% fortune -ae paul murphy

Reviewing attack journalism

Here's a comment from cnet contributor ripragged in response to a Macalope blog entry on an article about DRM - but entirely applicable in a different context: the essentially unanimous rejection of the iPhone by the paid IT analyst community:

I'm trying to figure out where these tech-analyst jokers are coming from. We're supposed to be nice and polite and not call people names, but damn. They are saying things that simply are not true, and there are non-tech people out there who read that crap to make buying decisions.

With the proviso that we all know how these guys make their living, I have to agree whole heartedly - and particularly with his concern that a lot of this stuff not only doesn't carry appropriate warnings for the uninformed, but is actually presented to them as legitimate product research.

The Macalope blog had a link to a review, by John Gruber of the Fastcompany December 2007 cover story by Adam L. Penenberg. It's a pretty committed attack piece directed against Apple - here's a sample:

Gorgeous as Apple's products are, people aren't buying them for their inherent technological superiority. For half the price of a Mac, you can pick up a PC that does pretty much the same thing. There are MP3 players that produce superior audio to the iPod. The iPhone has Wi-Fi and a beautiful touch screen, but the phone itself is middling, as is its cellular network. Even the security of Apple's operating system, a theme the company returns to frequently, is overstated: As most hackers will tell you, it's security-by-obscurity, a function of tiny market share, not inherent uncrackability. The CIO at one major Silicon Valley company told us that Apple's vulnerability on this front made it unlikely that he would ever switch. (See "iPhone Insecurity" for one security expert's sobering experience with the iPhone.)

There are five main claims here, none of them wholly true - and, what's worse, every one of them is presented in a way that denigrates Apple.

  1. It's true that Macs lost their cost/performance advantage over Wintel when Apple went Intel, but today's products are PCs - made by the same people in the same way using the same parts and priced identically. By comparing the price of a low end PC running Windows to the price of a high end PC running MacOS X while claiming that the two combinations do "pretty much the same thing" he's simultaneously reinforcing a popular myth about Apple pricing and claiming that adding MacOS X to a high end PC product reduces its functionality and value to that of a low end PC.

  2. Next he claims that "there are MP3 players that produce superior audio to the ipod." There are, but try plugging that iPod into something like the Alpine stereo in Grandma's S60 and you'll get the highest fidelity possible from a consumer quality digital music file.

  3. The use of an unsupported, unidimensional, assertion to smear the iPod as somehow less than some unnamed MP3 players is then repeated for the iPhone - "the phone is middling" and, of course, so is the AT&T network.

  4. Fourth, he attacks MacOS X by again repeating a popular bit of nonsense: "it's security-by-obscurity, a function of tiny market share, not inherent uncrackability." In reality attacks on Windows and attacks on Unix generally come from two different source populations and follow very different paths - Unix attacks generally require legal access and focus on upgrading privileges where Windows attacks are usually external and focus on getting full control of the machine. That difference arises because both the internal architectures and the user communities are different - and not because of anything to do with market share or the kind of "security-by-obscurity" Microsoft has to rely on.

    Macs are far more vulnerable to attacks now than they were before Intel, but this is a consequence of the hardware, not the software. The core x86 design is based on simple interupts and straight line processing - meaning, in practice, that almost any software bug can be exploited by kiddie clicker level people and thus motivating Apple's present focus on patching vulnerabilities that used to be meaningless, because unexploitable on PPC.

    Notice, furthermore, the two other, more subliminal, attacks here. First he introduces the security issue with the words "Even the security of Apple's operating system, a theme the company returns to frequently, is overstated" - implying that he's already proven that the other Apple positives he's mentioned are intentionally overstated, presumably by Apple.

    Second, there's explicit denigration in his use of the word "tiny" to describe Apple's market share. In reality, Mac sales are growing: although nobody has good worldwide numbers for 2007 yet (the 7.3% viewer ratio reported by netapplications and rehearsed in this arstechnia blog is merely indicative) here's a suggestive bit of Mac cheering from an August 21 story by by Macworld's Jim Dalrymple:

    According to NPD, Apple's U.S. retail notebook market share for June 2007 was 17.6 percent, an increase of 2.2 percentage points over the same period last year when Apple posted a 15.4 percent market share.

    As well as the notebooks are doing, Apple's overall standing among computer makers is up too.

    According to data from research firm IDC, Apple's continued rise in computer sales puts it in third place overall among all computer makers in the U.S. This is the first time since 1996 that Apple finds itself this high on the list of top selling manufacturers.

    Dell took the top spot with HP coming in second place of total unit sales. With Apple taking the number three spot, Gateway and Acer round out the top five.

  5. And, finally, he invokes authority against Apple by first offering a negative testimonial from an unidentified "major Silicon Valley" company CIO and then pointing at an attack column directed at iPhone security in support of this position.

    The link Penenberg gives to the iPhone security story points at a video bit credited to Rik Farrow but with another link to the text version of the story - by Mr. Penenberg. It's about 800 words long, and you have to read past the first 750 of them to find that he knew, before the story was released, that Apple had long since fixed the problem he's writing about.

Gruber's review of Penenberg's effort is more elegant than mine: he quotes single sentences and takes them apart. A sample (indented bits are Gruber's quotations from Penenberg):

(Note also that all these decisions are, again, solely attributed to Jobs's personal whim, rather than to Apple as a company.)

He won't allow music and videos downloaded from iTunes to be played on other MP3 players.

Except for all those iTunes Plus tracks that have no DRM, and which Jobs has stated explicitly, in a widely-publicized open letter, he'd like to see the entire iTunes Store switch to, if the music labels would allow it.

He won't permit music downloaded from competing stores to play on the iPod.

Except for all the music from any store that sells DRM-free music, like Amazon's or eMusic's. Otherwise what's being argued here is that Apple should support Microsoft's DRM platform, formerly known as PlaysForSure, recently renamed to 'Certified for Windows Vista', which Microsoft itself doesn't support in its own Zune players. There's a lot of stupid packed into the above 13-word sentence.

For me, that's the money quote" from Gruber's review - "There's a lot of stupid packed into the above 13-word sentence" - because he may have been talking about the analyst's faults as a purveyor of facts, but I think it applies perfectly to the analyst's expectations about the audience for his work.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.