This week the Pew Research Center published one of those studies that ought to be memorialized in the Museum for Obvious Research. After poring over a year's worth of tech-news stories in newspapers, Web sites, TV news shows, and radio stations, Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism has learned that the most-covered technology company in America is … Apple! About 15 percent of stories in the tech press, Pew says, were about Steve Jobs and his shiny gewgaws. Coming in a close second: Google, with 11 percent of coverage.
It's not just that Apple and Google get lots of press mentions—a lot of the coverage, Pew found, dripped with love. About two-thirds of the Apple-related stories in Pew's survey mentioned the superiority of the company's products or its fanatic fan base; only a quarter of the stories portrayed Apple as overhyped and too restrictive in its tech philosophy. Most of the Google-related stories were about the company's innovations, while fewer than 20 percent were about Google's plans to take over the world.
And where, in the Apple-Google fest, were the other tech giants? Almost nowhere. Microsoft, which not long ago was the biggest, most-feared tech company on the planet, accounted for only 3 percent of the coverage that Pew studied. Other tech behemoths—Amazon, IBM, HP, Yahoo, Oracle, Cisco, RIM, and others—didn't even show up in 1 percent of the stories in Pew's sample.
Slate was not among the publications included in the study, but researchers wouldn't have found anything different had they looked in these pages. Since January, I've written 66 articles for Slate. By my count, 17 of them featured Apple prominently, while 15 were about Google—25 percent and 22 percent, respectively. I feel I've offered a balanced look at both firms. I've written positive things about Apple—I raved about the iPad before it was announced, raved some more just after it was announced, and then raved even louder when it went on sale. But I also blasted Apple for its legal maneuvers ("Apple's multitouch lawsuit is both dumb and dangerous"), its effort to squirrel more ads into iPhone apps, the new iPhone's boring design, and the condescending way Steve Jobs handled the phone's antenna flaw (when Jobs didn't offer the apology I'd demanded, I begged him not to "pee on my leg and tell me it's the 'most revolutionary rain storm ever' "). I've been similarly hot and cold about Google—I called Chrome "the best browser on the planet" and went nuts over Gmail's Priority Inbox, but I also criticized Android's user interface and Google's odd strategy of duplicating its own products. Meanwhile, everything I wrote about Microsoft was positive—I hailed the new Hotmail and even defended PowerPoint. Then again, those were the only two articles I've written about Microsoft this year.
My Apple-Google obsession won't come as a surprise to readers, many of whom regularly mob the comments section to lambaste me for being what my Apple-wary Slate colleague Jack Shafer would call an "Apple polisher." Now I'd like to defend myself against that charge. Sure, I write about Apple and Google more than any other companies, but I don't think my coverage—nor the coverage of the tech press in general—is unwarranted. Apple and Google are by far the most interesting and important companies in the industry; indeed, you could argue they're the most innovative companies in the country. I like writing about tech because it gives me the chance to think about how people will create and communicate in five or 10 years' time. Along with Facebook and Twitter (two other firms that I cover frequently), Apple and Google are shaping that future, while rival tech giants—including Microsoft—seem to be living in the past.
Of course, there are many less substantive reasons for why reporters can't shut up about Apple. Shafer's 2005 column "explaining the press corps' crush on Steve Jobs and company" cites several of these factors: Steve Jobs' arresting personality, Apple's underdog image, and the company's fanatic followers (and the people who can't stand them) all make for a great yarn. Steve Jobs "would be great copy if he were only the night manager of a Domino's pizza joint," Shafer wrote. That's true—and we'd get better pizza, too.
In other words, tech reporters like to write about Apple for the same reason that political reporters like to write about Sarah Palin—it surprises us, constantly confounding our expectations. Just as important, it's extremely polarizing. Whatever we write about Apple, we can count on clicks from haters and lovers; you can't say that about any other company in tech.
But there are also more serious reasons for our coverage. Apple's stock-market value surpassed that of Microsoft this year, making it the most valuable technology company in the country—and the second-most-valuable company of any kind, behind Exxon Mobil. Google's market cap ranks at 11th in the nation—an astonishing feat considering that it is just over a decade old.
What accounts for these companies' successes? Surely it's more than marketing prowess. In Apple's case, it's a string of transformational hits over a decade that stands as one of the greatest runs in corporate history. Since 2000, Apple has transformed the music industry with the iPod and iTunes, it shattered the phone business with the iPhone, and now it's threatening to remake the PC industry with the iPad.
Apple critics will disagree that these devices were as revolutionary as the tech press made them out to be—after all, there were many other music players on the market before the iPod, other smartphones before the iPhone, and lots of tablet computers before the iPad. But the best way to judge Apple's power in the market is to look at the actions of its rivals, many of whom follow Steve Jobs more closely than we tech reporters do.
Microsoft put out the Zune as way to compete with the iPod, opened retail stores to rival Apple's locations, and is now remaking its phone platform to take on the iPhone. And Microsoft isn't alone. Before the iPhone was launched, smartphones looked like the BlackBerry—hard keys, small screens. Afterward, the BlackBerry and other phones began to morph into the iPhone—the smartphone market is now dominated by devices with big, multitouch screens that run programs purchased from a centralized app store. The iPad is blazing a similar trail. Look at the BlackBerry PlayBook, the device that RIM unveiled this week. It's a 7-inch, touch-controlled tablet that runs a dedicated phone-like operating system. What does that remind you of?
Although the two companies are profoundly different, Google's great press arises out of its similar ambitions. Google is the most disruptive company in the industry; once or twice a year, it unveils a new product that cracks up our settled notions of tech and culture. This is true far beyond its search engine—look how Gmail remade Web e-mail, how Chrome encouraged rival browser companies to make their software speedier, or how Google Voice is helping to replace phone companies. Sure, not all of Google's innovations are hits—but even in its failures (Wave), Google displays a charming willingness to experiment that many of its rivals lack. The company's mission statement—"to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful"—would sound corny, except that it has a demonstrated commitment to do just that. It is digitizing the world's books, has built a translation machine of uncanny accuracy, and can even track traffic patterns and predict when flu season is about to begin.
To be sure, these wonders don't mean that Apple and Google can do no wrong—they can and often do. But that's just one more reason to keep a close eye on them. Nobody knows what the world will look like in 2015. But given their recent track records, my best guess is that Apple and Google are inventing it now.