Android ecosystem, argues former Apple products division president and current Allegis Capital general partner Jean Louis Gassee.

"Besides its ads, Apple says very little, confident numbers will do the talking," Gassee writes in a blog post. "This no longer works as others have seized the opportunity to drive the narrative."

This isn't the first time industry figures have called for Apple to change its ways and open up, nor is it the first time Apple's defenders have insisted that the company remains extraordinarily profitable and that detractors have written Apple off prematurely. John Gruber, who writes the Daring Fireball blog, argues that boredom with Apple's ongoing success has lead reporters to dethrone the company.

[ People do love to dish the Apple rumors. Read Apple iPhone 5S: Best And Worst Rumors. ]

But whether one accepts Gruber's view that Samsung is not on its way to unseating Apple or whether one believes that Apple's decline has begun, Apple clearly believes it has to fight back against the Android invasion.

In a Reuters interview, Apple's senior VP of marketing Phil Schiller recently slammed Google, Android and Samsung on the eve of the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S 4.

And Apple recently launched an new iPhone marketing page called Why iPhone? It declares, "There's iPhone. Then there's everything else." Two years ago, there really wasn't anything that compared very well to the iPhone. That's no longer the case today.

Gassee argues that the blame Gruber places in the media's lap for writing Apple downfall stories should instead be hung on Apple. "If Apple won't feed [the media] an interesting, captivating story, they'll find it elsewhere, even in rumors and senseless hand-wringing," he writes.

In other words, Apple's tendency to hold its tongue is asphyxiating the company in the press.

Perhaps more intriguing is Gassee's observation that Apple's marketing vocabulary is larded with a limit set of hyperbolic adjectives that strain credibility and is almost devoid of terms for acknowledging challenges, failures or competitors. He singles out "great" as an adjective that Apple executives utter to the point of absurdity.

Had he been conducting word counts in Apple press releases rather than conference call transcripts, he might have noticed the overuse of the word "revolutionary," which Apple has applied to more than 30 of its products.

Apple's fondness for over-the-top superlatives like "incredible," "unbelievable" and "amazing" can perhaps be best appreciated in this 2009 YouTube video.

What Apple needs is a new vocabulary, not just to describe forthcoming products, but to communicate on equal footing with its increasingly competent and chatty competition. It needs to learn to use these four words in a context that's meaningful for the present competitive landscape:

1. Blog.

Google blogs. Microsoft blogs. Yahoo blogs. Intel blogs. Twitter blogs. IBM blogs. Samsung blogs. The White House blogs. Apple needs to get with the program. Its executives and employees should engage with the public because there's more to marketing than press releases and rare responses to reporters' queries.

Things were different during Steve Jobs' last five years at Apple. He could send an email to an Apple user and it would be widely reported by the tech press as a significant news story. He'd publish letters on topics like DRM or Adobe Flash and that would be enough. Jobs' successor, Tim Cook, has been a successful, popular CEO, but his public letters haven't been comparable declarations of vision. They have consisted of a remembrance of Jobs and an apology for Apple Maps. And Phil Schiller isn't up to the task either: He's a master of the product introduction but he's a marketer, a corporate evangelist. Apple is a technology company and it needs its engineering leads on the front lines, blogging and engaging with the public.

Apple needs to learn to speak the language of reality.

2. Social.

Apple's Ping social networking service bombed, an event widely seen a sign that the company doesn't get social software. Well, of course it doesn't. You can't be both silent and social.

Apple's laconic approach to public interaction undoubtedly contributes to the press it receives: The scarcity of Apple commentary increases its value. But the cost appears to be increasing. When Apple really was leading the industry in mobile innovation, the company could afford to let its products speak in its place. Now that the race is neck-and-neck, Apple just seems peevish and arrogant in its silence. I'm convinced there would be far less Apple hatred if the company made more of an effort to engage on a public level. If the engineering team behind Apple Maps, for example, posted on a social network about the challenges they faced and the advances they've been making, people would respond in a positive way.

Apple has fans. What it needs are friends.

3. Open.

"Open" is perhaps the most misused word in the tech industry. Even so, Apple could employ it a bit more. It could change its App Store review guidelines so content is not considered. Apple would still be able to reject apps because of technical shortcomings or security problems. But it would forego rejecting lawful, non-abusive content, a.k.a. arbitrary censorship.

Apple could make its apps more open. It could find a way to allow third-party iOS browsers to access its Nitro Javascript engine. It could make iAds Producer useful for anyone designing an online ad rather than just iAd users. It could make the .ibooks format open rather than proprietary. It could make iCloud a multi-platform cloud service instead of just a service for Apple devices.

Apple has mastered "closed." Now it needs to explore "open." It needs allies and partners rather than contracts that defend its turf.

4. Revolutionary.

The iPhone was genuinely revolutionary. It put a powerful, Internet-connected touchscreen computer in people's pockets, where nothing comparable existed previously. The iPad continued the revolution. The company's rumored Internet-connected watch isn't likely to rise to that level, even if it should deliver healthy margins.

Apple should be using some of its massive cash reserve to research a real revolution: building its own national wireless network, offering paid Web apps that perform better than Google's, making Siri work better, figuring out a way to cut cable companies out of the loop, or something equally bold. Google is gambling on Project Glass, self-driving cars and other "moonshots."

If Apple wants to keep tossing around the term "revolutionary," it will have to aim higher than wrist wear. It needs to challenge the status quo and break some business models.