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.
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.
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.