How Leander Kahney Got Everything Wrong by Being an Irredeemable Jackass

A decade ago, Wired was my favorite magazine. Today, they print mind-numbing tripe like Leander Kahney’s 3,500-word cover story, “How Apple Got Everything Right by Doing Everything Wrong”. Kahney’s central premise, insofar as there is a premise, is that Apple has succeeded either despite or because it operates in ways that are contrary to conventional wisdom.

Kahney writes:

Everybody is familiar with Google’s famous catchphrase, “Don’t be evil.” It has become a shorthand mission statement for Silicon Valley, encompassing a variety of ideals that — proponents say — are good for business and good for the world: Embrace open platforms. Trust decisions to the wisdom of crowds. Treat your employees like gods.

What do any of these things have to do with “evil”? Who, prior to Leander Kahney here in this piece, has decided that this is what Google means by not being evil? These three things may well be apt descriptions of Google’s corporate strategies (although it’s debatable), but they’re unrelated to Google’s “Don’t be evil” mantra. Mediocre employee cafeterias are evil?

It’s ironic, then, that one of the Valley’s most successful companies ignored all of these tenets.

It’s particularly ironic given that Apple had been in business for two decades prior to Google’s existence.

Google and Apple may have a friendly relationship — Google CEO Eric Schmidt sits on Apple’s board, after all — but by Google’s definition, Apple is irredeemably evil, behaving more like an old-fashioned industrial titan than a different-thinking business of the future.

“Irredeemably evil”. Because they’re secretive and develop closed platforms. Think about that.

What’s more, Google’s engineers have unprecedented autonomy; they choose which projects they work on and whom they work with. And they are encouraged to allot 20 percent of their work week to pursuing their own software ideas. The result? Products like Gmail and Google News, which began as personal endeavors.

So Google employees just stroll into the office and work on whatever they want. Uh-huh. And there certainly aren’t any projects from Apple that started as side-projects by one inspired engineer. Nothing like, say, iMovie ’08.

Jobs, by contrast, is a notorious micromanager. No product escapes Cupertino without meeting Jobs’ exacting standards, which are said to cover such esoteric details as the number of screws on the bottom of a laptop and the curve of a monitor’s corners.

There’s certainly no one at Google who sweats the details and approves every change, no matter how minor, to the home page. No one like, say, Marissa Mayer.

Kahney’s point seems to be that it’s somehow surprising that Apple has succeeded despite being different from Google, and but also that Google is somehow representative of a typical Silicon Valley company. It is not. Google and Apple are both unusual companies — and in many ways, particularly the specific ways Kahney claims they’re so very different, they’re actually alike.

With regard to open platforms, neither Google nor Apple are dogmatic either way. So, yes, it’s true that Apple’s strategy is not to be open by default out of the belief that “openness” is inherently good or inherently leads to success. But nor is it to be closed by default, either. Apple simply tries to do what’s best for Apple. In some cases that is closed (Mac OS X, iPhone OS), and in others it is open (WebKit, Darwin, CalDAV). The same goes for Google. They are a huge contributor and proponent of open source software, but last I checked, they haven’t released the source code for Gmail or their algorithms for web search and ad relevance.

Apple’s WebKit is the perfect example: open source code implementing open web standards, and freely available to serve as the built-in web rendering engine for numerous mobile platforms that compete directly against the iPhone — including Google’s Android.

The whole contrast-with-Google angle makes no sense, holds up to no scrutiny, and serves no purpose other than to reach the punchy conclusion that Apple is “irredeemably evil”. By Kahney’s logic, any company that is different from Google — and clearly most companies are far more different from Google than Apple is — is evil. I can’t tell if Kahney is being willfully obtuse or is simply a shithead.1

The simple, obvious truth is that both Apple and Google have atypical strategies and cultures, and both companies have achieved atypical results. Imagine that.

Here’s Kahney’s analysis regarding Apple’s lack of internal openness:

Apple’s secrecy may not seem out of place in Silicon Valley, land of the nondisclosure agreement, where algorithms are protected with the same zeal as missile launch codes. But in recent years, the tech industry has come to embrace candor. Microsoft — once the epitome of the faceless megalith — has softened its public image by encouraging employees to create no-holds-barred blogs, which share details of upcoming projects and even criticize the company.

Facelessness is not secrecy. Microsoft has never been all that secretive as a company. In fact, they’re (in)famous for the opposite — leaking product details far in advance for competitive advantage. As for Google’s complete and utter lack of secrecy, ask them to tell you the details of their data centers.

Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz has used his widely read blog to announce layoffs, explain strategy, and defend acquisitions.

What with Sun’s stock price losing 97 percent of its value over the last seven years, it’s hard to believe any company wouldn’t model themselves after Sun. Layoffs are fun when the CEO blogs about them.

Apple’s relationship with the press is dismissive at best, adversarial at worst; Jobs himself speaks only to a handpicked batch of reporters, and only when he deems it necessary. (He declined to talk to Wired for this article.)

What kind of secretive crackpot wouldn’t want to speak to a writer working on a piece that labels your company “irredeemably evil” and whose best-known work is a book that literally brands your customers as cultists? What a jerk.

Forget corporate blogs — Apple doesn’t seem to like anyone blogging about the company.

Guess we’ll have to take Kahney’s word for that.

And Apple appears to revel in obfuscation. For years, Jobs dismissed the idea of adding video capability to the iPod. “We want it to make toast,” he quipped sarcastically at a 2004 press conference. “We’re toying with refrigeration, too.” A year later, he unveiled the fifth-generation iPod, complete with video.

The gall of the man, refusing to lay bare Apple’s competitive plans in public a year in advance. There’s an old poker adage: Look around the table, and if you can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you. One gets the feeling that if you see Leander Kahney at your table, you can stop looking.

Here’s the best part of the piece though:

Secrecy has also served Apple’s marketing efforts well, building up feverish anticipation for every announcement. In the weeks before Macworld Expo, Apple’s annual trade show, the tech media is filled with predictions about what product Jobs will unveil in his keynote address. Consumer-tech Web sites liveblog the speech as it happens, generating their biggest traffic of the year. And the next day, practically every media outlet covers the announcements. Harvard business professor David Yoffie has said that the introduction of the iPhone resulted in headlines worth $400 million in advertising.

What makes this so great is that just seven paragraphs prior, Kahney retraces the saga of Apple vs. Think Secret publisher Nick Ciarelli2 thusly:

Most companies would pay millions of dollars for that kind of attention — an army of fans so eager to buy your stuff that they can’t wait for official announcements to learn about the newest products. But not Apple. Over the course of his run, Ciarelli received dozens of cease-and-desist letters from the object of his affection, charging him with everything from copyright infringement to disclosing trade secrets. In January 2005, Apple filed a lawsuit against Ciarelli, accusing him of illegally soliciting trade secrets from its employees.

One can argue (as I would) that Apple’s product secrecy is worth tens of millions of dollars in publicity every year. Or, one can argue that Apple spitefully pissed away even more valuable publicity by shutting down Think Secret. (You’d be wrong, but you can reasonably argue that.) But Kahney, in the course of seven paragraphs in a single article, argues both.

It boggles the mind. Kahney’s own source claims the secrecy surrounding the iPhone introduction alone was worth $400 million in publicity. Even if that’s off by an entire order of magnitude, that’s a lot of dough. And yet in the very same article Kahney presents it as a mystery for the ages why Apple would take an adversarial position against Think Secret, a for-profit enterprise dedicated to spoiling exactly that sort of surprise product introduction.

So this is the sort of logic, research, and insight that passes for a Wired cover story today. Does anyone at Wired even read this shit before publishing it?

  1. My money’s on shithead. ↩︎

  2. As part of the can you believe what these heartless bastards did to this poor kid setup, Kahney writes, “At heart, though, Think Secret wasn’t a financial enterprise but a personal obsession.” I wonder if Ciarelli tried that line on the IRS. ↩︎