The press corps' romance with all things Apple has taken a coquettish turn. After being criticized for swooning over every shiny new gadget that Steve Jobs announces, reporters are playing hard-to-get this week. In their stories they first scorn the universal hype over the iPhone, then they multiply it by sending a tempered message of love to their favorite new piece of gear.
The best way to locate these semi-conflicted Valentines is to search Google News for the words iPhone and hype. The lede to Ellen Lee's piece in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 26) about the iPhone perfectly pairs disdain for the "hype" with zeal for the product: "The iPhone won't stop global warming. It won't bring peace to the Middle East," she begins. Then, drawing a constellation of hearts in her reporter's notebook, she writes, "But if it lives up to even a portion of the hype, it does have the potential to change how people interact with their cell phones, computers and each other." If the iPhone raises a dial tone, Lee will claim it lived up to its hype.
This week, the ordinarily sensible Farhad Manjoo of Salon acknowledges that "the sane response … is to wish that people would shut up already about the iPhone" before explaining why "people should care despite the hype." The iPhone is important because it could "change the larger phone business," and "you should care about the iPhone even if you aren't buying one" because of the copycat products it will inspire.
USA Today's Leslie Cauley wrote a breathless sidebar for her newspaper's June 21 edition describing the 200 lucky bastards who've spent 10,000 hours torturing the "must-have cellphone of the year." Apple and AT&T justify the rough treatment of the iPhone because in order to be successful "the iPhone must live up to its hype." They dropped it on concrete, hosed it down with water, and even took it where consumers go: "office buildings, subway platforms, stairwells, elevators, crowded bars, sprawling suburban malls and congested city streets." As Merv Griffin used to say on his show, "Oooooo, that's good!"
In the last two days, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times, the New York Sun, Houston Chronicle, the Contra Costa Times, the Marin Independent Journal, the Staten Island Advance,the New York Daily News, the Lansing State Journal, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, USA Today, and the Associated Press have all run stories about iPhone campers massing outside Apple stores in the days and hours before the devices went on sale. The AP story captured Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street sitting in a lawn chair outside an AT&T store, third in line for the iPhone queue.
The sounds of more sucking: Hype-slayer Josh Quittner knocks iPhone reviewers David Pogue ( New York Times) and Ed Baig (USA Today) for potential conflict of interest because both writers have iPhone books coming out. Their books will succeed only if the iPhone succeeds, Quittner's argument runs, so they have a vested interest in the iPhone's success. In his review of Pogue and Baig's iPhone reviews (and the Wall Street Journal's and Newsweek's) Quittner declares:
[W]hat virtually none of our reviews says outright is this: Unless you're rich or have gadget-compulsive disorder, you'd be out of your Steve Jobs-addled, Reality-Distortion-Field-infected mind to buy one of these phones right now. These are strictly Version 1.0—and there's a lot that needs to be improved.
Perhaps no daily has gone crazier for the iPhone in the last eight days than the New York Times, which has devoted about 7,000 words to the topic in six stories.
The Wall Street Journal's Breakingviews.com column indirectly critiqued the squall of coverage by deflating the product's potential market impact. In "iPhone Hazard: Value Gap" (June 28, subscribers only), the columnists find the stock market wildly overreacting to the iPhone's arrival. Apple's market cap has increased by $34 billion since the January announcement of the iPhone, they write. Noting that Apple hopes to sell 10 million of the devices by the end of 2008, they go on to compare the iPhone market to the Nokia cellphone market:
[Nokia] should sell about 550 million phones in the same period. The Finnish group's market cap is $108 billion. So even though it will sell 55 phones for every iPhone, investors think it's only worth three times as much as Apple's fledgling business, taking the $34 billion increase in Apple's market value as a proxy.
Or look at it another way. Apple and Nokia both had operating margins of 13% last year. If Apple sells seven million phones next year of the 10 million it expects to sell by 2009, and earns similar margins, operating profit for the phone business should be somewhere around $350 million. So the phone business is valued at close to 100 times estimated 2008 operating profits. Nokia trades at 10 times. Even if one assumes the iPhone snatches some of Nokia's market share, this gap looks excessive.
So, who is craziest? The doofuses in line, the panting authors of the iPhone news stories, or the recent purchasers of Apple stock?
Fun Nexis fact: When you search the database for "iPhone," it asks if the search term you really wanted is "Ivonne." Search "hype" and it asks if you want to search "hope." Thanks to Josh Benson, John Rivett, Conor Coen, and others for their iPhone suck-up suggestions. Suck-up to me with e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Disclosure: I once worked for Microsoft as a Slate employee. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)