Tech media turns on Apple: Will iPhone, Mac suffer?

In a heavily commented post on his blog, TechCrunch, uber blogger Michael Arrington updated the world on how he ditched his iPhone and ported his cell phone number to become a GoogleVoice number. His rationale? He was sick of AT&T's (T) bad coverage and sick of Apple's (AAPL) heavy-handed restrictions on iPhone apps. Earlier this weekend, Jason Calacanis, founder (and also former CEO of Weblogs Inc., which AOL purchased), wrote a strong anti-Apple manifesto on his semi-regular email newsletter. The newsletter reaches thousands of techno-fiends who follow Calacanis avidly.

Add to them GigaOm founder Om Malik, who ditched his iPhone last February and The New York Times' David Pogue, a true Apple lover, and we seem to have a budding rebellion among elite tech journalists against Apple. That's very bad news for Steve Jobs and company.

Why? In the old days, the truism was simple. Don't pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. The reference was to newspapers. Today in the digital age, newspapers are dying, but the power of a concentrated handful of tech bloggers and taste makers has never been greater. And here's why this is extremely important for Apple.

Even though the internet is a cacophonous echo chamber, what people like Arrington, Calacanis, and Malik say matters. They are the new newspaper barons of the day, the tastemakers with public followings and high visibility on the Web. As they toss their iPhones over for Blackberry (RIMM) or smart phones running Google's (GOOG) Android operating system, others will start to ask questions.

Uncomfortable questions for Apple, such as, why can't I tether my iPhone to use it as a data modem when other AT&T mobile data subscribers using other handsets can tether? Why is Apple preventing me from making VoIP calls on my phone by shutting out Google Voice? Why must I receive Apple's approval to put an app on my iPhone?

These questions will lead to discussions of other issues that will also work against Apple in the near or mid-term future. iPhone software is written in Objective C is a language that is very difficult to use for other types of software programming. It's hard to port into other programs and it makes developing for iPhone apps expensive. As handsets truly become replacements for PCs, then forcing software houses to develop two sets of code for a PC and an iPhone starts to be very unwieldy.

Another problem is that Apple has staked out turf on the iPhone, telling companies that they should not submit products that replicate core functions that Apple already provides. Unfortunately, that's the case with the Opera Web browsers. Opera makes Web browsers for mobile phones. Opera browsers are faster than Safari on mobile phones. Yet Opera is not even attempting to build a browser for the iPhone after Apple made it clear it did not want competition for Safari.

Maybe Apple will build a better mobile browser. In the meantime, however, Apple's customers (like me) suffer from comparatively slow performance. And yes, I've seen Opera running on a 2.5 EDGE network whip Safari running on an iPhone 3G with a 3G network connection. To me, this situation reeks of arrogance.

I also get the sense that Apple, at this point, is worried about public relations problems. Why else would SVP of global marketing, Phil Schiller, respond with a personal email to a post by Daring Fireball blogger John Gruber which alleged that Apple had forced an iPhone application company to edit its dictionary app (Schiller denied the allegation). Apple *never* allows executives to reply personally to bloggers.

So I imagine there is, right now, an internal conflict going on inside Apple over the future of the iPhone. Schiller, who also advocated for the Google Voice app, is likely pushing behind the scenes for more openness. Some of the blame could likely be laid at the feet of Apple partner AT&T, who has had difficulty keeping up with demand for data services as a result of the voracious appetite for internet access by iPhone owners. But Apple clearly has plenty of responsibility for this state of affairs, with its actions regarding iPhone applications and its refusal to allow a serious rival browser on the phone.

The tech media are angry and they probably won't be sated until there is a major change in Apple's iPhone -- and by extension, corporate -- strategy. Until then, Apple will endure an increasing drumbeat of criticism that will undermine the company's sterling reputation. This criticism will possibly foster the creation of exactly the type of mobile application diversity on Google and Blackberry phones that could lure enough people away from the embrace of the iPhone to help those other handset software makers become true iPhone contenders.

Don't get me wrong. Apple will always have critics and they will always complain about the proprietary nature of Apple's products and ecosystem. But when your former fans become vocal critics and they happen to be media celebrities, you have a problem.

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