Apple's Bungle With Blogs


Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been riding such a hot hand lately with success of the iPod and the revival of the Mac that he may just feel as invincible as Buzz Lightyear.

That, it seems, could be the only logical explanation for the decision by Apple to file a legal action to force three blogs--Jason O'Grady's PowerPage, AppleInsider and ThinkSecret--to publicly name confidential sources who gave them an early peek at new Apple products before Jobs was ready raise the curtain.

Last week, a judge ruled in favor of Apple and said bloggers don't enjoy the same protection as traditional journalists in keeping the identities of their sources confidential.

How massive is Jobs' bungle? Well, consider that Apple is now one of the few entities to unite both conservative and liberal commentators in this country. Both sides are now taking hard shots at the company.

Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin calls out Apple at her blog, suggesting the company might have thought it simply picked an easy target:

Obviously, Apple's lawyers would not be making this particular argument if O'Grady were a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle or Los Angeles Times.

Dan Gillmor is somewhat more liberal in his politics than Malkin. Gillmor recently left his job as a technology reporter at the San Jose Mercury News to found Grassroots Media, and in commenting on the Apple vs. The Blogosphere case put it this way:

Apple Computer's disgusting attack on three online journalism sites, in a witch hunt to find out who (if anyone) inside the company leaked information about allegedly upcoming products, has taken a nasty turn. Too bad it's not surprising--and journalists of all kinds should be paying attention.

A judge in California has decided that the sites don't qualify as "journalism" under state law and/or the First Amendment. By his bizarre and dangerous standard, I apparently stopped being a journalist the day I left my newspaper job after a quarter century of writing for newspapers.

The federal courts have had a way of coming down on the side of free speech, so First Amendment purists don't have a huge reason to worry just yet. The lower court judge in the case, it seems, is utterly clueless in understanding the history of blogs and their new role as part of the collective media today. (See Rather, Dan.)

But Apple shouldn't be clueless. Jobs certainly shouldn't be. The company has a rich tradition of being either inept or hostile in dealing with the mainstream media (remember the Michael Spindler days?). But Apple has managed to overcome that primarily because it has been so smart and savvy in dealing with its partners and customers.

The Blogosphere is now both the media and Apple's partner and customer base. A kid in Amarillo, Texas, with a defective iPod, a bad customer-service experience and a Blogspot account becomes Apple's worst nightmare. A blogger with friends who know Apple's product road map becomes an investigative reporter.

Knowing this, if Apple executives were smart, not only would they not fight these bloggers, they would actively leak tidbits to bloggers to create the kind of viral, upbeat buzz that blogs can create.

Let's just say for the sake of argument that Apple wins this lawsuit and gets a couple of bloggers thrown in jail for contempt. Well, there are 7,639,871 blogs according to Technorati.com (as of Sunday night), and they can take a good, hard look at Apple and Steve Jobs, as well as the quality of Apple's products, the company's finances and its corporate ethics. And they can tell the world what they find and keep on going, day after day after day.

But more importantly, for Apple's balance sheet, there are millions more customers who have liked Apple because it wasn't a company with a reputation for bullying behavior, as other companies have been. Now if Apple pursues this legal action any further, it can kiss that market advantage goodbye.

One way or another, Jobs and Apple will learn two lessons:
Never pick fights with people who can buy 100101110s and 0110110110s by the barrel, and never pick fights with your loyal customers and partners.