Shortly after the debut of the Macintosh 20 years ago, a minority of those of us who loved the architecture and user interface were nevertheless exasperated with boosters who tried to paint the executive staff of Apple Computer Inc. as somehow different from those stiff, button-down types at IBM. Look at Apple's tough licensing procedures, we would wail. Look at the closed bus architecture.
The reality then and now was that Steve Jobs was as ruthless as any capitalist robber baron. A few intelligent analysts, even deep within the Mac camp, saw this over time. Many others refused to acknowledge it and begged for Jobs' return after his ouster in a corporate coup. Admittedly, by the time Michael Spindler sent the company into the doldrums in the early 1990s, it was clear that Jobs brought a magic to Apple that few could replicate.
But with that magic comes the domineering, take-no-prisoners attitude that makes Apple a much harder-nosed company than one might think. While the G series and iMac were still fighting to regain market share, Jobs could play the scrappy contender. But once iPod proved a hit, the old Apple chutzpah was back in none-too-pleasant ways. First, the company tried to halt leaks by filing lawsuits claiming that it could solely determine when a blogger was or was not a journalist. Last week, Apple removed John Wiley & Sons technical books from its stores because Wiley published an unauthorized, albeit balanced, biography of Jobs.
Does Apple have legitimate points to make about bloggers with access to its internal records? Of course. Does it have the right to determine its continuing relationship with Wiley? Undoubtedly. But consumers have the right to tell Mr. Jobs his behavior brings to mind the imperial CEO of the late 1990s, and stop writing him a blank check for coolness.
Admittedly, competitors like Microsoft have made blatant faux pas of late, like the hiring of Christian Coalition veteran Ralph Reed and the related reversal of its position on gay rights. But Microsoft has been discussing these issues openly in the press. Apple will not talk to the press on its positions and seems to accept its boss' unspoken dictum of "my way or the highway." It's up to media and consumers to let Jobs know that the days of CEO as thug are gone for good.
By Loring Wirbel, Communications editorial director for EE Times and its network publications