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Apple Walks the Tightrope

A now-deceased comedy performer once used the catch phrase, “If it isn’t one thing, it’s another” as part of a classic TV routine. And clearly that applies to Apple Inc. these days.

Indeed, it’s not easy being a star, although many of you have no doubt aspired to that status. For one thing, bottom feeders, jealous people and lots of others will have it in for you. You become a ripe subject of incessant gossip. One misstep, and you’re yesterday’s news.

With Apple’s recent trials and tribulations, it seems very much like theater. First, they ran out of stock of the first-generation iPhone weeks before the new model was scheduled to be released. Now I don’t know if they planned it this way, just to make sure that they didn’t have any leftovers in the stock rooms that had to be sold at closeout prices, or it was just one of those things.

But considering how carefully they keep tabs on inventory, that simply doesn’t pass the logic test. They would have known months in advance if they were about to run out of stock, and could have adjusted production accordingly. I suppose it’s possible they encountered manufacturing difficulties with their new model, or they wanted to start as early as possible to satisfy the initial clamor for the iPhone 3G. Then again, that didn’t work so well now did it?

Or perhaps, as I first suggested, that’s precisely how Apple’s marketing people planned it all along. Make you salivate for the second generation iPhone, and there would be long lines waiting outside Apple’s stores and those of independent resellers to get theirs. Sending lots of disappointed people home because stores ran out of stock also made for good headlines.

What doesn’t sound so good, however, is when things break. I continue to complain about the MobileMe fiasco because it put Apple in the worst possible light. For so long, those Mac versus PC commercials have portrayed Apple products as being easy to use and relatively foolproof, while Windows is a constant source of irritation.

With MobileMe, Apple’s customers simply wanted reliable email service and the ability to sync their stuff in a timely fashion. They don’t want to have contacts and messages disappear from their iPhones, or suffer extended outages where the prospects for full recovery may be questionable.

Now there are a few published reports that claim Apple has finally restored those missing messages to all affected customers, but the MobileMe status blogs speak of restoring “historical” messages and not the recent ones that were identified as lost. Now perhaps the Apple blogger misspoke — or perhaps not. Regardless, the folks who did suffer from lost messages will no doubt chime in soon with their own war stories, if there are any.

When it comes to the App Store, Apple proudly boasts of 25 million downloads in the first week. They don’t, however, talk about the delays in getting application updates posted. A number shipped with crashing bugs or other defects, and it would be nice to have the updates available as quickly as possible. However, Apple has to review each and every product they distribute. While I can understand their concerns and their desire to keep unsavory content off the App Store, legitimate software publishers ought to be treated better.

Another problem is Apple’s NDA, which evidently didn’t expire when the new iPhone software was released and the App Store opened for business. That means, for example, that developers are not only barred from talking with other publishers, but in holding proper external beta testing programs. Even though iPhone apps tend to be simple affairs, with basic features and few options, certainly hardworking developers ought to have full control of their own intellectual property.

On the other hand, Matt Mullenweg and his crew at WordPress have made their iPhone app open source, and, so far at least, Apple hasn’t complained. But give them time.

Now while you might think some of these issues were unfortunate side-effects of the rush to get lots of products and services out real quickly, Apple’s stuff has been infected with a number of early-release bugs in recent years. When the first Intel-based note-books came out, for example, there were battery failures and complaints they ran too hot. The bad batteries were readily replaced, and the cooling fans began to run more efficiently as the result of firmware updates, but calling them laptops was still a stretch. That is, unless you just want to keep your legs warm in the winter.

My 2008 edition MacBook Pro runs a whole lot cooler than the original version, but a lot of that is probably due to the use of Intel’s new Penryn chips, which are are also more power efficient. Running the fans twice as fast didn’t hurt either.

Apple’s Time Machine worked pretty well out of the starting gate, with Leopard’s release, but the Time Capsule router and network backup device had some serious early teething pains. Now mine works just fine, but I didn’t acquire one until after a couple of downloadable updates were released.

I haven’t had a lick of trouble with my Mac Pro, but I was always concerned about danger of leaks from the liquid cooling system on its predecessor, a Power Mac G5 Quad. No, I didn’t have any such issues, nor did the computer’s new owner, but there have been some troubling reports. You can well understand why Apple was delighted to ditch the ultra-hot running G5 and move on to Intel’s processors. Yes, the Pentium 4 was notorious for running hot, but that was yesterday.

Meantime, Apple’s reputation for smooth-running, reliable products and services has been tarnished. Yes, they can live it down, and they are certainly doing better than some of the competition. But too many failures will not help their bottom line, particularly if a lot of potential Windows switchers decide that things aren’t really so much better on the other side of the tracks.