Editorial: Apple, Smugness, and You

It’s a claim certain people have been making for a while: Apple as a company is too smug, and so are fans of Apple products. If you’re not familiar with the word already, to be “smug” is to have or show an excessive pride in oneself or one’s achievements. And there are arguably plenty of examples of Apple smugness: the now common PC versus Mac commercials where the cool Mac guy confidently stands out from his rumpled PC counterpart, and more recently, some text in Apple’s announcement that it had shipped a small number of iPods containing a Windows virus.

“As you might imagine, we are upset at Windows for not being more hardy against such viruses,” said Apple, “and even more upset with ourselves for not catching it.” Even to fans of Apple and the Mac OS, the sub-text was obvious: ‘it’s only because we accommodate PC users that we have to deal with these sorts of Windows-only problems,’ Apple seemed to be saying, ‘but yeah, it’s partially our fault, too.’

Supporters of the Apple smugness theory were upset that the company tried to apportion the blame rather than fully accepting it, and suggested that it was part of a trend of foolish pride that turns off a lot of potential Apple customers. Typical was the response of one journalist, an iPod owner, who blogged angrily about the virus announcement: “only Apple could ship a product with a virus and then be smug about it. […] Today’s one of those contrast days: I used a Mac for a few hours today at work and really enjoyed it, and then I’m reminded why I hate Apple and its fans.”

Let’s be frank here: yes, Apple and its fans tend to be zealous. As is repeatedly reflected in surveys, Apple’s customers universally have more of a “love” relationship with their computers and iPods than do users of competing products, and they don’t mind telling people about it. “You should really consider a Mac,” they often say to people who are in the midst of Windows problems, “this sort of stuff isn’t an issue.” And they nod knowingly at all the PC versus Mac commercials, realizing that as mildly funny as most of them are intended to be, they’re also accurate. But Apple’s fans didn’t pick those advertisements or choose to blame Windows for an iPod-borne virus. That was all Apple.

Regardless of whatever you think of Apple, “smug” probably isn’t the right word for Apple fans. Ninety-five percent of the time, they’re not talking up their iPods or Macs in order to boast or put someone else off – they’re generally trying to help friends enjoy the same things they have and love. Unfortunately, this distinction is lost on some people, especially those who are using Windows-based PCs and not having serious issues.

As a company, Apple might be a different story. It’s clearly proud of its accomplishments, a fact which some may see as smug, while others feel is deserved. After all, many of Microsoft’s biggest ideas – both for Windows and its upcoming Zune – largely “borrow” concepts that Apple has championed for years, often during derision from Microsoft and its most active promoters. A closed hardware, software, and music downloading ecosystem to guarantee uniformity and quality in user experiences? It has worked brilliantly for the iPod, but Microsoft knocked it for years before adopting the exact same model for Zune. Teasing Microsoft about its photocopier mentality has been part of the Apple script for some time now, and honestly, given Microsoft’s own track record, we think it’s appropriate.

The problem is mostly perception. When Apple talks itself up, it sounds like the genius kid you knew in high school – the one who was obviously really smart but didn’t know how to make friends. Just as the genius learns when he tries unsuccessfully to run for class president, popularity – market share – depends more upon making friends than being the best. And blaming the other guy for your loss is bad sportsmanship, hence the negative reactions from so many people over Apple’s virus commentary.

More than zealous fans – the reliable journalists and MUG members who reliably praise every new Cupertino invention, and actually enjoy Microsoft-bashing – Apple really needs more friends right now, namely people who actually sell (read: non-Apple retailers) and buy (read: non-Apple customers) competing products. The iPod and increasingly present Apple Stores are having positive effects on the marketplace, but they’re not enough: many computer owners aren’t portable music lovers, and there’s no reason to go to an Apple Store if you’re not looking to buy a music player or a computer. To win the mainstream over, we think Apple’s going to need more distribution points, a new pitch, and probably, a slightly modified attitude – one that doesn’t rub a significant portion (perhaps 94%) of the marketplace the wrong way.

Readers, what do you think? Does Apple need to stay the course, or make some adjustments? We look forward to seeing your comments below.

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