If Things Don’t Look Like What They Are

As I expected, the widely reported “”Apple wants to own the word ‘podcast'”:http://www.digg.com/apple/Apple_Wants_to_Own_Podcast_Trademark” story “turned out”:http://daringfireball.net/linked/2006/september#thu-28-mdj_pod to be another example of shortsighted non-journalism. Apple didn’t think it could claim the rights to own the word — which has become a general term — of course. It wanted to prevent others from owning it. And it didn’t want someone else to own the word ‘myPod’ either.

There’s a lesson for Apple here, though, and it goes like this: in a world where people — even media people — filter more and more information every day, only the the most powerful messages will stick.

In my hotel here in Kyoto, I get a newspaper (in English), and I noticed something odd: I can’t read newspapers anymore. This has to do with the fact that it’s got a lot of local Asian news, and not so much that interests me, of course. But I’m quite sure that it also has to do with my RSS reader. Because I really tried, but I couldn’t even get myself to read a column about a French movie. I mean, a French movie!

I filter through more than a hundred RSS feeds every evening, and never spend more than half an hour in my reader. I rapidly pick out the headlines that pique my interest, doubleclick so that the corresponding articles open in a browser window in the background, and filter through the resulting windows during the rest of the night. And even of that small selection, there are few articles I read in their entirety.

So there’s a wide range of headlines I skip through and absorb somewhat, making a “rapid intuitive selection”:http://www.gladwell.com/blink/. However on only a few subjects — Nintendo and Apple being two of them — my knowledge goes deep. If it weren’t for the fact that Apple really interests me, I too would’ve taken the podcast litigation thing for granted. I might have blogged something along the lines of “Apple went nuts”, to which even Daring Fireball John Gruber “fell prey”:http://daringfireball.net/linked/2006/september#fri-22-podcast_ready.

The idea that the iPod made Apple so arrogant that it wants to prevent other companies from using a general term, is very powerful for a lot of people. So once this story came out in the open, it proved to be incredibly sticky indeed.

My point is: companies can no longer expect the consumer to be well-informed. (If they ever could, of course.) The truth might be very reasonable, but that doesn’t matter if things don’t look like what they are.

And so Apple should’ve been the first to react to this story. Perhaps it should have issued a pre-emptive press release. There might be legal reasons why Apple didn’t do this, but still. As the company becomes more ‘marketleader’ and less ‘underdog’, it’s in a vulnerable position, and it should handle its public image with great care. Even when it comes to seemingly small details like what a ‘cease and desist’ letter might look like to the media.