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The recent appearance of a Masked Blogger claiming to be an Apple employee posting anonymously has turned the conversation to the topic of corporate blogging and Apple’s culture of secrecy. Prominent blogger Robert Scoble bemoans the necessity of such shady posting practices.
Here’s a question for Apple’s PR: what happens when only anonymous employees can blog? Hint: your PR will be controlled by anonymous people! […] I wouldn’t work someplace that didn’t let every employee blog, and blog openly. But that’s just me.
For those that don’t know, Scoble used to be Microsoft’s pet blogger/evangelist. He wrote about Microsoft from the perspective of an insider, and if you asked him I’m sure he’d say that Microsoft benefitted greatly from his services.
Today, many Microsoft employees have blogs, as do most big products and technologies. While not revealing any corporate secrets, the writers do appear to be open and honest. There’s also Channel 9 which distributes videos of Microsoft employees talking about their work.
Sun is another company with a significant online community presence. Most major technologies have their own community web sites, forums, and mailing lists. Sun employees are encouraged to blog about their work. Even the CEO himself has a blog, which he actually uses to discuss substantive topics.
What’s Apple got? Well, there’s PR fluff like “Steve’s” .Mac home page. There are a bunch of very narrowly focused, developer-oriented mailing lists in which some Apple employees participate in their spare time. Then there are the various black holes for customers to shout into. Finally, there’s the somewhat neglected Apple discussion forum which, while lacking any real Apple presence, is at least a form of public community hosted by Apple.
Sun and Microsoft are clearly embracing the net as a tool for decentralized communication with the public. They’re both "joining the conversation," to use the well-worn phrase. Apple, to put it bluntly, is not.
Oh, sure, there are Apple employees who blog, and even a few who blog about work-related topics. But they all tread a very fine line, and it shows in their cautious writing. For all its flower-child, free-love marketing, Apple firmly believes in Central Planning when it comes to its “conversation” with the public.
To the Scobles and Schwartzs of the world, the Soviet imagery is apt. Apple is the bad guy here, trying to control all information leaving the company and micro-managing every aspect of its image. This, in the face of a customer base that has grown to expect a more egalitarian relationship. Apple, once the antithesis of the stodgy suit-and-tie corporation, now finds itself in the Big Brother role it once raged against.
But is this new blog-based corporate Glasnost really beneficial to those that practice it? There’s a case to be made that it’s a misappropriation of resources to, say, have your CEO spend part of his time blogging. And in the specific cases of Microsoft and Sun, it’s hard not to look at this newfound openness as an act of desperation by two companies with poor public images. By going blog-bananas, Microsoft seems to be trying to say, “We are not evil!” Sun’s message is more along the lines of, “We are not irrelevant!” and also “We’re actually doing some really cool things here!”
In both cases, I think the efforts, desperate or not, have been at least partially successful. I have a paralyzing disinterest in almost all things Microsoft, and yet I have watched and enjoyed several Channel 9 videos. I also read a few Microsoft blogs. As a geek, it’s hard not to enjoy watching another geek talk about a technical topic that he’s clearly excited about. Regardless of what you might think of Microsoft as a corporation, the individual employees come across as smart and enthusiastic. And that’s really the point, isn’t it? It’s about overcoming bias against the group through a more personal form of communication.
In the case of Sun, I was already excited about most of their recent technologies long before their blogging effort began in earnest. But I know plenty of other people who would not have heard of Niagara or ZFS if not for word-of-blog spread by Sun’s own employees. Press releases just don’t travel the same way that an animated post on an engineer’s personal blog does. "ZFS: the last word in file systems" may be a catchy title for a buzzword-compliant marketing page, but it’s got nothing on a blog post entitled, "128-bit storage: are you high?"
Still, Sun and Microsoft are not Apple. Where Microsoft is seen as an evil overload, Apple is the plucky underdog. And while Sun labors in relative obscurity, Apple is among the most well-known brands in the industry. A comment to Scoble’s post summed up the dilemma.
I don’t see Apple suffering greatly by not cultivating blogging. What problem is Apple having that needs to be solved by blogging?
That’s the essential question here. Sure, dedicated Apple followers would love to read a Schwartz-style blog written by Steve Jobs, but how would that benefit Apple? The same goes for blogs written by engineers and other rank-and-file employees. Who would bother to read those except people who are already hardcore Apple fans? Wouldn’t Apple’s embrace of “blog culture” simply be a form of fan service?
Furthermore, there are obvious risks to a more open culture. A high-volume blogging effort would be impossible to properly vet. A few accidentally revealed secrets are inevitable. And even ignoring straight leaks, it’s hard to discuss much without at least hinting at future technological or business directions. It’d be a big change for a company that has cultivated the "one more thing…" publicity model to great success. What would be worth giving that up?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan, and I would love the, er, “service” of a more open blogging culture at Apple. An Apple equivalent of Channel 9 would be insanely popular among certain people. (If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably one of them.) But it all still comes back to the same question: what’s in it for Apple?
Well, let me tell you. A more open communications culture would benefit Apple not by allowing customers to learn more about the company, but by allowing the company to learn from the customers.
I know this is a standard part of the “joining the conversation” philosophy, so it’s not some big revelation. But when it comes to Apple, people seem to forget the “other half” of openness. Maybe it’s because Apple is already perceived as a company that’s in touch with its customers, down with what’s cool, and all that touchy-feely stuff. But is it really?
Let’s look at just one example from recent Apple history. In May of 2006, Apple’s newly released MacBook Pro laptops appeared to be running a bit hot. It didn’t take long for intrepid hardware hackers to crack open the case and discover an excessive amount of thermal paste on the various hot bits. Further inquiry revealed that Apple’s service manual for the MacBook Pro contained instructions to apply comical amounts of thermal paste when repairing said hot bits.
If you’re reading this blog, chances are good that you read about the thermal paste thing pretty much as soon as it appeared on the net. Like most Apple fans, you probably just assumed that Apple itself already knew about it by the time you read it, either because it was already a known issue or because the folks at Apple read the same Mac websites that you did.
But is that a safe assumption? The day after the thermal paste story broke on web, if you were to ask the person in charge of MacBook Pro manufacturing at Apple if he knew anything about excessive thermal paste application during the manufacturing process, what would he have said? What if you were to ask the person in charge of the creation of Apple hardware service manuals the same question? What if you were to wait a week instead of a day? What if you were to ask Steve Jobs himself?
I have no doubt that many hundreds of low-level Apple employees read the thermal paste stories at the same time the rest of us did. But I have my doubts that this issue appeared on the radar of upper management at Apple—the people who actually have the power to fix problems like this—in a timely matter. More importantly, I have serious doubts that it was given the weight it deserved.
Okay, maybe vice presidents and CEOs can’t be expected to know anything about correct thermal paste application. To them, it probably just seemed like one more of those little issues that always appear when manufacturing is ramping up on a new model. They’d say to a subordinate, “Give me the bottom line. Is this a safety issue? Does this warrant a recall? If not, then just fix it going forward and we’ll deal with the existing machines on a case-by-case basis as a customer support issue.”
That’s reasonable, right? Upper management can’t get buried in every little thing that comes up. They have to be decisive and allocate their time and energy efficiently. So what’s the problem? And more importantly, how could an more open culture at Apple have helped solve it?
The thermal paste thing really wasn’t that big a deal from a technical perspective. The problem was that it was embarrassing. Every twelve year-old kid who has ever added an after-market heatsink to his PC knows how to apply thermal paste. Every hardware hacker in the world recoiled in horror at the sight of Apple’s service manual illustrations. This is not deep technical knowledge. This is PC Hobbyist 101.
If it was just a manufacturing screw-up, maybe people could have reconciled it. Distant factories in the far-east making a mistake on the first batch of MacBook Pros—fine, these things happen. But it was in the service manual too, in both text and photographic form. The mind reels. “It must not have just been an oversight. Maybe Apple doesn’t know how to do it correctly! If this is happening over at Apple, how can we trust anything that comes out of their hardware division?” It was just too much to bear.
This reaction is entirely out of proportion to the technological severity of the thermal paste problem. But it’s also a real, honest reaction, and it’s this reality that an isolated Apple misses entirely. Without an open channel to the larger community, there’s no way for Apple to differentiate between the minor issues that few people are even aware of and the minor issues that are in the process of snowballing into a giant shitstorm on the web.
You and I see it in real time, like a car crash in slow motion. We see it happening, and wonder what the hell Apple is thinking as days turn into weeks and its only reaction is to send cease and desist notices to the web sites that published the horrifying thermal paste application photos from Apple’s (proprietary, naturally) service manuals.
The addition of just one high-profile, officially sanctioned Apple blogger who has the ear of Steve Jobs could prevent this kind of thing from happening. On day one of the thermal paste story, the “AppleScoble” would already know enough to tell Jobs, “Hey, this one is a mess. We need to look into this right now, then I need to blog about it before things start to get out of hand.” All that’s required is the will to create such a position at Apple, and the ability of the person filling it to trust the wisdom of community.
It’s true, dealing with “enthusiasts” is often a thankless and tiring job for a corporation. But turning a deaf ear to them is deadly. Apple’s got one of the most energetic, enthusiastic, and yes, opinionated bases of hardcore customers of any technology corporation. Most of the time, this community is screaming in near-unison about a handful of troubling issues. Apple just needs to do two things: 1. Listen, and 2. Respond.
As other technology companies open up to the online community, Apple’s isolationist stance will appear in increasingly stark contrast. Although Apple still enjoys a favorable image among consumers, images can change; just ask Microsoft. This conversation is happening with or without Apple’s participation. Apple would be wise to join it.
This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.