What it must be like to not have to ask questions

15 August 2007

Wow, what it must be like to be telepathic. To reach into another's mind and pull out the answers you want without having to ask them first. This marvellous gift gives the owner the ability to declare people jackasses for asking questions, such as poor old Bob Keefe of Cox Newspapers who wanted to know why Apple has not gone in for Intel's cashback scheme: the market-development programme better known as the Intel Inside campaign.

Keefe explained how Apple PR told him his best chance of getting the question answered was to use the Q&A at the most recent press launch. That meant, he could conceivably get an answer from Steve Jobs rather than some non-answer from the PR department. This, apparently, was a sin. To ask the mighty Jobs such an inane question when everybody, simply everybody just knows the answer.

As Charles Arthur and Bobbie Johnson have already pointed out: there is no such thing as a daft question in a press conference. Anything goes. That is because, as Johnson explains, all that matters is the answer. In fact, repeated answers to repeated questions are good: because those answers can change and a compare and contrast can often provide a way of getting to the real answer. Furthermore, Keefe had a story on the go about the Intel Inside programme and its declining popularity among computer makers. Apple was the highest-profile holdout against a programme that provides those hardware makers with a way of improving their margins.

Some of the commentators then did a revision, claiming that they too would like to know why Apple turned down the free money. But they could not let Keefe off the hook: that would mean doing something like apologising. So, instead they claimed that he asked the wrong question on the right subject. That he should have asked about the money, and not mention the Intel Inside stickers.

I assume that Keefe actually wanted an answer. You don't have to do many business-oriented reports to work out that senior executives love nothing more than a question on which they can use the commercial-confidentiality card. I would imagine that Jobs would instantly take the opportunity to say that the company does not discuss things such as margins or contracts with other companies. However, I wouldn't pillory someone for asking a question like that because you never know what the answer will be. He really might just turn around and say: "We considered the 3 per cent lift it would give our margins, but did not consider that sufficient to offset the dilution of our brand". Like most people, I like questions that are likely to get some sort of answer rather than "No comment, next question".

The other problem with the attitude taken by John C Welch, Christopher Brennan, Dan Moren and others - all writers for specialist Mac magazines or newsletters - is that they typed out screeds on how stupid it is to ask about stickers, saying it's obvious why Apple doesn't want stickers on its machines without even considering what the potential answers would be. Welch managed two long blog posts on it: which seems excessive for a supposedly time-wasting question. But, I guess that when you have a blog called "Schadenfreude is my life", you need to be able to make as much use of those moments as you can.

Yes, Keefe mentioned stickers but in a "such as" clause of the main question which was about Intel Inside. The answer that came from Jobs and Phil Schiller focused on stickers but I believe (and it is only a belief as I have no evidence for this) they did so because it provides a feasible and convenient explanation of Apple's position. Most people seemed to accept it.

But the stickers on machines are a comparatively small part of that programme: it mainly focuses on advertising. I dare say that Intel likes them to be on machines but the few contracts that have leaked to the outside world show how much the programme is about what goes into the advertising. The most complete, albeit very old, example is the contract between Intel and Intergraph. There is no mention of having the processors placed on computers; only that the logo is used in advertising and promotional material. As I recall, the machine stickers came later and I imagine they carry a bounty of their own. But, I doubt very much that Intel would mess up the chance of getting Apple to join the Intel Inside campaign by telling Jobs he had to have them stuck on his machines. Not when it is the advertising that is worth so much more to Intel.

For the moment, we can only speculate that Jobs considered the problems of having the jingle play on Apple ads and decided that it would not work. It could confuse the consumers it now cultivates with imagery and sounds they associate with PCs. It might simply be a consideration of aesthetics. However, as one of the few computer makers with a demonstrable understanding of branding and one that poked Intel in the eye with its first ads for x86-based Macs, Apple did not want its image tarnished too much by things that are associated with bog-standard PCs. I'd be interested to know the actual reasoning, however. So, I'd like people to keep on at this one if only to satisfy my curiosity.

I don't think I'm alone. Alfredo Octavio asks some of the so far unanswered questions:

"Furthermore, we all have the suspicion that Apple deal with Intel is different from the deal Intel makes with a similar sized manufacturer. Now, what does that entails? Is Apple getting a deal close to the one Dell or HP has without having the size? Is part of the deal getting the money without having to put the stickers?"

I can think of a number of people who really want to know the answers to those. It's unlikely that they will come from the mouth of Steve Jobs but that doesn't mean people should stop trying.

As a sidenote, Apple has actually conspired with people who want to "booger up their computers with stickers" for close to the last 30 years. The G4 Powerbook I bought secondhand a few years ago had one stuck to the bottom and I'm pretty sure there was a sheet of stickers with the last new one I bought. Sticker-adorned Macs seem particularly prevalent in the Valley based on my entirely unscientific survey of users on the Caltrain versus other trains. Indeed, Jobs said he likes Apple's stickers better than Intel's. So, the idea that Apple wouldn't let stickers near its computers is not just asinine, it's wrong. The only difference is that you have to stick them on yourself if you want them rather than having a Chinese assembly worker do it for you. OK, they tend to go on PCs and cars rather than Macs, but none of the commentators who rounded on Keefe mentioned that Apple has consistently shipped stickers with its computers. No, that's too inconvenient when you are trying to browbeat people with your constructed reality of a company that considers stickers fugly.


All this over stickers? My laptop has a sticker on it that says AMD, and after reading the case files from AMD, I proudly "wear" their sticker on my laptop; however, I don't like any of the stickers on my laptop.

What's the big deal? Stickers are nothing but clutter on computers. I have three of them on mine. AMD, NVIDIA and Windows Vista, and I keep forgetting to rip them off, but thanks for the reminder.

So, Apple doesn't want stickers? Maybe I need to switch from my PC to them.

Yes, it is all a bit strange.

One odd thing about the stickers is the way they just sit there. I've got a couple sitting on an old IBM Thinkpad that have more or less rubbed away. I never got around to removing them. But Intel, at least in the early contracts, stipulated that the logo, if used on a computer should not be a permanent fixture. The company made it a demand that customers are able to remove them if they are there when they buy the machine.