Friday’s press conference on the Apple campus in Cupertino was unprecedented in a number of ways. Apple is used to calling the shots, and talking on its own terms and timing. The iPhone 4 antenna situation has been a complete reversal: external pressure has forced Apple to talk sooner, in more detail, and on more occasions than it had probably ever expected or wished to.
For at least a week, “Antennagate” has transcended the existence or prevalence of an actual technical defect. When my father calls me asking what’s wrong with the new iPhone, or Consumer Reports refuses to recommend an otherwise excellent product, or an incumbent up for reelection piles on, Apple has a serious problem. Right or wrong, public perception of this new flagship product has been damaged. It no longer matters if the defects are real.
Enter the press conference, intending to meet all the chatter head on. Did the information Apple provided convince observers that there’s nothing wrong with iPhone 4? Only sales figures will tell. We will of course never know what sales would have been without this conference.
Leading up to the event, most of the media concluded that cases or bumpers would resolve the “death grip” issue and that Apple should give them away for free. Apple did that, additionally offering refunds to those who have already bought Bumpers (regardless of why they bought one), and even third party cases to account for Bumper shortages. Everyone’s eggs were in this basket, so if this does not materially settle the issue, I’m not sure what will.
That said, I found that the presentation’s tone overshadowed its content. The event opened awkwardly with the iPhone Antenna Song, which includes lyrics like “the media loves a failure,” “the facts won’t ever matter,” and “this whole damn thing is stupid.” Members of “the media” who flew across the country on barely any notice to sit in that room and hear Apple out; who were about to be trusted with relaying a message critical to Apple’s reputation; were greeted with sarcastic hostility. Customers who have seen their dropped calls double and triple—statistical minority or not, they exist—were mocked. This is not how you begin a reconciliatory conversation. Perhaps Apple thought the song was a lighthearted way to clear the air before getting on with it. I think they’d have done better by just getting on with it.
It’s also worth noting that, as far as I can tell, this is the first time Gizmodo’s name has been uttered in an Apple presentation or statement since April’s prototype leak. To do so now, and single them out when plenty of other outlets have been piling on, was bizarre to me.
It didn’t stop there. The free Bumper concession was delivered with what I can only describe as contempt. Farhad Manjoo’s headline at Slate embodies the moment perfectly, but you really have to just watch the video.
“A lot of people have told us, ‘The bumper solves the signal-strength problem… Why don’t you just give everybody a case?’ Okay. Great. Let’s give everybody a case.”
The Q&A offered additional insight. This comment from Steve Jobs, reiterated by John Siracusa at Ars Technica after appearing in most of the liveblogs, was eye-opening:
Apple’s been around for 34 years. Haven’t we earned the credibility and trust from some of the press to give us a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, of our motivations, the fact that we’re confident and will solve these problems?
This is a remarkable depiction of Apple’s strained relationship with the press. From start to finish, Friday’s PR offensive assumed that the answer to this question is “yes.” It is, of course, “no.” Whether you are the CEO of the second largest corporation in the U.S. or a general in the U.S. military, it should be no surprise when the press reports what it sees and hears. If a media outlet reports garbage, then all things being equal, its reputation should pay a price. If it has information that it believes to be both material and credible to a relevant topic, it is not obligated to sugarcoat that information, but to report it.
Antennagate is news exactly because Apple has hit so many home runs—and, by the way, received countless glowing headlines to match. Apple should be nervous when this sort of thing isn’t news: it would mean nobody cares anymore.
John Martellaro at The Mac Observer concludes:
The net result of this is that Apple has learned a lot about being a consumer electronics giant. Their public relations people can’t stonewall. The company can’t both claim that their product is superior to all others, a perfect object that’s droolworthy, and then later admit that it has the same reception problems as all other smartphones.
It’s lonely at the top. Perhaps Apple is taking it on the chin more than usual. Such is the price of success.
I remain very happy with my iPhone 4. I still believe it’s the best iPhone ever, by far. I believe the Bumper offering is an appropriate gesture, and I believe Apple will still sell a ton of phones.
I also believe humility is an essential part of customer service. If Friday’s message was for consumers, a concise open letter like the ones we’ve seen on Flash, DRM, the iPhone price drop (speaking of overblown), and the MobileMe rollout, with links to the new antenna and testing sites, would have been just fine. Instead, it was a drawn out, mixed bag that pointed fingers while neither accepting nor denying fault. It was uncharacteristic of a company that communicates as well as Apple.