Well, Ryan has already blogged it, so I guess the cat’s out of the bag: I’ve left Engadget. More info on where I’m going next in a bit. But to quash those inevitable conspiracy theories: I am not going to any of Engadget’s competitors. In fact, I’d argue that there aren’t really any serious competitors to Engadget. The site stands alone at the pinnacle of the gadget blogging world, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. So, if you haven’t caught on yet, I’m still a big fan of Engadget, and this is most definitely not the place to come if you’re looking for bitter grumblings from a disgruntled ex-employee. I will, however, shed a little light on my penultimate Engadget post, where I wrote a little something about some comments made by Apple’s Steve Jobs in a recent interview with NBC’s Brian Williams:
“You keep on innovating, you keep on making better stuff,” Jobs said, in response to a question from Williams about why a new iPod might seem outdated as soon as you take it out of the box. Then Jobs offered a bit of advice to consumers: “If you always want the latest and greatest, then you have to buy a new iPod at least once a year.”
I followed that with:
Gee, thanks, Steve. We always thought it was the dead batteries or battered shell that kept sending us back to the Apple store. Glad you could set us straight.
The post was headlined, in a somewhat tabloidesque manner, “Jobs: ‘you have to buy a new iPod at least once a year.’”
This wasn’t an unusual post; it was a typical example of the kind of snarky, sarcastic, hype-deflating humor Engadget indulges in on an almost daily basis. It was our way of saying, essentially, “yes, we know you have to upgrade every year to get the coolest stuff. But—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—it takes a lot of chutzpah for a CEO to come out and actually say it.” I also wanted to call attention to the fact that—at least for some customers—the upgrade cycle can end up being forced not by a need for the “latest and greatest” but by product defects, such as the iPod’s well-known battery and scratching problems.
I knew I would get a lot of comments, and that most of them would be negative. Pretty much anything about Apple brings out the company’s defenders and detractors, and this was no different. Unfortunately, very few of the commenters fully grasped what I was trying to do; many criticized the “misleading” headline, and defended Apple’s history of innovation. Others felt that the post wasn’t news, and that we were wasting their time by pointing out the obvious. Their vitriol wasn’t reserved for me; Ryan added a comment suggesting that people “lighten up,” and ended up sharing the wrath of our angered readers.
I’ve developed a pretty thick skin writing for Engadget, and I certainly don’t take any of the comments personally (even if they are directed at me). However, I do think the response to this particular post was somewhat telling. I think that, to some extent, I touched a nerve. It’s something of a given among certain purchasers of consumer electronics that regular upgrades are essential to get the “latest and greatest” products. By questioning this—even in a gently humorous manner—I was shaking one of their core beliefs.
Yet it’s worth noting that this kind of constant upgrade cycle isn’t necessary for all products, and is a relatively new “innovation.” As explained in the recent book “Made to Break : Technology and Obsolescence in America,” Henry Ford created the Model T to be the only car customers would ever need to buy. They routinely lasted for a decade and longer, and the car’s basic design remained unchanged for nearly 20 years. However, faced with competition by other automakers, which had begun to master the art of creating demand by producing new models every year, Ford changed tactics, and began to roll out new models with new features on an annual basis. In some cases, this endless upgrade cycle is a good thing; in the automotive and other industries, it has indeed led to many advances in technology and quality.
In other cases, however, it’s just an excuse to boost demand. And this applies to Apple as much as any other company. Though some iPod models certainly have represented a major improvement over their predecessors, others were hardly the “latest and greatest.” The shuffle, for example, was clearly created to fill a void in Apple’s product lineup—the company previously didn’t compete in the market for low-priced flash-based digital audio players. The shuffle itself, however, was (and is) an unremarkable model, largely inferior to competing products. But it secured a position for Apple in a lucrative market segment. Likewise, the iPod with video added functions that existed in competing products for years. Apple needed to add those features to stay competitive. If anything, the innovation that came with the video iPod had little to do with the product itself, and much to do with Apple’s distribution model: Apple was able to leverage the success of the iTunes Music Store to create an online market for iPod-ready videos. Don’t get me wrong. I think some iPods are great products; I even own a couple of them (along with close to a half-dozen MP3 players from other vendors). But Jobs was engaging in a bit of his usual hyperbole, and my post was an attempt to deflate that.
I think the Jobs post was a fitting coda to my time at Engadget. And, having read all of the comments (all 141 of them), if I had to write it again, there’s absolutely nothing I would change about it. Including—especially—the “misleading” title.