The Most Damaged Big Brand of The Year Is...

Think Different (And Not in A Good Way)

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A little more than five years ago on, I called attention to an animated YouTube video titled "zunePhone ad." The iPhone was still new and everyone in tech and media circles was watching to see what Microsoft, Apple's main competitor back then, would come up with in response. The Zune music player -- Microsoft's ultimately ill-fated attempt to compete with the iPod -- was still in production, so if you saw a link titled "zunePhone ad," you automatically wanted to click on it because it seemed like Microsoft would introduce some sort of "iPhone killer" at any moment.

Credit: Illustration by Kelsey Dake

The zunePhone ad turned out, of course, to be a parody. Set to a twee instrumental soundtrack lifted from an Apple spot, the brief video showed a zunePhone in action, complete with a blinking VCR-style "12:00" clock, a baffling interface, a touch-screen rotary dial and battery life of roughly one minute. To me, this was emblematic of how easy it had become to make fun of Microsoft (you didn't even need words!) because its brand came to stand for a certain sort of bureaucratized, bloated mediocrity.

As a columnist, I have to say: Oh, how I've missed that Microsoft -- the lumbering, hapless giant that practically wrote its own jokes. (These days Microsoft, which has learned a thing or two about finesse, has problems that are considerably less funny and more existential.)

The new Microsoft
But then last month, when Apple announced a deal to integrate its Siri virtual-assistant technology into two GM car lines, I realized that in some ways, Apple is the new Microsoft -- the lumbering, hapless giant that practically writes its own jokes. One sample of the snark about the Apple-GM deal that made the rounds on Twitter: "GM and Apple are working together to bring Siri into cars, or as Siri understands it, M&M and Snapple are putting cherries onto Mars." If you're the owner of an iPhone, on which Siri technology was introduced, you get the joke. Widely criticized for "her" poor comprehension skills and generally useless responses, inept Siri is a gimme punch line.

Last week, more bad PR regarding Apple technology surfaced. "Apple Maps error called 'potentially life threatening' by Australian police" was how the Washington Post headlined it. Turns out the Apple Maps app tells users looking for the Australian town of Mildura to drive into the middle of Murray-Sunset National Park -- more than 40 miles from where Mildura actually is -- which happens to be a harsh and treacherous landscape (no water supply and temperatures exceeding 110 degrees Fahrenheit) where lost travelers could easily die of dehydration or hyperthermia.

(On a personal note, I've tried using Apple Maps in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Providence and San Juan, and in every one of those cities, it's failed me -- sometimes spectacularly.)

Apple stock has been taking a beating -- as of this writing it's hovering around $540 a share, down from a 52-week high of $705 -- mostly due to rising competitive pressures, but certainly not helped by Apple's software struggles. And even before AAPL started softening and Siri and Maps tarnished the company's reputation for software-engineering brilliance, Apple was having a bad year. In January, for starters, The New York Times published the results of its investigation into Apple's offshoring practices -- mostly notably in a depressing story titled "In China, the Human Costs That Are Built Into an iPad."

Don't get me wrong, there's still a massive and largely unwavering Apple cult out there, and Apple product releases still get pretty much automatic over-the-top media attention. But the bloom is off the Apple, and the media seems much more likely to issue a "meh" response to new Apple gadgets.

If Steve were alive...
This sort of correction in our collective attitude toward Apple was surely a long time coming. Plenty of observers have been playing the game of "If Steve Jobs were still alive, he wouldn't have let this stuff happen," but the ugly truth is that Apple, in its Jobs-led hubris, had built up a certain amount of bad karma well before his death. (How did Jobs, famously a Buddhist, fail to anticipate that the brutal labor conditions at its Chinese contractor Foxconn would ultimately backfire?)

I've never been a breathless Apple fanboy, but it still pains me to think of what's happened to the company this year. We, well, think different about Apple these days. One of the most inspiring ongoing narratives of American corporate innovation and technological awesomeness has been diminished.

But in the end, I suppose, a humbled Apple is a good thing. In September, Apple CEO Tim Cook did something Steve Jobs would have never done -- he publicly apologized for Apple Maps -- and lately he's been talking about bringing some Apple manufacturing back to the U.S.

The high-flying company is slowly returning to earth, where little things like accountability and corporate conscience sometimes sort of actually matter.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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