Haunted Empire sticks to its Apple-is-doomed narrative
- 18 March, 2014 13:40
If Yukari Iwatani Kane's Haunted Empire teaches us anything, it's that a dogged newspaper reporter who wants to write a book about Apple needs a narrative hook to hang the story on. In Kane's case it's right there in the title: Apple is an empire that's haunted by its fallen emperor, Steve Jobs, an organisation that just can't make up for his loss and is falling apart right before our eyes.
The book pounds that premise endlessly, wrapping up numerous chapters by describing photos of "the emperor" looking down on his former subjects at Cupertino. No, seriously. Apple's foundation, she writes at one point, is "a cult built around a dead man." When Apple Geniuses knock on your door and offer you literature describing how AppleCare can guarantee eternal life, you'll have to admit she's right.
It's all a shame, because inside Haunted Empire there's some solid reporting, most notably a detailed description of Apple's manufacturing processes in China, based on interviews with Chinese factory workers. Kane's summation of Apple's legal issues in the past few years, both the patent lawsuits and the ebook price-fixing case, is solid (although it's largely a recap of what close Apple watchers already know), as are the biographical sections about the key players at post-Jobs Apple.
But elsewhere the book shows a writer trying too hard to align her book's title and theme - namely that Apple is doomed in every possible way for every possible reason.
The cult of you-know-what
There's plenty of religious imagery from the prologue onwards, indicating that Apple is a cult or a religion that has duped its adherents. Even Apple developers attending the company's developer conference--people whose apps have made several billion dollars and created a whole new segment of the economy--are referred to as fans at best, cult members at worst.
Kane cherry-picks press reactions to Apple events and financial statements that best fit into the Apple-is-doomed narrative. She suggests that too many people buying the low-end iPhone 4s instead of the then-new iPhone 5 in early 2013 was a sign of Apple's failure. But then, within a few paragraphs, she doubles back to suggest that the new iPhone 5s being preferred over the low-end iPhone 5c is an equal--yet opposite--sign of the same failure.
Similarly, Kane suggests that Apple's Maps debacle is symbolic of the company's decline, then that the firing of Scott Forstall (who was responsible for the Maps debacle) was also a mistake. When the story you're trying to tell is one of failure, everything, no matter how contradictory, is fodder.
At one point early on during the book's profile of Apple CEO Tim Cook, there's a labored section in which we learn everything that was ever mentioned about Cook in one of the local newspapers in the small Alabama town where he grew up. I appreciate that Kane or an assistant spent a lot of time digging through newspaper archives and yearbooks and even did an interview with the woman who taught his high-school typing class, but there was no need to show all this work. If any of it is meant to illuminate Tim Cook as a person, it fails.
There's also a very weird moment where Cook is described as being deeply committed to his family because he calls his mother every Sunday. Really? My wife and I both talk to our parents every Sunday. It's not a big deal. Later, Apple Worldwide Product Marketing exec Phil Schiller is portrayed as having "bold tendencies"--in a megalomaniacal sort of way--because he likes hockey and Led Zeppelin and drives a Lamborghini. Okay, I'll give you the Lamborghini, but does Schiller's San Jose Sharks fandom really crack the code on who he is as a person?
The Jobs-Cook dynamic
Once Cook gets to Apple, the book's reporting picks up and we get more of a sense of Cook's personality. But then the narrative theme reasserts itself, and the portrayal of Cook becomes brutal. He yells at underlings, though he generally keeps things at a lower boil than the volatile Jobs. He has "no spark, no fire," is "flat and off key." Jobs was a household name, but "the mention of Tim Cook drew blank stares among ordinary consumers."
Cook's choice of buying a (relatively) small house rather than a mansion is played as if he's a bit of a weirdo, contrasted with Sir Jonathan Ive's lavish Pacific Heights abode. The book doesn't seem to have enough material to plaster Cook as a failure or a villain--but, given its premise, it still tries its best.
If there's something in the book that really made me think in a new way about Apple, it's the portrayal of the Jobs-Cook dynamic. Jobs is portrayed as being furious at the credit Cook got while he was running the company during Jobs's health leave. Jobs is extremely concerned about getting all the credit for everything that has happened at Apple.
But if that's true, if Jobs was in fact obsessed with getting all that credit, doesn't that suggest that perhaps we're overrating Jobs's impact on Apple? It's an interesting idea. But if it's true, it undercuts the book's narrative--so Haunted Empire promptly ignores it.
The book seems to completely misunderstand Jonathan Ive. It re-tells the story of how Ive came to work at Apple and connect with Jobs, and even recounts the circumstances of Ive being knighted. But in order to stick with the Apple-is-bereft-without-Jobs theme, Kane portrays Ive as an out-of-control designer who defends function over form. Jobs, in contrast, is portrayed as fulfilling the vital role of balancing form and functionality.
But if Ive is truly as Kane portrays him, he's not much of a designer, since design is as much about how something works as how it looks.
Sometimes I laughed out loud at the sources Kane uses to show Apple's failings in a clearer light. The chapter on Siri adequately recounts all of the issues with Siri's problematic launch--and then drops the hammer with quotes from Tuesdays With Morrie author Mitch Albom to put it over the top.
Buried in the Siri chapter is a statement that "opinions were split" about whether the Siri launch would've been any different under Jobs. But Kane waves off that notion and makes her opinion clear: The lack of the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field made a bad situation worse. (Apparently the RDF, unlike Jobs, no longer haunts Apple.)
There's not a single thing Apple does in Haunted Empire that's not a sign of doom. When President Obama mentions Apple during the State of the Union address, it's taken (by an anonymously appalled former Apple executive) as a sign that Apple's just not a "subversive upstart" anymore.
Which is it?
So is Apple failing because it's lost Jobs's influence, or because his influence was so horrible (despite Apple's success during his reign) that it extends beyond the grave? Kane wants it both ways. The book (ignorant of the way Jobs used to disparage categories he was about to enter) says Jobs would never have made an iPad mini, but also crows that the iPad mini's release means Apple's executives admitted that Jobs was wrong. It also portrays the iPad mini as a failed product that just couldn't stop Android's inevitable march to dominance in the tablet market. (Is it possible that I got a copy of Haunted Empire that fell through a wormhole from a parallel universe? Anyone who knows that Apple does not play the market-share game is not paying attention.)
One of the best arguments that Apple has lost its way in the absence of Jobs, its lead tastemaker, would be the dramatic visual overhaul introduced by Cook and Ive with iOS 7. But Kane's book was already written by that point, so she's only got a couple of paragraphs about iOS 7 in her epilogue. It's a shame, because a chapter on iOS 7 could've contained one of the stronger arguments in the entire book.
When I first read an excerpt of the book Wall Street Journal, it included a quote from the book that "employees are quitting" Apple, a sign that the party's over. I looked forward to getting more detail on that claim in the actual book. Nope, it's not there. In the epilogue, that's what it says: "employees are quitting." That's the sum of it.
Finally, the book closes with a contrast between a magazine cover featuring Google trying to cure death and a magazine cover with Apple executives defending the company. Apple's story is a cynical "pep talk" to convince investors the sky isn't falling. But Google's PR puffball about dream technologies that might eventually exist? Brilliant. See how bad it's gotten for Apple? Its competitors are inventing immortality while it keeps making money selling phones. It's sad, really.
Apple after the death of Steve Jobs would be a fascinating topic for a book. This isn't the book. Haunted Empire can't get out of the way of its own Apple-is-doomed narrative to tell that story.