Apple in the Crosshairs

January 9th, 2018

Not all of the coverage Apple has received in the past few months has been favorable; far from it. At a time when it no doubt would have preferred that we all speak in glowing terms about the iPhone 8, the iPhone X and the iMac Pro, the discussion occasionally went off the rails in ways that may not have been predictable.

In November, it was reported that macOS High Sierra had a perfectly silly bug that allowed you to gain full admin access without using a password. Not even the word “password.” Zilch, zero, and you wonder how it would have gone undetected by Apple’s OS engineers. It was all fixed quickly enough, but not before Apple got some pretty bad coverage over this carelessness.

Of course, it’s not that it would have been quickly exploited. I assume hackers would usually just try out passwords rather than assume that one wasn’t needed.

In any case, all went well through the first part of December. Shipping dates were announced for the iMac Pro, and Apple’s new powerhouse all-in-one workstation got excellent reviews. For content creators, scientists and others who had no problem paying from $4,999 to $13,199 for one of the most powerful personal computers on the planet would have been rewarded with a terrific machine. All right, it wasn’t so terrific if you wanted to upgrade something inside, but what did you expect?

In any case, Apple continues to promise that a modular upgradeable Mac Pro is under development, so if the iMac Pro isn’t your cup of tea, you may be able to spend even more money on the long-awaited successor to the failed 2013 trash can model.

As the year was coming to a close, Apple found itself in the thick of it again due to its usual failure to fully detail the changes in OS updates. There were reports that older iPhones were running really slow, based on the usual benchmarks. Did Apple deliberately cripple performance in order to entice you to upgrade? Was this the ultimate exercise in planned obsolescence?

As it turned out, it was all the result of a choice Apple made when it released iOS 10.2.1 in late 2016. In order to control the phenomenon of some iPhones with failing batteries shutting down, Apple opted to reduce performance when the unit was under load.

Good intentions no doubt, but Apple failed to fully explain what it was doing and how to restore your iPhone to full performance. Some people reportedly replaced their phones; others paid for new batteries and realized all was well.

But until Apple made its apologies, class action lawsuits were filed. Accusations did include the planned obsolescence claim. At first, Apple clarified the reasoning behind the updates in iOS 10 and iOS 11 that reduced performance. But that wasn’t quite enough to mollify the complainers. So there was yet a second, more detailed statement, accompanied by detailed support notes. The price of battery replacements was reduced from $79 to $29 until the end of 2018. I’m not sure how customers who already paid full price for battery replacements — or bought them from non-authorized dealers — will be treated. And what about those who bought new iPhones? Were they entitled to refunds.

So until all these cases wind their way through the courts, it’s hard to know how it’ll all end up, but I suspect Apple will settle where it can and give coupons to those who participated in the filings.

Thus ended 2017, as expectant Apple watchers wait for February 1st, when December quarterly financials will be disclosed. Did the iPhone X reach stratospheric sales, or did it crash and burn? There are both versions out there, but Apple doesn’t ordinarily break down sales among different models. Positive signs for the newest iPhone will include record sales, at or above analyst estimates, and higher average resale prices.

The year began with yet another potential scandal, but it wasn’t Apple’s. Intel announced that two CPU bugs, labeled Meltdown and Spectre, were discovered recently, but impacted all their chips dating back to 1997, plus silicon from ARM and other companies. One wonders how they went undiscovered for so long, but one of my colleagues suggested that it was the result of the use of sandboxing in current operating systems. This procedure involves walling off apps, with special exceptions, for better security.

In short order, Apple released updates for iOS 11 and macOS High Sierra to “mitigate” Meltdown. On Monday, a supplemental update for 10.13.2 and an iOS 11.2.2 update addressed Spectre, which impacts  browsers. Microsoft patched Windows, but its Spectre fix reportedly bricked some PCs with AMD CPUs, even though that company’s chips aren’t vulnerable. Strange that there hasn’t been a lot of coverage of that problem. If it happened to Apple, you’d never hear the end of it.

Indeed, Apple got blamed for getting in front of the issue and explaining its plans. Soon the story became all about Apple, rather than one that impacted billions of computing devices, of which iPhones, iPads, the Apple TV and Macs were just a part.

Forgetting the unfair press, Apple’s documentation on the CPU bug was actually pretty well prepared. Sure, it was a little technical for many users, but it was a refreshing example of getting in front of a problem and reassuring customers that Apple was on the case.

If this is an example of how Apple will handle such matters going forward, it will be a lesson well learned.

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One Response to “Apple in the Crosshairs”

  1. dfs says:

    Gene, everything you say would make good sense if it weren’t for the new High Sierra bug concerning Apple Store password handling in System Preferences. This one seems to be entirely on Apple. There’s something definitely going wrong in Cupertino. My guess is that the real culprit is Apple’s habit of releasing new products according to preannounced calendar dates. By creating these self-imposed deadlines, Apple has painted itself into a corner where every time it fails to meet one it suffers an otherwise entirely needless p. r. black eye (and maybe the value of AAPL shares takes a hit). So they make every effort to shove their products, both hardware and software, out the door on schedule. It’s pretty easy to see how this can become a recipe for disaster, since it creates a corporate atmosphere in which slipshod quality control is allowed to enter the picture. Add to this the traditional Apple “public beta” philosophy whereby new OS versions are put out before each and every little bug is stomped and then corrective updates are released in rapid succession (typically the first one comes out within a very few weeks) on the basis of feedback. This policy places every customer who buys the product or adopts the software upgrade in the position of recruited as a beta tester, no matter how inadvertently, and therefore into running the risks that go along with beta testing. I suspect there are some things to be said in favor of this philosophy (so very different from Microsoft’s far more conservative approach), but when taken in combination with the acceptance of self-imposed deadlines it becomes a way of turning some pretty serious bugs loose on the user base.

    Therefore my own view is that Apple is due for some pretty serious self-examination followed by some major changes in its corporate culture. But I have severe doubts whether the management team which created this culture are the people most willing or able to fix it.

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