"No drop of milk oozes from the Apple teat without a crowd of journalists gathering to swallow it up," writes Jack Shafer, Slate's ever-clever media critic, in a piece launching his pre-iPhone "Apple Suck-Up Watch." Shafer is the sort who reaches for his revolver (white plastic, works with Macs and PCs) whenever the press goes gaga over incremental Apple improvements, so he must be got-up like Rambo now. Even for an Apple product, the fervor surrounding the iPhone is ridiculous. Silicon Valley shop talk will never rise to the level of Whit Stillman, but these days every tech conversation comes back to a variant on a single question, "Yes, but what does that have to do with the iPhone?" It's enough to make you thankful that Jack Kevorkian is now free for business.
And yet the pull is strong. Shafer points out that there were MP3 players before the iPod, portable video players before the video iPod, and there are do-everything phones out now, before any of us has ever used an iPhone -- so why is everyone so crazed over the Apple cell?
A big part of it, of course, is CEO Steve Jobs, who could affix a matte-white Apple logo to a pot of gruel and make us beg for seconds. I don't know if Shafer's ever been to a Jobs gig; if he hasn't, I'd urge him to attend the next one, and I'll bet him a Shuffle he can't keep his heart closed against the smooth, seductive showman. I've left several Jobs speeches determined to purchase the thing I just saw unveiled. Only my self-imposed 24-hour post-keynote waiting period saved me from financial ruin.
But it's not only Jobs that has us atwitter. The iPhone is a genuinely big thing. It's a big business story. The manufacturer of the world's hottest consumer electronics gadget is entering the world's biggest consumer electronics category. It's a big tech story -- a tiny portable computer that's actually useful has long been the holy grail of many an innovator. It's also maybe a little bit of a cultural story and a little bit of a fashion story and it's a story about marketing and industrial design -- and as Shafer proves, it's also a meta-story about the media. It's a big deal if it flops (Steve Jobs overreaches) and it's a big deal if it flies (Steve Jobs does it once again). So how can we not talk about it?
I've been on both sides of Apple cheering squad. I shot down the prospects for the original iPod and for the Nano -- I was wrong -- but I've also written pieces called "Hallelujah, the Mac Is Back" and "I Have Seen the Future of Music and Its Name Is iTunes." I hope nothing I write about the iPhone ends up on Shafer's list of Apple polishers. But I can't promise it.
So take this as a guide for upcoming iPhone coverage here: I think the iPhone's huge. But I understand it won't change everything. It won't do a damned thing about Iraq or avian flu or Darfur or global warming. At least, I'm pretty sure it won't.