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  • Is Something Rotten at Slate?

    August 26th, 2008

    Depending on your point of view about a situation, you can either kick someone when they’re down, or support them and give them a reasonable amount of time to recover. Since Apple Inc. is at the top of the world these days, you can bet that any problems they encounter will be amplified. After all, whatever goes up must come down. Yes, that’s another old phrase, and I hope you’re not getting sick of them.

    Well, a recent commentary from Farhad Manjoo at Slate’s site shows how you can take a few disparate facts and develop a thoroughly misleading theory that Apple is in serious trouble. The posture Manjoo takes is typical of slash and burn pieces, to be sure, but it’s definitely worth a few comments.

    It all begins in paragraph number one, where the writer says, “In its ubiquitous TV ads, Apple claims that its new iPhone is twice as fast as the original version and just half the price. Neither is true.”

    Well, the latter is partly true. You pay half the price upfront in the U.S., for example, but AT&T instituted a higher rate for its data plans, because of the speedier 3G network. But that’s typical of their pricing policy, and the core claim is hardly a fib. As to the first claim, about network speeds, my own tests — and a set of trials run around the world by readers of Wired — that the iPhone 3G does indeed deliver on Apple’s promise. However, as Apple says in its fine print, network conditions can conspire to create problems.

    Indeed, AT&T’s 3G network is young and untested with the kind of demand lots of iPhone 3Gs place upon it. So in larger cities, where there are a lot of these smartphones around, clogged traffic has caused problems. But that’s not Apple’s fault. It’s up to AT&T to tune its network and, as they continue to promise, increase capacity and coverage. In short, Manjoo clearly believes that class action lawsuit filed against Apple by an iPhone owner, alleging that the claims of twice the speed are false, has merit. I think the lawsuit is bogus, but your mileage mary vary.

    Another issue involves the supposed widespread inability of iPhone applications to launch, but the real problem involves frequent crashing. Both iPhone 2.0.1 and 2.0.2 helped some, and Steve Jobs himself promises a software fix in September. Once again, Manjoo gets it wrong.


    When it comes to MobileMe, of course, Manjoo actually has a point. The rollout was a disaster, and Apple admits as much. However, the claim about “some users reporting losing years of saved e-mail” is questionable. Apple says that about 1% of MobileMe users lost about 10% of the mail received over a period of a few days, and it appears at least some of those messages have been recovered. I’ve seen no evidence that Apple is lying.

    Manjoo does correctly report that MobileMe users got a service credit, but gets the numbers wrong. It’s three months, not two. What’s more, in a widely-published employee memo, Steve Jobs promised ongoing improvements, and, in fact, put iTunes executive Eddie Cue in charge of the whole enterprise, and he has a great track record of getting things done.

    The third leg of this hatchet job implies that “Apple’s PCs aren’t doing so well either” because a single user reported having problems with four new Macs, one of which was actually traced to a defective keyboard. If that keyboard was the one that shipped with a desktop Mac, it’s trivial, since its is easily replaced with just about any recent third-party keyboard on the planet, and Apple would have no problem exchanging it quickly.

    Now I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to believe that, just because one person gets a bad run of Macs, there is a general decline in the reliability of Apple’s hardware.

    Once he gets past these questionable issues, he talks of the legendary Jobs “reality distortion field,” implying that Apple fans will overlook troublesome products because they just adore the company, or perhaps they are hypnotized en masse and have lost their capacity to separate fact from fancy.

    Setting aside the concept of Steve Jobs as a religious figure for the moment, let’s make a solid reality check: Apple has a bad habit of not explaining problems with adequate detail, and sometimes early in the game, before the naysayers have ammunition to light the flames. In contrast, when Netflix recently had problems with their order processing and shipping systems, they admitted the difficulties up front, and automatically extended memberships to compensate.

    Yes, Apple did right by its MobileMe customers, but you get the impression the credits were granted reluctantly after lots of members and the press in general complained loudly.

    As of now, MobileMe’s performance has improved greatly, and the email service has become pretty efficient and reliable. The site itself is easy to navigate, and all of the features, at least for me, actually work.

    The iPhone 3G’s issues seem, in large part, to be symptoms of network clutter or signal issues, and Apple can only do so much to fix things on their end. What’s more, many iPhone owners have no problems at all — I have just a few actually.

    My Mac hardware remains as reliable as it’s ever been, and, aside from a few general defects that result in extended repair programs, I think most of you will agree.

    As to hack writers such as Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, the article strikes me as little more than fodder for the supermarket tabloid.


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