Apple’s Unfortunate Economy of Words

August 5th, 2008

So we all understand the original version of the iPhone 2.0 software was mighty buggy. Applications had a propensity to crash far more often than they should, and that includes Apple’s own Mail and Safari. Even more irritating, text entry in Mail would sometimes become dog slow, and only a restart would set things right.

There were other general performance problems too. The innate snappiness of the original iPhone software had become lethargic, particularly when you opened your contact list. Not good.

Well, on Monday evening, Apple released the highly-anticipated 2.0.1 update. Exemplifying their propensity towards pithy comments, the only information provided was that it contained “bug fixes.”

Now I know many of you have been very concerned about the fact that Apple, with the exception of regular Mac OS X maintenance updates and security fixes, usually withholds the specifics of their various updates. This doesn’t mean there’s no way to find out what issues they addressed. There are enough Mac power users online these days that the specifics will no doubt be posted within hours of the update’s release.

So, with iPhone 2.0.1, we know that keyboard responsiveness is improved (but not completely fixed), the graphical interface has regained its mojo and backups via iTunes run considerably faster. The signal strength indicator for your wireless provider’s network is supposedly more accurate.

No doubt there are other more subtle changes that will discovered, but there’s nothing here that Apple couldn’t clearly explain in the update’s release notes. At worst, they could provide a link to the Web site, as they do with Mac system and security updates, for a full list of what’s been changed or repaired.

Now I realize Apple is secretive to the point of paranoia in releasing details about the company or its products. This makes a whole lot of sense when it comes to information about new stuff, since the vultures are circling One Infinite Loop and they’d love to know what Apple is working on.

But when it comes to simply addressing product defects, I fail to see a downside in providing the full story. It’s not as if the issue of improved keyboard responsiveness, for example, is somehow going to help RIM produce a better BlackBerry. So what’s the point?

Of course, this economy of words infects all of Apple, and it doesn’t serve them well. Take the question of Steve Jobs’ health. After the stock kept taking a beating, in part, evidently, because of those ongoing concerns, Jobs telephoned a reporter for The New York Times and gave him the specifics in a background briefing. While the story didn’t contain actual quotes about Jobs’ medical issues, the reporter referred to them in general as more serious than a “bug,” but not life-threatening.

Sure, that’s reassuring, but why couldn’t Apple’s board of directors just release a single paragraph on the subject that contained the essential details and be done with it? To what degree did Apple’s stock price decline by its failure to provide that information?

I agree that, for most companies, a CEO’s health is a private matter. But when it comes to a corporate head whose fate is so tightly entwined to that of the company he works for, such as Steve Jobs, this is critical information that affects everyone with a stake in the company, from employees and stockholders to customers.

Yes, perhaps Apple has a proper succession plan that will allow Apple to persevere for years following through on the vision of its co-founder. But psychology really influences the financial markets, and properly executed spin and/or damage control isn’t a bad thing.

That takes us to the recent release of a corporate memo from Jobs about the MobileMe launch fiasco. Sure, Apple has admitted that things went badly, and they offered existing subscribers a one-month extension. Mine hasn’t shown up yet, but I’ll cut Apple a little slack, so long as it appears before my renewal date, in early October.

Now Ars Technica, a terrific tech news and review site, has published the details of Jobs’ letter. There’s nothing in it, as far as I can tell, that contains proprietary information about Apple’s network, but the key details are worth repeating here, so you don’t have to follow the links:

“It was a mistake to launch MobileMe at the same time as iPhone 3G, iPhone 2.0 software and the App Store. We all had more than enough to do, and MobileMe could have been delayed without consequence.”

In addition, Apple has promoted iTunes executive Eddy Cue to handle all of Apple’s Internet services. What’s more, Jobs concedes that they’ve learned from their missteps and they hope to make MobileMe something they can be proud of by the end of the year.

In saying that, however, I wonder why this memo wasn’t just delivered as a press release in the first place? It’s not as if Jobs didn’t know it would get out anyway, since it wasn’t released under a corporate NDA.

While I am glad to see that Apple isn’t above admitting error from time to time, I wish they would make a better effort to be more forthcoming about such matters. Confessing one’s imperfections shouldn’t be a bad thing, as my wife continues to remind me.

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5 Responses to “Apple’s Unfortunate Economy of Words”

  1. Lantrix says:

    As companies grow, especially tech companies, they all seem to exhibit this behaviour. It is a symptom of capitalism. Not nessecarily a bad thing; but a symptom none the less.

  2. As companies grow, especially tech companies, they all seem to exhibit this behaviour. It is a symptom of capitalism. Not nessecarily a bad thing; but a symptom none the less.

    You can’t force them to provide more information, but there are instances where it’s essential.


  3. adam says:

    Actually, that email should not have gotten released. When you work for Apple, part of the deal is that all internal communications are strictly confidential. Under the terms of the contracts Apple employees (like myself in a recent former life) sign completely forbids release of just such information. In fact, if Apple were to discover me writing this reply while I was in their employ, I could suddenly find myself out of their employ.

    In this case I think it has done Apple a world of good and I wonder if this wasn’t a planned leak, sort of a more elegant version of Steve’s recent “off the record” phone call about his health. One of Apple’s problems is that such a press release would raise the bar of what is expected from them and make it even harder to keep silent in the future when they want to.

    As for silence on the iPhone bug release, I think that’s paranoia while getting to know a new market. Apple (headlines to the contrary not withstanding) is very serious about security and in particular as it relates to the iPhone. They don’t want to admit anything for fear of being labelled in some negative context. Again, everything they say sets an expectation for the future and I think they have gambled so heavily on the portable everything market, that they are being extremely cautious. In a way it’s like not defending intellectual property, only in reverse. With IP, if you don’t defend it, you give up your right to defend it. In this case if you do release information, you are expected to repeat that behavior, like it or not.

    I think I understand why Apple communicates (or fails to) as it does, but I don’t like it and there are clearly times when it works against them.

    My $0.02

  4. Even if it violates the standard employment contract, they knew it would get out. 🙂

    Planned? Likely, but I agree it sometimes works against them.


  5. PowerBookMac says:

    People (and Apple!) should realize that simply saying “bug fixes” _will not_ fly in the enterprise. Before a patch is deployed on scale, the support teams will understand and endorse it, and be prepared to back it off if necessary. No IT manager will agree that “bug fixes” fits their definition of a supportable patch.

    So Apple, if you want to get into the enterprise, start sharing your patch lists.

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