Haunted Empire; Blinkered Journalist

Yukari Iwatani Kane’s new book about Apple is insightful but misleading

Veteran technology journalist Yukari Iwatani Kane has a new book coming out about Apple. Despite not officially being released until the 18th March, I was able to buy a copy from the UK Amazon store. The book is called ‘Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs’ and is, according the book jacket, ‘an insightful, behind-the-scenes portrait of the technology giant Apple.’

As was evident from a recent piece by Kane in the New Yorker, Kane is no fan of Apple. And when I tweeted my intent to read the book, some Apple supporters even questioned why I would be interested in reading it at all. It was clear, supposedly, that it was merely going to be yet another anti-Apple tale. I wanted to give Kane the benefit of the doubt though.

I have now finished the book and I’m glad I read it, but it has left me with a lot of mixed thoughts. On the positive side, the book is very easy to read; engrossing even. Kane is a good writer and keeps your attention. Some of the insights and nuggets of information into Apple and its people, processes, rivals, and more, are fascinating. It did feel like it lived up to it’s own declaration of being ‘an insightful, behind-the-scenes portrait of the technology giant Apple’.

But it was also very much just that: a portrait. When Kane stuck to simply telling stories and sharing insights, the book was a pleasure to read. But as soon as she transitioned to injecting opinion, it dipped dramatically. It became readily apparent as the book went on that this was no neutral investigation of facts and details and stories. No, she clearly chose her narrative ahead of time and then determined at all costs to shape and interpret everything to fit within that (negative) narrative.

I was genuinely disappointed. And it felt like an unnecessary distraction from what was a lot of fascinating investigative journalism about Apple. If she’d taken a less antagonistic posture towards Apple, it could have been a much more significant book.

The lack of diversity in her perspective switched between being bizarre and shameless. She only seemed interested, particularly towards the end of the book, in sharing negative angles on everything. The tone in which she referred to Apple executives, and Tim Cook especially, felt like nothing less than antipathy at times.

Kane also bought into two myths about Apple hook, line and sinker. Though hugely critical of Jobs in places, she failed to fit any of Apple’s stumbles under Jobs into her narrative. When talking about Apple’s recent slip-ups—for example, Siri and Maps—she even went as far as using the amateurish, ‘would have never happened under Jobs’ line. It’s hard to know whether she did this because she doesn’t understand Apple; because she failed to do her research on Apple under Jobs properly; or because she was totally blinkered by her determination to stick to her doomsday narrative.

Kane also bought into the market share myth. She was incredibly selective in her use of stats too, only ever using those that could paint Apple negatively. After the two pieces by Charles Arthur that so debunked the myths surrounding smartphone marketshare, it felt strange that she was determined to only embrace that view of interpreting success.

To further support her negative narrative, Kane also chose to only recognise new categories of product as being innovation. Touch ID, for example, is brushed aside with a mere sentence. She’s right of course about Apple needing to ultimately move into new categories, but she falls into the trap of thinking Apple needs to innovate in new product categories all the time, even ignoring her own references to the time gaps between new product categories under Steve Jobs. The way she so throughly downplayed everything that’s happened since Tim Cook has been CEO felt disingenuous.

Ultimately, it felt like this book was written much too soon. Kane may be right: Apple might be in the early stages of terminal decline. But there simply isn’t enough evidence to make the case for this right now. And this, unfortunately, is what Kane attempts to do. It became increasingly apparent that she herself believes Apple is a declining empire and this book was her attempt to substantiate that belief. The less discerning reader may be fooled by her interpretation and narrative, but anyone who understands Apple and the bigger picture will see through her attempts.

That’s not to say Kane doesn’t raise important questions about Apple. Apple is facing a lot of challenges that are far greater than anything they’ve faced in a long time—perhaps ever. They do have a narrative problem and Samsung, Google, and Amazon are heavyweight competitors, stretching them on multiple fronts. But there isn’t enough substantial evidence to equate all this as meaning Apple is now in terminal decline—and her attempts to do so are misleading.

Kane makes no effort to incorporate the perspectives of those who are very bullish about Apple’s prospects. Even when she does quote those who might be considered to have a positive perspective on Apple—for example, Horace Dediu and Ken Segall—she latches only onto their occasional negative observations.

My intent here is not to defend Apple blindly. I have my own questions about the future that haven’t been answered. Apple and Tim Cook do need to prove that they can innovate and break through into new product categories. And they can’t hang about for too much longer before people (not just shareholders and technology journalists) will run out of patience. And in actual fact, it seems that Apple are raising the expectations for 2014 and do seem intent on delivering something new this year that is more than upgrades to current product lines.

Realistically, if Apple do deliver something new this year, that feels like a fair timeframe to have given Tim Cook. Three years after becoming CEO, and four years after Apple’s last new product category, Apple seems due a new product. But for Kane to pre-judge Cook’s reign already feels deeply short-sighted—regardless of whether Kane is shown to have judged rightly further down the line. Apple’s next new product category might be a flop. Tim Cook might not have what it takes. But we just don’t know. And we can’t with any integrity draw conclusions this early in his reign and so soon after Steve Jobs’ death.

I do want to stress again that Kane makes many astute observations about Apple that are well worth considering. She raises numerous questions that haven’t been answered yet. But Kane reads more into her observations than is merited and presumes answers to many of her questions that can’t fairly be answered yet. She projects her pre-determined narrative onto everything, sadly undermining what could have been a truly fascinating book.

Despite everything I’ve said here about Kane’s book, I would still recommend it to people who are interested in Apple as a company. It’s got enough insights and stories about Apple and some of its key characters and moments to make it an informative and worthwhile read. Just be aware that if you ‘get’ Apple it will be very frustrating in places and you’ll groan out loud at the way Kane is so mono-dimensional in how she interprets everything.

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