It seems Apple had an event the other day. (I dunno, I was on holiday.) And in the Q+A afterwards, a journalist – it has to be a journalist, you’ll see – asked Steve Jobs why Apple’s gear, despite having Intel chips inside, doesn’t carry those “Intel Inside” stickers that you see all over the place.

Before you go on, did you *know* what the answer was before the question was asked? That is, did you know *why* Apple was turning down the marketing benefits that accrue to companies which use the Intel Inside sticker – which are substantial? Pause, and answer honestly.

If you didn’t absolutely know why, you were wrong to pillory him. That means Gruber and Macuser, Macalope and others. You didn’t know. You assumed. You guessed. You presumed. That ain’t factual journalism. It’s jackass-y to take the piss out of someone who’s doing a better job than you. (In fact, I call on Gruber to recall his Jackass award. Investigation is never jackassery.)

One could almost argue that given that Apple’s directors are obliged to maximise shareholder value (all directors of public limited companies are, by law), and that putting those stickers on would increase the profit margin (at a given price) of Apple machines, it would be almost necessary for Apple to use the stickers. (Here’s some help: “Over the years, Intel has spent more than $3 billion to subsidize OEM marketing programs that promote their own brands, along with Intel’s. (That little five note “Intel sound” you hear whenever you see a Dell, HP, IBM or Lenovo ad on TV means Intel has paid roughly half of the cost of the ad.)” Intel’s official history of the campaign doesn’t mention the money it puts in.)

And I’d bet too that if it did, and Macbook and Macbook Pros and iMacs and all had those stickers on, then the Apple blogosphere would have given a collective shrug and said “Well, everyone else does…”

So if you didn’t know, then Bob Keefe was asking a question that you didn’t know the answer to. And that’s one of the functions of journalism: finding out stuff only some people know and telling it to lots of people. You generally find that you don’t learn unless you ask. The stuff that people offer unprompted to tell you is usually the least useful. That’s why journalists – though not bloggers – often skate over the bumph in press releases and look for the “meat”.

Plus there’s a technique to Q+As, especially those with lots of journalists, that bloggers simply don’t know about because they don’t have the experience. One person asks a question, gets an answer: that might prompt someone else, who knows a little about the subject being answered, to glimpse a gap or a change between what’s been said and what’s been said before to the same question. That leads to a new angle to probe, until you start to open up angles that weren’t obvious before. It’s like the middle game of chess – tactics, responses, new tactics, result. We’re feral beasts in the media, remember? That’s why we work best in a pack, chasing the prey, nipping its legs until it falls over and we can feast on the flesh. (Pauses.) Intellectually, of course.

Derek Powazek calls it the Columbo technique, and he’s absolutely right: there are no stupid questions, only stupid (or dismissive, unhelpful) answers:

As a consultant, I often find myself asking questions that, on their face, may seem stupid. That’s because terminology varies so much in organizations. When I say, “What do you mean by branding?”, it’s not because I don’t know what the word means, it’s because I want to know what the client thinks it means.

It all kind of reminds me of Columbo. If you’re too young to remember, it was a detective show where a bumbling detective catches the bad guy because everyone generally thinks he’s too dim-witted to do his job. Keefe should hang a photo of Columbo in his office after his sticker question.

(I remember Columbo. The most brilliant series, only equalled by House. I wonder if Columbo-as-doctor could work?)

O’Keefe himself is amazed, and gives his own (good) reason for asking the question. Unfortunately, as keeps happening, people then don’t bother to consider his reasoning, but just start from the same place they were, and criticise him. (Sadly, that group includes John C. Welch, who one can usually rely on to have an accurate, if not restrained, perspective.)

Update: the point had been made back in January 2006 that Apple hadn’t signed up – but that didn’t answer the why part of it. Keefe was still right to ask the question.

Instead, Macjournals has it right: can you think of a question that will prompt a response from Jobs that isn’t completely rodomontade?

What questions do you think Steve Jobs is going to answer?

He doesn’t talk about the past, and he doesn’t talk about future products. He ruled out talking about iPods, iPhones, and the music business because it was a “Mac” event. Read Macworld’s coverage of the live event and look at these other killer questions that people asked Jobs at the event

  • Does the iMac have a future now that more and more people are buying laptops? (Hint: Jobs had, within the hour, announced three new iMacs)
  • How is Apple’s relationship with Google? (Who really expected an answer other than “Fine, thanks for asking?”)
  • Is Apple going to make a multitouch-operated Mac? (Jobs called it a “research project,” noting, as have many others, that it’s not clear the concept makes sense for the normal orientation of a display. In other words, he didn’t rule it in or out.)
  • Is it Apple’s goal to surpass Windows in PC market share? (They’ve only been asking this question for 22 years, so who really expected a no-win yes-or-no answer? As Apple has done for decades, Jobs said they’re focused on making the best products possible.)

really are the typically dumb questions that do get asked at Apple pressers. The sort that the Appleblogosphere applauds but which don’t advance our knowledge one bit. Hell, Fake Steve Jobs could answer them as accurately.

Later update: I’ve added comments in italics to various of the comments below where I think they need one. And your challenge, before you hit that comment button, is: besides your comment, tell us the question you would ask Steve Jobs to get an insightful response. I’ll see if I can channel him for ya.

Update bonanza: Jason Snell at Macworld admits that it’s all gone wayy out of proportion, and confesses:

Of course, I asked my own question that day — a clarification about iWork ’08’s Excel compatibility — that elicited a one-word response from Jobs: “No.” (Turns out I shouldn’t have been asking about Excel Macro support in Numbers. If I had asked Jobs about AppleScript support instead, I might have struck gold: turns out Numbers is completely bereft of scripting support. Drat!) By the standards of many of Keefe’s critics, I am also a total loser, because I asked an uninteresting question that could’ve just been cleared up by Apple PR later. Okey dokey.

Yup, getting there, Jason. When you’re interviewing chief execs and their near-tos, you need to get your weapons ready, be prepared. It’s the Wimbledon final and you’re up against the pros. Are you?

And so let’s sum up many of the comments here: sure, the News.com piece has been cited three times (once by me – you folks don’t look at embedded links, eh?). As I said, because I read it, that piece does not answer the question of “why not”. It’s vague. And as Gary Marshall notes further down, times change. I asked Jobs about video on iPods a few weeks before Apple launched one. And his answer was noticeably prevaricating compared to those he’d given before. Which was a clue that it was indeed on the way. Journalism lies in little gaps like those. Or in big stupid-seeming questions which lay bare the underlying thinking of a person or company. Like Bob Keefe’s one.