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Posted on Fri, Mar. 11, 2005

Apple should think differently about blogger suits




Mercury News

An open letter to Steve Jobs, chief executive officer and co-founder of Apple Computer:

Dear Steve,

I urge you to Think Different in your attitude toward Web sites that publish leaked information on Apple's upcoming products.

I'm not going to repeat at length the now-familiar argument that Apple's legal action against three sites -- Apple Insider, PowerPage and ThinkSecret -- to pay damages and reveal confidential sources is wrong from a free-speech perspective.

I strongly believe online journalists, including bloggers, deserve the same First Amendment protections as print and broadcast journalists, but you would hardly expect me to feel any other way.

Instead, I want to make a dollars-and-cents argument for backing down.

The lawsuits pose an imminent threat to Apple's most precious asset: the company's reputation as a hip underdog, a cool alternative to bigger and blander competitors such as Microsoft, Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

You know better than anyone this reputation didn't happen by accident. It was built through a lot of hard work, on innovative products as well as masterful manipulation of Apple's public image.

When you returned to Apple's Cupertino headquarters in 1997 after more than a decade away, one of your first triumphs was overseeing an advertising campaign that made a once-faltering computer company suddenly seem important again.

Think Different, the campaign's tag line, became a kind of manifesto for what Apple would soon accomplish with such breakthrough products as the iMac, the iBook, iTunes and, of course, the phenomenally successful iPod.

The script for the original Think Different television commercials, narrated by actor Richard Dreyfuss, is a kind of poem that still lives on Apple's Web site (www.apple.com/thinkdifferent).

``Here's to the crazy ones,'' the poem says. ``The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.

``They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.

``You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.

``About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things.''

The ads featured iconoclasts such as Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and Amelia Earhart. But the poem also seems to very much describe the new and rebellious breed of proto-journalists known as bloggers.

I'm a grizzled veteran of the old media, and I sometimes cringe at the amateurish and malicious screeds that masquerade as journalism on the Web. But Apple is trying to punish online journalists for accurately reporting information on matters of intense public interest. That's exactly what journalists should do.

Apple, of course, has every right to protect its trade secrets. I have no complaint with Apple taking whatever steps are necessary to investigate leaks, short of demanding journalists hand over the names of confidential sources.

But let's get back to the business issue.

Journalists love nothing more than a David vs. Goliath story, where a small but clever upstart runs rings around a much bigger but lumbering opponent.

Apple has excelled at tapping that instinct, especially in positioning the Macintosh operating system against the behemoth of Windows.

In reality, of course, Apple is far from a small fry. Apple's revenue is likely to exceed $10 billion this year, the company has nearly 12,000 employees, and sits on an enviable cash hoard of $6 billion.

So the story could suddenly flip around, with Apple cast in the role of Goliath against online Davids who only chase after confidential information because they love your company and its products.

There's another old saying in my profession: The mission of journalists is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Apple looks comfortable, even smug, by insisting online publishers such as the 19-year-old Harvard University freshman who runs ThinkSecret should face huge financial liabilities just because it's embarrassing for you to introduce new products at the big Macworld show after details have been revealed in advance online.

You don't want to look hypocritical. You've grabbed the media spotlight with both hands, much to Apple's benefit, so you shouldn't suddenly complain the beam is too bright.

Fortunately for Apple, this story is still largely confined to the blogosphere -- the online realm of bloggers talking to each other -- and publications that closely follow technology.

So it's not too late for you to back down, before the wider world of Apple customers and potential customers begins to see your company as arrogant and overbearing. I recommend you quietly drop the litigation, tighten your internal security to prevent future leaks and move on.

Sincerely,

Mike Langberg


Contact Mike Langberg at mike@langberg.com or (408) 920-5084. Past columns may be read at www.langberg.com.

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