You had to have your web browser on speed dial to keep up with Apple news in the past week: Contradicting and quite controversial reports made headlines, surprising with crashing iTunes sales and alleging that Apple owners are 55 years old, on average. Apple saw little need to refute any of the claims and there is a simple reason: Apple does not care - and doesn't have to.
A few days ago, a series of events got me thinking about how well Apple controls what we see of them and how little of what we see is actually real. Kind of like a scene in the Wizard of Oz: Like the guy behind the curtain, the real Apple is never visible.
The first major event was a Forrester Research study claiming that iTunes sales are dwindling. Quite surprisingly, another study surfaced almost immediately, which took the opposite view, resulting in an emotional discussion which study is closer to reality. The Forrester team responsible for the iTunes report specializes in consumer products; the counter study was from Comscore, which specializes in studies that typically take a long time to set up and aim to support companies in sales efforts. In other words, Comscore isn't really a numbers house like this specific division of Forrester. It's a different kind of research company and one that is typically closely tied to vendor-sponsored studies.
But there is more: Earlier, another numbers oriented firm, Meta Facts, released a study that claimed that the average Apple user is 55 years old, which somewhat makes Apple your grandfather's computer company. A bunch of analysts popped up and disagreed, but no research was apparently on hand to prove the study wrong. Apple's own opinion is that the age report is wrong - and this view is based on who they see standing in stores. Again, there was no actual contradictory independent research on the average age of those that buy Apple computers available.
Could you imagine any other company, besides Google perhaps, that would answer to these dramatic headlines with a similar lack of enthusiasm?
With that in mind, what do those studies mean? Are they practically worthless, as Apple's reaction might suggest. Or is there something else? Technically, if we saw this behavior from Microsoft, we'd be jumping up and down screaming foul because both of the challenged studies, the first on iTunes declines and the second on their aging base, appear to be actually independent papers while the challenging information from Comscore either appear to be Apple funded or may be seriously lacking facts.
But, remember, we aren't talking about Microsoft. We are talking about Apple's "reality distortion field".
Studies in perspective
To be clear, if iTunes sales saw an earth-shattering sales drop, I doubt it would be material, as Apple sells iTunes stuff for a near break even price. But a sales drop would be consistent with other work that indicated on-line music sales weren't going particularly well and there could be an indication Apple's grip on its existing installed base might weaken. This could increase the potential of a market shift, but Apple still has a proprietary hardware interface that connects to peripherals and cars, which could turn out to be just as strong. In any case, for a decline in sales to make sense, we would need a strong competitor: Zune didn't make that cut, but Sandisk might be taking some advantage of this.
Unlike a lot of studies that measure installed bases, the second study didn't appear to be funded by anyone and while the study could be in error (which clearly isn't good) at least it wasn't intentionally misleading either.
If Apple customers are 55 years and older on average, that would be consistent with what has been happening in my industry for a long time: Giving our parents Apple machines because we don't want to support the darned things for the rest of our lives. One of my peers actually has this built into her stump speech: Apple computers, because they are so easy to use, are actually better for older folks.
In the end, other than being interesting, I'm not sure either statistic actually means that much but, Apple's response, which was beautifully executed, got me thinking about how well they control our view of them.
Apple virtual reality
This artificial view goes well beyond studies, it is brilliantly crafted through marketing, PR and events. Even the top executive is a guy named Steve Jobs who plays a character named Steve Jobs that was created by their agency.
IBM does this as well, but not as completely and not as expertly (in fact, I think IBM's skills in this regard have been declining ever since Louis Gerstner left). Microsoft, on the other hand, doesn't control its image well at all. Sometimes, you can hear people calling Microsoft "evil empire" and it appears to be the most common thing on earth. But you typically don't hear terms with a negative connotation describing Apple - justified or not.
If you look at the current Apple campaign, PC and Mac, Apple is positioning the PC as the boring, nerdy, nearly crippled product, while the Mac is a new, trendy, and very likable friend. Now think back, when was the last time you saw Microsoft create any image around Windows whatsoever? You may recall that Microsoft did put dinosaur heads on actors and used them to make fun of folks that didn't keep office up to date (making fun of customers is on the list of really foolish things to do).
Microsoft's image is largely created and maintained by competitors, Sun in particular used to be an expert at this, although Sun managed to mess up their own image in the process as well. Apple does it much more elegantly and their image remains intact.
But it isn't just Apple, Steve Jobs himself is a construct of their agency this is one of the reasons Apple tried very hard to stop "iCon the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business". In fact they not only barred the book from Apple stores they barred the publisher (who also does the "Idiots" series). Of course, that just meant I had to buy it, I'm funny that way, and, in this case I actually read it. By the way, this reaction of Apple actually backfired and the book went into a second printing as a result of Apple's actions suggesting even they aren't perfect. But the effort to maintain the artificial image of their CEO is a critical part of their efforts. And, as you can imagine, this image is vastly different inside the company than it is on the outside.
Of course, we also remember they went after their own fan sites to prevent them from prematurely talking about unannounced products and, as a result, these blogs now have the same protection as the New York Times. OK, maybe Apple really screws up sometimes, but it showcases how rabid they are about controlling things.
In addition, Apple is surrounded by an enviable fan base, which tends to support, almost blindly, everything the company does. Many companies would probably kill for that kind of loyalty; on the other hand, the more militant aspects of that fan base may actually be more of a barrier to Apple's return to some market segments. Still, it creates a solid and visible penalty for anyone who speaks of Apple badly and does a decent job of keeping negative coverage on the company to a minimum.
What it means
On one level this means that Apple Marketing is executing on a level that few companies in any industry achieve. On another, it also means that Apple has unprecedented power to cover certain things up. We've seen what that can do to companies and executives in the past. Remember that Apple too has backdated options but, so far with little or no impact.
It means that, particularly with Apple, you shouldn't take things at face value. Instead, take a moment to see if there is anything you may not be recognizing at first sight and that could be important to you. Some companies have glaring faults; Apple's require a little digging.
By the way, one of the ways to maintain an image like this is to create a reality that meets it, and Apple typically does a good job of that. But, from time to time, it may be wise to look behind the curtain and we need to make sure the great and powerful OZ is there and not the Wicked Witch of the West.
Like the horse said to the pig, "if you let someone lead you by the nose to dinner, don't be surprised if it is you who is on the menu".