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Apple abdicates responsibility for its products

Comment Tries to lower the bar of corporate liability
Tue Jul 13 2010, 13:00
Apple iPhone 4

BASKING IN THE GLORY of yet another successful product launch, Apple decided to appease its users mired in Iphone reception problems with an admission that something was actually wrong.

Apple has always fiercely defended its products, and the firm is adamant that the Iphone 4 is free of fundamental hardware defects. So it was greeted with collective astonishment when Apple issued a press release admitting that something was awry with its Iphone 4.

It was clear that Steve Jobs and crew were taking the patronising route of admitting to a failure, cleverly blaming others for not mitigating the underlying problem and finally bowing to pressure by releasing a pseudo fix. It's all very clever until you realise that even Apple users are getting fed up of being treated like battery hens.

At the crux of the matter is Apple's admission that reception problems are being caused not by a dodgy antenna design but rather a miscalculation of reception levels. The algorithm used to display the 'bars' on Iphones has been out of whack for years now, apparently going unnoticed until the "radical" new design in antennas showed up the problem, claimed Apple.

The pent up ire that has been unleashed since Apple's admission is not only justified but required. If firms such as Apple can get away with hoodwinking customers into accepting fundamental product faults as merely superficial perceptions then it will pave the way for other companies to do the same.

The idea that what has clearly been demonstrated as a hardware fault is simply a miscalculation not only insults the intelligence of the consumer but represents a flagrant disregard for customer care.

Unlike Google's Android operating system, which is open source, no one can truly verify the threshold for each reception 'bar'. While reverse engineering is always possible, the validity of the results attained can never be guaranteed. The Iphone 4 might indeed have the best reception of all Iphone models, but given that the bar was set so low, claiming that achievement only amounts to saying the Iphone 4 is the best of a bad lot.

Regardless of specific bar threshold levels, the fact is that holding the Iphone 4 in a particular way results in reception being lost. If, as Apple is indirectly claiming, those who demonstrate their Iphone's loss of reception never had any connectivity in the first place, how is it possible to make a call and then lose reception without physically changing location?

The notion that somehow your hand affects a mobile phone's signal is not limited to the Iphone 4. With internal antennas there is always a trade-off between performance and aesthetics. However, Apple's creative implementation of a hybrid antenna has caught the firm out.

Though embarrassing, if Apple were to admit the problem and offer a true fix for it, that might help set it apart from the faceless tin-box floggers of Dell, HP and the like. Instead, taking a hands over ears while singing stance, it chose to get hammered, even by the usually tame mainstream media.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Apple is denying a problem with the design of the Iphone 4. After all, the firm is known for supposedly creating innovative and stylish designs for its products. Admitting its superstar gadget designer Jonathan Ive let a lemon of a design be manufactured would be far worse than claiming its software developers are inept.

This admission of software failure is not without precedent. When Apple made the jump to OS X, the failings of the first release actually led it to give away the next version, Mac OS X 10.1.

Widespread design and functionality failures in Apple's Aperture photo editing software led the firm to slash the price of the 'premium' software by over 50 per cent after it realised that a fancy interface wasn't enough to compete with Adobe's superior software. In both cases Apple made embarrassing indirect admissions that its software division was less than completely up to scratch. So, perhaps in the Iphone 4 saga, it's a case of the software developers taking another for the team.

What Apple's announcement has done, aside from hold the company up for ridicule, is push it into a corner. With its admission that reception figures were inflated in all Iphones, there is every chance that, should an Iphone 4 recall have to be undertaken, the firm would be forced to do similar recalls for its previous models. All of this has made the odds of finding Lord Lucan shorter than Apple announcing a mass recall of the Iphone 4.

Brushing aside the trifling matter that the supposed exaggeration of reception will actually mean a perceived degradation in experience, Apple's sleight of hand is impressive yet immensely worrying. Rather than focusing the spotlight of blame on its product's ill-conceived design, it has tried to deflect its customers' anger toward mobile operators and their implied inability to provide satisfactory coverage.

It's certainly true that mobile operators often try to bathe themselves in glory by claiming meaningless coverage figures that often fail to stand up to real world experience. However in this case, having a go at mobile operators isn't the real issue. No, the real issue is the unwillingness of a major multinational corporation to accept blame for a severe product flaw.

Apple is, rightly, held up as the gold standard in the consumer gadget industry. In the past decade Jobs has not only managed to turn the company around but has managed to mould it into a company that has ridden through the recession like a champion jockey on a thoroughbred horse.

So, if its competitors witness Apple being able to flog second rate equipment and pass off faults as figments of customers' imaginations, then the Iphone 4 saga might affect a lot more consumers than the well-heeled Apple demographic.

For Apple the Iphone 4 represented a chance to provide a device that would confirm its lead as the top dog in the smartphone market. Instead the Iphone 4 is turning out to be, quite simply, a dog and a blot on Apple's reputation.

It's not the numerous faults that leave a sour taste in the mouth, however, but Apple's treatment of those loyal customers who have spent small fortunes on a mobile phone that cannot even make calls.

Apple, like any company, should not be allowed to treat its customers with such arrogant disdain. Whether or not it does the right thing and fixes what is clearly a fundamental problem with the Iphone 4 could in no small way shape how other device makers perceive what they will be able get away with in the future. µ

 

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