Don’t give Apple a pass

Posted on August 15, 2008 6:54 pm by | Crisis Communication | External | Transparency

I was embarrassed today during my presentation at New Media Expo in Las Vegas. John C. Havens, the co-author of my new book , and I were delivering a talk on the the theme of the book, “Tactical Transparency.” When discussing the notion of being transparent about business processes and problems, I used Apple’s Mobile Me as an example, showing a screen shot of the MobileMe Status page on the Apple website.

As soon as I started talking about it, a hand shot up. Allison Sheridan said the MobileMe status page was a terrible example.

I was confounded. After all, the inaugural post to the MobileMe status page made my point precisely:

Steve Jobs has asked me to write a posting every other day or so to let everyone know what???s happening with MobileMe, and I???m working directly with the MobileMe group to ensure that we keep you really up to date.

But Allison explained that updates to the site had stopped. David G., the site’s author, did not make good on his promise. Her husband, she said lost weeks worth of email and looked to the status page for information that was never posted. I had added the screenshot shortly after the third update was posted because John and I were required to meet a deadline for delivering a copy of the presentation. I hadn’t checked the site since then. Big mistake.

When I got back to my room, I visited the site. There are still only three posts there, the most recent from July 29. That final post concludes with these words:

“Next post later this week.”

Is David willing to blow off Jobs’ instructions to “write a posting every other day or so?” (That would take some chutzpah.) Has Jobs decided to return to Apple’s traditional opacity when it comes to communicating with customers? I can think of a dozen or so other reasons the updates may have been suspended, none of which excuse the shrugging off of a commitment made to customers to keep them informed. To make matters, worse, there have been continued problems with the service. Still, no updates.

But, hey, that’s just Apple. We’ll let it go because they make such cool products, right?

In fact, Apple frequently gets a pass for atrocious communication practices (among other things) because the manufacturer of such cool products can do no wrong. The Apple faithful turn a blind eye to any flaws, excusing the company because, well, we all just love our Macs and iPods.

Personally, I prefer Windows to the Mac. I had a Mac for 15 months and wound up giving it to my daughter and returning happily to the Windows world. But I have several other Apple products that I do love. And I still don’t think that makes the Mobile Me situation acceptable. Any organization that makes a public commitment to communicate and then clams up is, more than likely, hiding something. Even if they’re not, that’s the perception that will be created by their sudden silence.

MobileMe was (and continues to be) an unmitigated disaster (particularly compared to the relative trouble-free launch of Microsoft’s Live Mesh). The company launched a status page and promised updates “every day or so.” The company provided three updates, then went silent. And there has been barely a whisper of protest. (I say “barely” because there have been some reports of the sudden halt to updates, but not many…certainly not nearly as many as there would have been had it been Microsoft in the hot seat.)

Yeah, Apple’s products are cool. But it’s time to stop giving them a pass.

08/15/08 | 7 Comments | Don’t give Apple a pass



  • 1.Shel,

    Thanks for a spot on post today.

    Let me say right up front that I work for Sprint Nextel Corp. These are my personal views, not that of my employer, which is selling the Samsung Instinct. The Instinct directly competes with the iPhone 3G, so I fully admit I'm not objective.

    It's not unusual in the wireless industry to launch a device which experiences a few glitches in the initial weeks of availability, but the iPhone 3G has more problems than MobileMe. There were problems with the activation process during the weekend the product launched because Apple opened the App store the same weekend. That's been resolved but there remain serious problems with the device dropping calls when it switches from 3G to 2G or WiFi. Leslie Cauley at USA Today has a story out this morning with an inside unnamed source blaming a computer chip, but Apple will not comment. That's been their approach with every iPhone 3G problem.

    In my personal blog this week, I contrasted Apple's approach to crisis communications with that of Netflix, which is suffering through computer problems with their distribution system this week. While the crisis has taken a toll on their reputation, their PR response was given high marks by CNBC, who broke the story earlier this week.

    You're right, as consumers, we do give Apple a pass because we love their products. (I can't exercise without my iPod.) But because Apple is so customer-driven and customer-focused, I'm wondering if the "no comment" response is starting to damage the Apple brand.

    I don't know, but I do know if Samsung, LG, Motorola, HTC, RIM or any other Apple competitor behaved in this way, every tech writer on the Internet would demand an answer. Perhaps that says as much about Apple having farther to fall as it does about the objectivity of technology columnists who use Apple's products to do their jobs.

    John Taylor | August 2008 | Reston, VA

  • 2.Shel,

    I agree with your main premise that Apple should be dinged for reneging on its stated promise to remain transparent regarding MobileMe. Apple also shouldn't get a free pass regarding the quality of its products and services, just because it's "Apple."

    However, I would bet that your readers (and FIR listeners) could create quite a list of electronics manufacturers who have consistently demonstrated "atrocious communication practices" (among other things).

    My submission would be Palm, another company that, some years ago, enjoyed some glow as a manufacturer of "cool" products.

    I made the mistake of purchasing the Palm T/X for my wife and I. I call it a "mistake" because I later learned through online discussions (here: that Palm continues to market and distribute the T/X even though its digitizer screen (which controls the reaction when you tap the device with a stylus) is defective.

    I ended up buying and installing a glass digitizer from a third-party parts supplier. Although my T/X now works great, it will be the last Palm product that I purchase.

    The reason is Palm's lack of openness about the digitizer issue, and its decision to knowingly sell defective products.

    Tom Keefe | August 2008 | Chicago

  • 3.Tom, I agree completely. However, these other companies HAVE been called on their behaviors. People generally let Apple slide.

    Shel Holtz | August 2008

  • 4.Shel:

    Great post.

    I completely agree. As much as I love my iPhone and have considered buying a Mac (the design and "cool" factor are tough to avoid!) I just hate the communications efforts from Apple. I love many of their products, but I just hate their arrogance.

    Why does the world/market seem to have a separate set of standards for Apple in comparison to the rest of the world? Why, as you say, do we look at Apple problems and say, "They do such great things, we'll ignore this set of problems and just say how bad Windows is?"

    I recently had to call their tech support for a problem with my iPhone. Now, I understand that I would be on the phone for a while, but it was close to an hour and a half, talking to a couple different people. The first guy was nice, but didn't know how to help. Then, he said that he was going to consult his product specialist (shouldn't they ALL be product specialists?) and that guy may take the call over. He had to wait over 15 minutes to talk to the guy. Then he came back and said, "Try these two things." Those didn't work, so I had to wait another 20 minutes to talk to the product specialist who ultimately solved the problem.

    Any other company would have been beat up for a similar response to a tech support issue.

    In addition, I talked to a few people at Apple stores and on the phone and asked about another problem with the iPhone not removing played podcasts consistently. The responses I got were either, "yeah, I hope they fix that," or "just remove them manually."

    Remove them manually?!? Not a very good solution from a company that's supposed to make products that "just work."

    I get tired of the arrogance that Apple and Steve Jobs can get away with, but until a company comes along that compete with them in the world of "cool factor," I fear we may be stuck with it.


    Kevin Behringer | August 2008 | Whitewater, WI

  • 5.Who is giving Apple a free pass on this problem?

    Not the WSJ:

    All I have heard via twitter from my MacGenius Mac-cult friends is that MobileMe=Fail. And this comes weeks before the wave of articles. Perhaps my friends are more prophetic in their private rantings than I give them credit. :)

    Take heart, looks to me like the tech world online is giving them hell as they should:

    But of course people aren't explicitly asking for mere transparency, but products and services that simply work the way they are promised.

    Bevin | August 2008 | nc

  • 6.Hi, Bevin. Thanks for commenting.

    The pass isn't on the bad technology; it's on the bad communication!

    Shel Holtz | August 2008 | Concord, CA

  • 7.I agree, Shel. I have an iMac that I bought about a year ago. I've given up several attempts over the last twelve months to set up basic stuff like iChat and Mail, because their account set up systems send you repeatedly round and round in circles until eventually - in my case - you lose track of what your user name/passwords were in the first place. You're a lucky man if you can find an easy way of getting help. I got a 'courtesy call' the other day from a rep who wanted to know 'how I was getting on with it'. Naively I took him at his word, until he tried to sell me a new warranty AND the privilege of telephone support for about 150 UK pounds. Wow, I mean, I only spent a grand on it, so why would that entitle me to some support from a real person. Anyone can develop and market great stuff, but great SERVICE is what makes people come back with a smile on their face.

    Al Shaw | August 2008 | UK

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