News Ticker

Getting out of Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field

I spent part of last week trapped in the “Steve Jobs Reality-Distortion Field.”

Well-known among Apple watchers, the phrase was first uttered 26 years ago, according to Andy Hertzfield. On Folklore.org, he credits Bud Tribble, Hertzfield’s manager at Apple at the time, with creating the phrase in 1981 to describe how Jobs can “convince anyone of practically anything.”

The term now has its own acronym, RDF, and a listing on Wikipedia which defines RDF as “the idea that Steve Jobs is able to convince people to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bluster, exaggeration and marketing. RDF is said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion or scale. Small advances are applauded as breakthroughs. Interesting developments become turning points, or huge leaps forward.”

I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps it should also be listed as a disease or at least a syndrome. Every time I’m about to cover a Jobs’ keynote speech, I try to immunize myself against RDF but it’s just too infectious. Even after 25 years of covering tech, I still find myself becoming overly enthusiastic, at least for a while. Fortunately, like the common cold, RDF tends to go away after about a week, though there are many people who seem to have a chronic case of it.

There are three stages of RDF. The first hits you a couple of weeks before Jobs’ speech, when you begin to hear the rumors. It gets progressively virulent in the days leading up to Macworld. In my case, it’s reinforced by my role at CBS News, where I’m asked to do “two-ways” with stations around the country.

Nearly a week before the event, I started getting calls. Tuesday, when Jobs unveiled the latest batch of Apple products at Macworld, my day started at 5 a.m. with the first of about a dozen interviews that day. One anchor started the interview bemoaning how Apple hype and perhaps managed leaks are used to manipulate the media into paying far too much attention to their products. We then spent the next four minutes paying attention to their products. The next stage of RDF begins as you enter the hall where Jobs is going to speak. The press area is filled with fellow reporters as eager as anyone to learn exactly what Jobs will announce. Their appetites are whetted by hints dropped by usually tight-lipped Apple employees and a handful of analysts who meander through the hall acting like they have inside information.

Then Jobs takes the stage and the hype reaches its peak. Although he and the audience were a bit more subdued last week than at some previous speeches, he still has a way of making every tweak, every improvement and every sales statistic sound as if he’s announcing the winner of a cliffhanger presidential election.

We in the press, for the most part, absorb it all silently, though there always are oohs, ahs and applause from the generous supply of Apple employees and “Macolytes” in the audience.Then comes stage three of RDF – the part that fills me with ambivalence. As people leave the hall, TV crews descend upon them, anxious for first impressions. I don’t mind talking to TV reporters, but a day or two after I’ve done on-site Macworld interviews, I start wondering if I was a bit overly enthusiastic. It’s not that I say things I don’t believe. But my first reactions to the latest batch of gadgets tend to be more exuberant than if I had waited for my case of RDF to dissipate like a fever that breaks.What Jobs announced last week was significant, but not earth shakingThe MacBook Air was much what everyone expected, except it’s a bit thinner than I imagined. That got plenty of attention but it’s not the lightest PC notebook on the market and, while thinner than others, it’s not going to change the way people use portable computers. What it does is fill what was a gaping hole in Apple’s line. Now, along with Lenovo, Dell, Sony, Toshiba and others, Apple has a machine light enough for road warriors. The announcement about video rentals also got plenty of attention. I expected a deal with Fox and Disney but was surprised that Jobs had lined up all the major studios. My first thought was that Jobs had done for movie rentals what he had done for music purchasing by being the first to bring the entire industry together. But then reality set in. Several months ago Amazon announced its Unbox service, which brings video rental to Tivo users. And they have deals with all the major studios and TV networks except Disney and its subsidiary, ABC. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Apple CEO Jobs is Disney’s largest stockholder and a member of its board.My RDF is now happily in remission. But for thousands of Apple fans, it’s a chronic condition. There is no cure, and the only treatments are branded by Apple. This is one condition where generics don’t work.