On a cold day in February, John Gruber traveled from his home in Philadelphia to New York City for a meeting. At a posh hotel near Central Park, the 39-year-old tech blogger was greeted by Phil Schiller, Apple’s (AAPL) senior vice president for worldwide marketing. For the next hour, Schiller performed one of the company’s signature product presentations: this one to unveil the latest Mac operating system. “I got an Apple press event for one,” Gruber later wrote in a 2,300-word post on his blog Daring Fireball, which draws 5 million visitors a month. “This was new territory for me, and I think, for Apple.”
Apple is not known for warm relationships with reporters. In 2004 it sued three writers for publishing information about unannounced products online. After the tech blog Gizmodo published pictures of a prototype iPhone in 2010, Apple alerted the police, who raided an editor’s home and seized his computer as evidence.
While Gizmodo remains on the non-grata list, Apple has opened its inner circle to select bloggers, Gruber chief among them. His bare-bones site consists mainly of links to other articles with a few sentences of commentary, along with the occasional lengthier analysis on topics such as screen resolution. The former software developer takes pleasure in needling Apple’s rivals—first Microsoft (MSFT), now Google (GOOG)—and challenging those who criticize the Cupertino giant. Steve Jobs used to check Daring Fireball regularly. Gruber sometimes managed to score a few minutes with Jobs at company events. Still, he says his access into the company goes beyond the C-suite: “My contacts at Apple have always been in the rank and file.”
Last year, Apple inducted Gruber into an elite club of outsiders who get access to products before they hit stores, a group that includes Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal and David Pogue of the New York Times. The strategy has paid off for Apple. In Gruber’s breathless review after his meeting with Schiller, he wrote: “He is every bit as articulate, precise and rehearsed as he is for major on-stage events.”
Gruber celebrated Daring Fireball’s 10-year anniversary last month. He quit his day job at software startup Joyent in 2006 when revenue from T-shirt sales and ad sponsorships on the site picked up. During that time, the Philly native had to dip into his savings to support his wife and then-2-year-old son. These days his one-man operation brings in more than $500,000 a year, according to a person familiar with his financials who is not authorized to speak on the matter. Gruber would not confirm the figure.
Rivals have had limited success cultivating their own Grubers. Handset makers Samsung Electronics and HTC have paid for bloggers’ flights and hotels to attend meetings as far away as Berlin, in an attempt to generate buzz for soon-to-be released products, says Phil Nickinson, editor-in-chief at the blog Android Central, whose writers are allowed to go on such trips. Google has attracted a small network of websites that fervently track its Android mobile software.
Apple’s ecosystem of more than 100 dedicated sites is unmatched, however. “It helps that Apple is very secretive, so people want to know what’s coming,” says Arnold Kim, who started MacRumors in 2000 and left his job as a kidney doctor four years ago to focus on his gossip site full time.
While Gruber says Apple hasn’t offered to pay for their travel, the access is a great advantage in itself. MacRumors and AppleInsider, two of the largest rumor sites, aren’t invited to events such as the Sept. 12 unveiling of the newest iPhone—where Gruber will be welcomed. “When you’re so strongly outspoken in favor of them, you’re kind of promoting the company,” says Neil Hughes, an editor at AppleInsider, one of the sites targeted in Apple’s 2004 lawsuits.
Gruber says he’s no sycophant. He is an outspoken critic of how the company polices its App Store, and one of his screeds about blocking a dictionary app that contained naughty words prompted an e-mail defense from Schiller in 2009, a scoop he posted on his blog. One thing he and Schiller do agree on is how most technology commentators missed the appeal of the iPad early on. “The tech press said, ‘Eh, it’s like a big iPhone,’ and everyone else said, ‘Wow, it’s like a big iPhone!’” When it was pointed out that Schiller had made the same exact statement, Gruber says, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I stole that from him.”