Silicon Insider: The Cult of Apple

It's amok time in Cupertino.

Last week I was asked to write an editorial for the Wall Street Journal about Apple Inc.'s -- that is, Steve Jobs' -- introduction of the new iPhone. It ran under the headline "iGenius," which you would think might please those millions of Apple Computer -- that is, Steve Jobs -- fans out there.

But you would be wrong, as anyone who has ever written about Apple -- that is, about Steve Jobs -- could have you. In fact, though I've been accused on occasion of having a pathological obsession and hatred of Jobs/Apple (when I'm not being accused of being an Apple shill), the truth is I absolutely hate writing about Apple and try to do as little of it as possible.

One reason is sheer exhaustion: I've been covering the company my entire professional life and dealing with it even longer than that. It is now the longest running soap opera in high tech, and I've seen just about every plot twist a half-dozen times. Only the products change -- a fact I celebrated in the Journal column.

A second reason is disgust. Writing a huge book about Apple ("Infinite Loop") a few years ago forced me to spend two years of my life reliving not only the triumphs, but also all of the betrayals, cruelties and stupidities of Apple's first quarter-century, most of them centering around the singular Mr. Jobs. So, unlike most of the post-adolescents covering Apple these days for trade magazines and in the blogosphere, I go into every Apple story dragging all of that historical baggage behind me.

But all of that would be tolerable, were it not for the inevitable backlash that goes hand-in-hand with writing about Apple.

Apple Fanatics Are Amusing, Slightly Scary

The biggest reason I try to avoid covering the company is the community of rabid Apple fanatics.

When you are in the mood for it, they can be fun -- in a nasty sort of way. It's sort of like bear-baiting: A dirty, little secret in the computer media is that if you want to goose your readership or spike the traffic to your Web site, just say something negative about Apple Computer.

Suggest that Larry Ellison is a serial killer or that Dell Computers sterilizes children, and you'll get a letter from their corporate PR people politely requesting that you run a correction in the next issue.

Intimate that a new Apple product is less than perfect or that Steve Jobs falls slightly short of being a paragon of humility and virtue, and 1,000 crazies come out of the woodwork, screaming obscenities at you in the blogosphere, calling for the death of your family (I'm exaggerating that one, but only slightly), and demanding that your editor fire you immediately.

I was on the receiving end of one of those Apple crazy swarms last week. It was both amusing and a bit disturbing: Apple fanaticism seems to have grown in both size and volume in last couple of years. And I must admit I knew it was coming the moment I borrowed a term for Apple loyalists I read in -- "Macsturbators" -- and put it in the story just to inflame the especially demented.

But it also got me thinking.

For one thing, where does all of this fanaticism come from? Twenty years ago, when only mavericks and renegades bought Macs in the face of overwhelming corporate adoption of the IBM standard, it was perhaps understandable for Apple users to be both smarmy and thin-skinned.

But these days, Apple has regained its place as a dominant player in personal computers. It owns the MP3 player world to a degree matched only in high-tech history by, well, Microsoft and IBM. And the new iPhone, whatever its flaws (and that last phrase alone is enough to launch 100 angry letters), appears destined to own the high-end smart phone market.

In other words, Apple is now a big predatory corporation, crushing smaller contenders, refusing to partner with third-party developers, trying to monopolize entire markets. There's nothing wrong with that, and more power to them. But hasn't Apple become precisely the kind of corporate behemoth that all those mavericks used to fight against? Isn't that why they hooked up with Apple in the first place?

Playing the outsider while being the ultimate insider requires a frame of mind that is, well, irrational.

Drinking the Apple Kool-Aid?

Now, don't get me wrong: There are millions of Apple owners (including me on occasion) who buy Apple computers, iPods, and soon iPhones, simply because they are superior to the competition. But that's a rational decision.

What I'm talking about are the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people out there whose relationship with Apple is obsessive and, one would think, unhealthy -- the people who, like crazed sports fans, will fight to the death defending a team that doesn't even know their names.

For years, the standing joke about these folks has been that they've "drunk the Kool-Aid," or been trapped in the black hole of the Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Zone, or that they are the geek version of Scientologists. But, as amusing as that is, that characterization has never seemed quite right.

After all, Apple produces, especially lately, endlessly interesting and often very good products. And, as I noted in the Journal piece, the Apple crazies also play an important role in the food chain -- by purchasing every new Apple product that hits the market they fund the development of later, improved versions of those products that the rest of us want to buy.

The Cult of Apple

So where does the loyalty come from? I think a tech executive who wrote to me a few days ago may have finally come up with the best explanation. Apple, he wrote, is a cult, but a good cult -- even a virtuous cult.

It may have all of the nasty features of other cults: the demand of total allegiance, punishment of any deviation from the accepted orthodoxy, a messianic leader who is assumed faultless and wise in the face of any evidence to the contrary, disproportionate attacks on doubters, heretics and other outsiders, a siege mentality maintained even in victory, and a deep pride in being among the select few. Scary stuff, indeed.

But on the positive side, the Apple cult isn't destructive. In fact, it is both benign and ultimately rewarding for the rest of us. It doesn't demand much from its true believers other than that they buy the company's new products -- for which they get to enjoy a sense of social superiority. And they get to fight against the unbelievers, not with weapons, but words.

It's a bit creepy, maybe, especially during those choreographed annual MacExpo Passion Plays starring Steve Jobs, but look what we get in exchange. I'll trade a few whack-job letters every couple years in exchange for the iPod.

Still, it raises an interesting question. Given the current stock option backdating scandal at Apple, and Steve Jobs' possible participation in it, what happens if he, like other executives in similar predicaments at other companies, has to resign from Apple Inc.? The Apple cult's greatest vulnerability is that it extends not only to the company and its products, but also to the mercurial Mr. Jobs.

Can it survive the fall of its founder? As with charismatic cult leaders from Aimee Semple MacPherson to Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, will the true believers loudly pronounce their enduring faith, then quietly steal away? Or will they begin the long vigil, waiting for the eventual return of their messiah, who, after all, came back from the wilderness once before?

In the end, can the Cult of Apple survive the loss of the Cult of Steve? Stay tuned. We may just find out.

Tad's Tab: The latest from the teen tech trenches, by Malone's 15-year-old son, Tad Malone:

There's a cool Java applet on the Web called Pyro Sand Game. In the basic game you select from four elements -- sand, water, salt and oil -- and let them cascade down through various obstacles. More complex mods (and there are now scores) let you mess around with everything from concrete to gunpowder. For example, I took the wall tool and made a house. Then I filled it with C4 and watched the whole place explode. These days the game has enough different "elements" that the possibilities for mayhem and destruction are almost endless. Check it out.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.