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  • Is Apple Losing its PR Edge?

    October 8th, 2007

    There’s a lot to be said about Apple’s famous marketing machine. They have managed to grab the world’s attention big-time, with a laser-like focus on the company’s important products and other announcements.

    On the other hand, you have to wonder whether or not they are beginning to lose their mojo, because of recent glaring missteps. While nobody’s perfect — even if Steve Jobs would probably like us to believe otherwise — there have been a few important strategic miscalculations that Apple ought to have foreseen.

    Take the recent $200 price drop for the iPhone. Overall, it was a clever move. Despite the wrongheaded claims by some tech pundits and financial analysts, the iPhone was selling quite well when the 8GB version still cost $599. Indeed, Apple was just days from attaining its real goal of selling one million before the end of September.

    Yes, I know that Fox business commentator Neil Cavuto and others had the wrong idea that Apple somehow expected to reach that number in a single weekend.

    But consider the attitude Steve Jobs took when the new price was first revealed during the introduction of a upgraded family of iPods. He casually brushed it off as something early adopters should expect. It’s the way things are, and you just have to live with it.

    Now you and I understand that $200 is chump change for Steve, since he’s a billionaire. But he supposedly has his hands on the pulse of Apple’s customers, so he should have realized a firestorm would erupt. Sure, his apology the following day seemed honest and heartfelt, and the writing style was awkward enough to have likely emerged from his own hands, rather than Apple’s corporate spin-meisters. But it was so unnecessary.

    Had Apple thought this move through a little more carefully, it would have emerged as a positive event, and the rebate program would have been part of the initial story. Instead, Apple ended up playing catchup with incensed customers and a press just aching for bad news and appropriately-lurid headlines.

    You see, today, the press is all tabloid, regardless of the size of the printed page, or even whether the content is restricted to online presentation.

    Then there’s the iPhone 1.1.1 upgrade. Again, Apple spun it as a potential catastrophe, early on. If you’ve unlocked the iPhone, forget about it. Your fun-filled gadget would undergo a tragic metamorphosis into an iBrick. Shame on you for daring to jailbreak an iPhone!

    I’m not saying that warnings are a bad idea. Certainly customers need to be made fully aware of the consequences if they attempt to hack their phones to add new features, or make it work with unsupported wireless carriers.

    What Apple might have done — and I don’t presume to be a marketing guru or to know anything about marketing at all — would have been to take a more proactive and less-negative stance on this issue.

    They could have made a bigger deal of the positive features of the update, including improved volume capability. Then put out an FAQ for people who have unlocked the phone. Maybe they should have been considerable enough to offer a tool of some sort to revert the phone to factory condition, assuming that the firmware update couldn’t accomplish that task.

    Next, tell the public they are free to do what they want, but they have to understand that making unsupported changes has consequences, but Apple would be happy to help then get their phones to function normally again with an enhanced restore application. Even though they might have voided the warranty, be nice and fix the phones anyway. Announce that they are going to do this just one time, and, in the future, if your phone is rendered inoperable by an unsupported thirty-party hack, it’s your problem.

    That’s the beginning and end of it.

    After that, I don’t think there would be too many complaints. I would also submit that the folks who develop hacks of one sort or another must take on a little responsibility too. When they build jailbreaking utilities, they need to also offer the capability of restoring the phone to factory issue ahead of installing an Apple update, or before you take the phone to your dealer for warranty service.

    Could they be held legally responsible otherwise? That’s an intriguing question that would likely depend on the sort of user licenses they post with their software. However, I’d think it would be a good idea, at the very least, to have those things reviewed by lawyers just in case.

    However, would anyone really sue an iPhone hacker because of a damaged phone? Would it make any difference, since most of these hackers are individuals or small companies who couldn’t afford to defend themselves or pay damages anyway.

    Better to sue Apple. They have deep pockets, but they also use some of their cash to hire smart attorneys who know how to defend the company against such lawsuits.

    As far as Apple is concerned, I think they’ve overcome the consequences of the bad PR moves of recent weeks. But the public isn’t always so forgiving, so next time they do something that may have unfavorable consequences for at least some customers, they ought to find a better way to handle the situation.

    Remember, Apple, the vultures are circling and they’re hunting for blood.



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    12 Responses to “Is Apple Losing its PR Edge?”

    1. reinharden says:

      The problem with building a “fixit” tool is that once an iPhone has been hacked, it really may be impossible to fix it.

      I’m not saying that it is and I’m not saying that any of the approaches that were taken by the various hacking groups did — I’m just pointing out that, as a long-time developer of embedded devices, I know that it’s quite possible to inadvertently tweak an embedded device into a state that is truly non-recoverable without physical debugging interfaces. Interfaces which are not on the shipping iPhone. In other words, a JTAG interface that has to be soldered to the phone.

      When we do embedded work and start getting preliminary turns of pre-release hardware to work with, we order many extras because we anticipate that even with our low-level hardware debugging tools we will occasionally brick our devices in ways that simply can’t be restored (short of unsoldering the flash, moving it to another machine, and reflashing it — and that ain’t easy with today’s modern embedded devices).

      When the iPhone boots, it, like most embedded devices, likely first loads a boot loader from the flash. That boot loader is typically upgradeable as well. It’s possible to corrupt the boot-loader. The boot-loader eventually loads the primary operating environment. This is also upgradeable and also possible to corrupt. That will likely load operating software for each sub-processor. Each piece of which is upgradeable and possible to corrupt.

      So, imagine that while hacking your iPhone, you introduce a subtle corruption into the flash file system that goes undetected by any of those aforementioned modules. It’s quite possible in these situations, for example, to inadvertently destroy the boot loader itself. Now, maybe you’ve got a hardware-based permanent fall-back boot loader, but maybe you don’t. And if you don’t, you’ve essentially just bricked your iPhone. And there’s really very little than even an Apple genius is going to be able to do to change that.

      Maybe someday, software will be able to ascertain all forms of corruption, but that day is not yet here. The digital signing and checksumming actually help with this since that ensures that the software loaded is correct in all aspects. If those checks fail, then we can go all the way back to forcing iTunes to reformat the flash, reflash a bootloader, and restore everything. And as long as the flash format isn’t *too* screwed up, it might even work.

      reinharden

      PS: Even without hacking, upgrading firmware is prone to danger when power goes out, solar flares fire at inconvenient times, or even, when there’s leaky microwave ovens nearby. Anything that causes a corrupt firmware image can permanently brick an embedded device.

      PPS: Of course, there are techniques to minimize the possibility of this happening…but all they do is move the occurrence rate around the curve — you can never really eliminate the possibility.

    2. Dana Sutton says:

      I’m not sure Apple has ever had a very good “p. r. edge.” Over the years, the quality of its advertising has been very uneven (some campaigns have effective, but there have been some periods in Apple history when it’s ranged from mediocre to downright nonexistent). Any corporation can be clumsy at handling bad press coverage, especially if it doesn’t have an outside p. r. form, or better yet a full-time p. r. officer who is allowed input into decisionmaking, who is capable of dealing with p. r. emergencies (you do NOT rely on your ad agency for that). A lot of Silicon Valley companies are bad at handling p. r. because they are insensitive to the importance of p. r. in its various forms: handling the press, putting out p. r. fires, having lobbyists in Sacramento and Washington, etc. etc.

    3. I’m not sure Apple has ever had a very good “p. r. edge.” Over the years, the quality of its advertising has been very uneven (some campaigns have effective, but there have been some periods in Apple history when it’s ranged from mediocre to downright nonexistent). Any corporation can be clumsy at handling bad press coverage, especially if it doesn’t have an outside p. r. form, or better yet a full-time p. r. officer who is allowed input into decisionmaking, who is capable of dealing with p. r. emergencies (you do NOT rely on your ad agency for that). A lot of Silicon Valley companies are bad at handling p. r. because they are insensitive to the importance of p. r. in its various forms: handling the press, putting out p. r. fires, having lobbyists in Sacramento and Washington, etc. etc.

      Consider the amount of publicity and, frankly, “buzz” that surrounds anything Apple does these days. That doesn’t just happen. There’s a lot of smart PR going on there, which is why, when things go badly, you have to wonder if there are a few chinks in the company’s armor.

      Peace,
      Gene

    4. Dana Sutton says:

      Oh sure, Apple is good at p. r. when it is in the driver’s seat, proactively pushing its message, creating buzz. But they are sometimes bad at handling p. r. emergencies reactively and avoiding image-damaging press coverage when things unexpectedly come unglued. Two cases in point. First case: about six months ago, when Greenpeace accused them of being ecologically unfriendly (especially embarrassing because Al Gore sits on their board). Apple’s response to that brouhaha was clumsy and unconvincing. Second case: whenever their legal department gets too heavy-handed (very memorably when it unsuccessfully sued the AppleInsider site), somebody really should really whisper in management’s ear that they need to weigh the potential negative p. r. fallout before turning the attack dogs loose. As I aid, I they need policy-making input from a p. r. officer at a fairly high level, somebody capable of getting Steve’s personal attention, so that they can react more nimbly and gracefully when bad stuff blows up, as it inevitably will for any corporation. Or better yet, so they can do a better job of seeing the bad stuff coming and avoiding it altogether. It’s pretty clear that these days they don’t have anybody like that, and they periodically suffer the consequences. They’re simply not very good at putting out fires.

    5. Oh sure, Apple is good at p. r. when it is in the driver’s seat, proactively pushing its message, creating buzz. But they are sometimes bad at handling p. r. emergencies reactively and avoiding image-damaging press coverage when things unexpectedly come unglued. Two cases in point. First case: about six months ago, when Greenpeace accused them of being ecologically unfriendly (especially embarrassing because Al Gore sits on their board). Apple’s response to that brouhaha was clumsy and unconvincing. Second case: whenever their legal department gets too heavy-handed (very memorably when it unsuccessfully sued the AppleInsider site), somebody really should really whisper in management’s ear that they need to weigh the potential negative p. r. fallout before turning the attack dogs loose. As I aid, I they need policy-making input from a p. r. officer at a fairly high level, somebody capable of getting Steve’s personal attention, so that they can react more nimbly and gracefully when bad stuff blows up, as it inevitably will for any corporation. Or better yet, so they can do a better job of seeing the bad stuff coming and avoiding it altogether. It’s pretty clear that these days they don’t have anybody like that, and they periodically suffer the consequences. They’re simply not very good at putting out fires.

      In the end, even the bad publicity doesn’t seem to hurt much Apple these days. But that could change.

      Peace,
      Gene

    6. Art Vandelay says:

      I am no longer an Apple customer and never will be again. The twin iPhone insults of the price cut and the third party lockout were the final straw. Apple is an arrogant, monopolistic bully, and I am no longer buying Steve Jobs’ BS. Apple had a great PR and marketing edge, but they’ve squandered it with their own arrogance. Treating your most loyal customers like crap is no way to build good PR. I am now using Vista Business 64 bit, and its every bit as good as OS X. The way Mac fanboys look down their nose at Vista is unjustified. Just more BS Steve Jobs marketing spin. Apple hardware is just commodity PC hardware now, but they charge a premium for it anyway. My ThinkPad R61 is better in every way to a MacBook – better specs, better quality, better warranty. But Apple still suckers people into paying more for a MacBook. Jobs is a carnival huckster and people need to wake up and smell the coffee.

    7. Randy Van Ort says:

      Ya. Lowering your price, and not letting people develop apps for you. The horror…the horror.

    8. I am no longer an Apple customer and never will be again. The twin iPhone insults of the price cut and the third party lockout were the final straw. Apple is an arrogant, monopolistic bully, and I am no longer buying Steve Jobs’ BS. Apple had a great PR and marketing edge, but they’ve squandered it with their own arrogance. Treating your most loyal customers like crap is no way to build good PR. I am now using Vista Business 64 bit, and its every bit as good as OS X. The way Mac fanboys look down their nose at Vista is unjustified. Just more BS Steve Jobs marketing spin. Apple hardware is just commodity PC hardware now, but they charge a premium for it anyway. My ThinkPad R61 is better in every way to a MacBook – better specs, better quality, better warranty. But Apple still suckers people into paying more for a MacBook. Jobs is a carnival huckster and people need to wake up and smell the coffee.

      I’m sorry, but I really think you’re just making up stories and trolling for an argument.

      First of all, Apple never promised that they’d keep the price the same. Unlike all other makers of mobile phones, they also delivered price protection for those buying the iPhone up to two weeks prior to the price cut, and a $100 rebate for everyone else. When the Motorola RAZR’s price quickly dipped with the initial $300 to $400 for early adopters, and the phone became a free premium for carriers to sign up new subscribers, how many people complained and filed class-action lawsuits? Do I hear a response from you? I didn’t think so.

      Second, Apple never promised full third-party application support. They’ve offered limited supported via the Safari Web browser and haven’t completely shut the door towards a future expansion for application developers. But that’s as far as it goes; all third-party hacks are strictly unsupported.

      Meantime, as I write this, iPhone jailbrakers have reportedly succeeded in gaining preliminary access to phones with the 1.1.1 update installed. This indicates that third party apps may be fully restored soon.

      On that basis, are you going to throw away your alleged 64-bit Windows box and buy a Mac again — assuming you ever owned one?

      No insults please. If you can’t deliver facts, don’t bother to respond.

      Peace,
      Gene

    9. Louis Wheeler says:

      Gene, please, You must know that there has been an organized group to put a bad spin on anything that Apple does. The FUD they generate started with IBM in the 1980’s, but has continued to the present. Apple’s response is to ignore it. Apple tells the truth as they see it and hopes that their customers are smart enough to see through the lies.

      Some of their customers objected to Apple lowering their price on the iPhone. Did they have a moral or legal case? No. Although the Anti-Apple pundits did not intend this, but the hullabaloo that resulted may have done Apple good. It made millions of people aware that the price had dropped.

      Some other people wanted to break their warranties by hacking their iPhones. For all the commotion, most ordinary people probably haven’t noticed this.

      I expect most people want to use their iPhones as phones, not as handheld computers. I expect that Apple will sell three to four million iPhones during the Christmas quarter. All the fuss that the FUDsters do is just make more people aware of the iPhone.

      Some cynical advertising people say that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Issues blow over and people still remember the name. So what if Apple gets a reputation for defending their rights? Is this such a bad thing?

    10. John Fallon says:

      Ya. Lowering your price, and not letting people develop apps for you. The horror…the horror.

      The iphone has less functionality in a lot of ways than a $99 Palm. Not because Palm does great apps, because the Palm platform is a bit open, bad as it is.

      I was at the Adobe Max conference last week in Chicago. Three-fourths of the presenters we saw were using MacBook Pro’s or the like. I saw one iPhone out of thousands of people. Most of them had Blackberries of one sort or another, with a lot of Windows phones. Mac loving geeks would be a pretty likely place to see iPhones, I’d have thought.

      I expect most people paying $400 for a phone want more than a cooler-looking Razr.

    11. Ya. Lowering your price, and not letting people develop apps for you. The horror…the horror.

      The iphone has less functionality in a lot of ways than a $99 Palm. Not because Palm does great apps, because the Palm platform is a bit open, bad as it is.

      I was at the Adobe Max conference last week in Chicago. Three-fourths of the presenters we saw were using MacBook Pro’s or the like. I saw one iPhone out of thousands of people. Most of them had Blackberries of one sort or another, with a lot of Windows phones. Mac loving geeks would be a pretty likely place to see iPhones, I’d have thought.

      I expect most people paying $400 for a phone want more than a cooler-looking Razr.

      I’ve used a RAZR for an extended period of time.

      I have used an iPhone briefly, but long enough to know it doesn’t resemble a RAZR in the least.

      Where do you get this silly stuff from?

      Peace,
      Gene

    12. former mac user? says:

      It concerns me about what has been happening lately with apple products over the past couple of years. Despite increasing their market share, the overall quality of every product has most definitely suffered. It is very unfortunate and is creating a void in the niche market of high end computer reliability.

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