The Flock: Another tech podcast


Apple Pet Peeves™

18 January 2019

Apple’s 2019 has been off to a rocky start, but things aren’t all bad, right?

That’s not exactly the narrative the tech press is employing. Save for a precious few thoughtful writers out there, the Internet is mostly a nightmarish jumble of words strung together in the most eye-catching way possible. Absolute doom sells better than nuanced analysis. Pronouncements of disaster are better bait for the Internet’s click-fish than anything else. Sensationalism is a tried and true technique; why should we expect “journalists” to use anything else?

Anyway, a dedicated rant about the nature of Internet news can be saved for a later time. The topic at hand is whether Apple really is fated to some unclear, vaguely outlined demise because of this quarter’s issues.

By now, you know the story: Apple cut its revenue guidance for the first quarter of 2019 by several billion dollars. It’s clear to everyone, Apple included, that iPhone sales have been lower than anticipated; just check out the latest from Ewan Spence and Gordon Kelly to see a few dozen frantic pieces reminding us, production cuts! Nobody denies that Apple has a problem on its hands; the real discussion is about why iPhone sales are missing the mark.

Rather than launch into a long essay on the wider economic issues at play here, I’ll cut to the chase. Comprehensive analysis of Apple’s situation can be found elsewhere; if you care to read it, you probably already have. Instead of repeating the words of more qualified pundits, I’d like to dismiss some invalid analysis that’s being brought in.

Everyone has an Apple Pet Peeve™: the major complaint(s) that get(s) thrown into the arena every time Apple messes up. For some people, it’s the headphone jack’s demise. For others, it’s the notch. For others still, it’s the lack of Touch ID.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having your personal issues with Apple products, and I don’t mean to minimize the annoyance of not having a headphone jack or whatever else. Some of these are actual issues that do need to be addressed. Apple is most certainly not perfect. But it’s important to remember that your personal issues with Apple are personal issues, not necessarily something that has impacted sales.

For years, we’ve watched as jokes of analysts predicted Apple’s impending doom. At the dawn of this year, something bad happened at last! iPhone sales were finally below expectations! The same people who were wrong about Apple for the vast majority of their careers felt vindicated as the toppling of the Apple empire began just as they had foreseen those many moons ago. They were right about the headphone jack, lack of innovation, etc.!

These writers need to slow down and stop flattering themselves. Too many of them are cramming their own vendettas against Apple into a story that’s far more complex than they’re willing to admit. Until proof is offered that iPhone upgrades are down because [insert your Apple Pet Peeve™], you can’t go around implying that [insert your Apple Pet Peeve™] is the cause of Apple’s recent headaches. Sure, maybe Apple made the wrong choice in doing whatever it was that ticked you off. But that doesn’t mean you were right that your problem would become Apple’s problem.

It’s not only the Forbes-level clickbaiters who are guilty here. Even if unintentionally, many observers are falling into the trap of attributing Apple’s latest stumble to whatever they were disappointed with before. They force themselves into a state of tunnel vision that prevents them from understanding — or even trying to understand — what’s actually going on.

Yes, iPhone shipments missed the bullseye by a wide enough margin that Apple issued a rare guidance cut. Yes, something is amiss. No, that doesn’t make these analysts right, because they didn’t just say Apple wouldn’t hit its revenue guidance. They said Apple wasn’t innovative enough, or was user-hostile, or was stupid, or didn’t have enough Steve Jobs DNA, or whatever. That is what hasn’t been proven, even though something is causing Apple problems.

Remember in The LEGO Movie, when Batman threw a few dozen Batarangs at a button to open a security gate, and finally hit the button after so many misses? And then he casually said, “First try!” That’s what these analysts are like. They shouldn’t get their previous losing records wiped clean just because they chucked enough Batarangs that they finally hit a button.

And regardless of whether you think these people deserve some level of respect for finally being “right,” bear in mind that they weren’t entirely right. It’s analogous to predicting the Eagles would win that one game by a landslide when the real reason they won was — of all things — icing the kicker. Maybe you were right about the final outcome, but you would have missed the entire point of the game. It’s easy to say “the Eagles will win” because they always either win or lose (I know ties exist). It’s more of a challenge — and indicative of a true analyst — to see the shades of grey instead of just the black and white.

A lot of tech writers only care to be right about the black and white. They don’t give a rip whether they know the reasons why Apple’s having problems; they just want Apple to have problems. Sure, they claim they know what the deal is, but they don’t.

Worse still, some doom-proclaimers are getting greedy; they’re going even further and saying Apple’s future looks gloomy. This should be expected — of course you’d think the next several quarters would go downhill if you didn’t know why this quarter did.

The last of the smartphone market’s growth is being squeezed out, and Apple isn’t the only one suffering. Apple’s past success has made it a prime target of negative press, but economics is less picky about who can win and lose. Twelve years after the rise of the smartphone, nobody is safe from the danger of plateauing sales and extended upgrade cycles.

We’re approaching the verge of the next big thing, but until then, nobody’s becoming irrelevant. Apple’s future growth will come from future services and future product categories, but it’s not going to disappear into oblivion if pundits’ demands aren’t satisfied. The real problem isn’t that iPhone sales are down; it’s that smartphone sales are down.

Ultimately, pretending that Apple is the only company we need worry about — and that this is conveniently due to problems you have with iPhones — is a great way to mislead yourself and your readers, but it’s not a great way to be right. I suppose your view of this quarter’s portrayal in the press depends on what you think the press’s job is. Should journalism be about accuracy or attractiveness? It’s more accurate to introduce nuance into a polarized conversation, but it attracts more clicks to reject the middle ground and make booming statements about Apple’s hubris and foolishness.

Maybe I’m being idealistic in placing accuracy on so high a pedestal. It is 2019, after all, and clicks are money. But I don’t care. If you claim to be an analyst and are citing bogus reasons why you think Apple’s having trouble lately, you’re not doing your job. If making clicks at facts’ expense is your job, quit. Not to mention Ewan Spence and Gordon Kelly, for whom I have so little respect it’s impossible to hyperbolize my disdain.

Apple Pet Peeves™ are nothing more than anecdotes unless proven otherwise. That’s a truth that doesn’t sell well, but there it is.