Culture

Apple's owners get the ugly truth

Whoever says Californians are a mellow, spiritual tribe should get his or her head out of the redwood forest and into a line of people waiting to buy a state Lotto ticket.

Whoever says Californians are a mellow, spiritual tribe should get his or her head out of the redwood forest and into a line of people waiting to buy a state Lotto ticket. As the drawing approached last night to determine the winner of the $100 million Jacques-pot, the state's lottery apparatus crashed, adding childish outrage to the emotional portfolio of a greedy populace. I was standing in line last night, groceries in hand, trying to cheer people up by shouting "It's the cheese" while waving a wedge of sharp cheddar. I was told to wedge my fromage in unmentionable places.

When dreams of fortune are momentarily dashed, how do you make amends? Ask Steve Jobs. One Apple Computer shareholder recently received the company's annual report and proxy statement in the mail, even though the fiscal year ended last September. Keeping with the introspective, monk-like facial hair arrangement its leader sometimes sports, the Macintosh maker eschewed the clean-shaven razzmatazz that most companies pump into their glossy spin books and instead mailed what is basically a copy of the company's 10-K filing.

The presentation, about as exciting as your state government's tax booklet addendum, was perhaps appropriate, as the 1997 financial news inside was no laughing matter. Don't take my word for it--here's what Jobs wrote to investors in a letter that accompanied the report: "Fiscal year 1997, which ended on September 26, was an awful year for your company. Not only did Apple lose over $1 billion (how does a company manage to lose a BILLION dollars?), but it lost something even more important--the confidence of many of its customers and employees."

That's Jobs's parenthetical aside, not mine. Steve's petulance rang oddly, however, like the stilted words of a man who wakes up 50 years later and doesn't know the latest slang. Since that disastrous FY97 report, the good ship Cupertino looks like it might avoid the iceberg, with one profitable quarter under its belt and scuttlebutt of another TBA next week.

To underscore the time-warp effect, the letter was dated December 22. Perhaps the delay tactic is Apple's way of showing what a difference four months makes.

If Jobs really wants an answer to his billion-dollar question, he need travel no further than the Computer Literacy bookstore in San Jose. That's where Gil Amelio--author,

Gregory Hines and Muhammad Ali
Gregory Hines and Muhammad Ali add star power to Macworld.
raconteur, fashion plate--is signing copies of his kiss-and-tell memoir, On the Firing Line: My 500 Days at Apple, this evening at 6:30 p.m. After he slaps his John Hancock on some dead trees, Dr. G will subject himself to a public Q&A and no doubt regale the crowd with stories of exchanging playful left jabs with Muhammad Ali backstage at Macworld. If you're there, keep your eyes peeled for a white guy in a beard and granny glasses trying vainly to disguise his voice as he screeches, "Over $1 billion! How can a company lose a BILLION dollars?"

Gil may get heckled a bit, but he'll probably never know the type of abuse reserved for our elected officials. I'm curious to hear how New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman fared when she joined an AOL chat room earlier this week. My Skinside sources are still busy tracking down the transcript, so stay tuned. Hopefully for CTW, the chat itself ran more smoothly than her staff's attempts to promote it.

To advertise the event, her flacks sent out a missive hyping Whitman's appearance as the first-ever live chat by a governor. That claim was quickly amended, however, as at least three other guvs have made chat room appearances on AOL dating back to 1996, according to the Associated Press. Of course, that only includes official appearances. Who knows how many late nights in state capitals across this great land are spent in the "Teen Beat" area as "Veronica, a 14-year-old from, like, Sacramento."

Teenagers and other home computing consumers are proving to be a difficult crowd to cater to these days. Not one, but two print magazines devoted to that market are in turmoil. Publishing giant CMP recently put HomePC on the block and found a taker in Imagine Publishing, the gritty little company with the "notziff.com" Web address. But HomePC's staff is looking elsewhere for work, so it remains to be seen what Imagine actually does with the rag.

Word on the street also has it that Ziff-Davis's Computer Life is having trouble as well. Thanks to the sub-$1,000 PC phenomenon, profit margins for PC companies are sinking fast, leaving little room for advertising dollars. (Andy Grove wasn't the only one caught unprepared.) That probably won't sit well across the online tech publishing industry, CNET included, as we all try to figure out how to reel in bucks from ad banners without charging up front for subscriptions or for premium content. I shouldn't have to advertise my insatiable need for rumors. Send me some of your premium content right away and keep me from trolling those chat rooms.