Apple loses its cool

Once the underdog cult darling battling the evil empire, Apple is fighting an image problem — and critics, who say it’s betrayed the digital revolution
By WEN STEPHENSON  |  May 14, 2010

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Sheez, they’re getting awfully touchy out in Cupertino.

Last week, when Ellen Degeneres aired an innocent spoof of an iPhone ad on her talk show — in which she fumbled around on its touch keypad (“my fingers are so much thicker than I remember . . .”) — the all-seeing Apple eye was watching. And it didn’t like what it saw. Next day, having heard from the company, Ellen was apologizing on the air for making the iPhone look — imagine this — “hard to use.”

You might think Apple would’ve been in a more magnanimous mood, having just announced the sale of its one millionth iPad. But the Silicon Valley–based behemoth had reasons to be on edge: news was leaking of a possible antitrust investigation into Apple’s agreement with app developers — apparently aimed at shutting out Adobe’s Flash and other third-party programs from its App Store — prompting unhappy comparisons to Microsoft in its bad-old monopolistic heyday.

And that was only the latest in a torrent of unflattering Apple stories. These days, Steve Jobs — whose company has a market cap, at around $215 billion, rivaling Redmond’s — wears the black hat. His App Store censored political cartoonist Mark Fiore, rejecting his iPhone app because it “ridicules public figures” (though all was forgiven after Fiore went and won a Pulitzer, and Jobs personally admitted Apple’s “mistake”). Bloggers refer to Apple’s “Gestapo” tactics in tracking down a famously lost-and-found iPhone prototype — showing up at the home of the guy who discovered it and calling the cops to break down Gizmodo editor Jason Chen’s door (after he wrote about it), seizing his computers. Even New York Times media columnist David Carr has gone from fanboy to scold, calling out the company’s “churlishness” toward Adobe and comparing it to the Church of Scientology, “another nongovernmental organization preoccupied by secrecy.”

Jon Stewart nailed it. He caught the rising anti-Apple wave with a now classic April 28 takedown. “Apple, you guys were the rebels, man, the underdogs!” Stewart cried, an ominously darkened Apple logo — and the word “Appholes” — looming behind him. “Remember back in 1984, you had those awesome ads about overthrowing Big Brother? Well, look in the mirror, man! . . . It wasn’t supposed to be this way! Microsoft was supposed to be the evil one. But now you guys are busting down doors in Palo Alto while Commandant Gates is ridding the world of mosquitoes!”

No, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. And you don’t have to look as far back as 1984 to recall groovier times in the media’s affair with Apple. April 3 — last month — will do. That’s when the iPad launched and Jobs was supposed to be the good guy, riding in to rescue dying newspapers, magazines, and book publishers with his shiny new miracle machine, his “Jesus tablet.” Quoting an “Apple insider” in the New Yorker’s April 26 issue, Ken Auletta reported that “Jobs was pleased with his advocacy of publishers: ‘He feels like he’s their champion.’ For the moment, Jobs is the publishers’ best ally.”

But in the weeks since the iPad launch, things have gotten way more complicated. And depending on what you read and where you read it, you might come away with vastly different ideas of what’s at stake in the Apple story.

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