Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

The Columbo Technique

Or: There are no dumb questions, just dumb permalinks.

200px-columbo.jpgSo there was this big Apple event, and Steve Jobs took some questions from the audience, and Bob Keefe asked why Apple doesn’t put Intel Inside stickers on their Macs. Then the entire Mac nerdosphere erupted with laughter. John Gruber named him Jackass of the Week. Keefe even posted a boo hoo retort.

Bob Keefe may actually be a jackass. His question may have been stupid. The only thing I think should be added to the conversation is this: Sometimes stupid questions are important to ask.

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.

To the Apple faithful, sure, it was dumb. But a PR event is not for the faithful (that’s Macworld), it’s for the rest of the world. And to the world at large, it’s not a dumb question at all. Why does Apple get a pass when every other PC manufacturer has those awful logos all over their products? And to a reporter doing a story on the Intel Inside program, getting Steve Jobs to comment on it is pure gold. You can bet it made some hearts at Intel skip a beat.

When bloggers go crazy over journalists doing actual journalism, it only shows their professional naiveté. Consider the response Keefe got from Steve Jobs:

We put ourselves in the customer’s shoes and say, “What do we want on our product when we take it out of the box?” And the answer is: Nothing.

Listen to it for yourself. It makes Apple look smart and simultaneously makes the entire PC industry look dumb. It shows a lot about the way Apple sees the world. And we never would have heard it if a journalist wasn’t willing to ask a dumb question.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.