Antennagate and Apple’s hubris

Apple continues to startle me, and I do not mean by its iPhone 4. (I haven’t yet seen it, so I can’t say anything useful about it.) No, what I mean is the ongoing Antennagate problems, and even there I do not mean the actual problem, but Apple’s way of dealing with it. And even there I do not mean Antennagate as an isolated PR incident, but as yet another chapter in how Apple spends 2010 to piss off the world at large.

Antennagate

The problem with Antennagate is not the actual technical issue itself. That issue may or may not be severe, may or may not occur on other phones, and is probably solved adequately by the covers Apple is now giving away. Frankly I don’t care about the details.

No, the problem is in how Apple handled the entire affair. Not its acknowledgement of the problem itself, or giving away the covers; those are proper, correct responses to the technical issue.

John Gruber made an interesting remark:

It’s telling that the criticism surrounding this issue has shifted, quickly, from speculation about a technical defect in the iPhone 4 hardware to criticism over the tone of Apple’s response to it.

The hardware defect is only a sideshow, and the way Apple is dealing with it is far more important to the world. Gruber is completely right in pointing this out, yet I believe he draws the wrong conclusions from it.

PR is crucial for Apple. Good PR has created a legion of Apple fanbois and a chattering class of tech commentators that consistently paints Apple in the best light possible. A serious PR flap is far more dangerous than a technical issue because it can cost Apple the support of the tech commentators (and possibly even the fanboi legion, but that will take more than a mere year full of Fuck Yous).

Thus I believe that Gruber is right, yet wrong. Weighing Apple’s tone and response is more important than the technical issue. Antennagate is about PR, and not about the iPhone 4’s antenna.

In that light, Tomi Ahonen points at an important mistake Apple made:

Why include that unnecessary hostile attack on the rest of the industry? That was a red flag to the rivals, and a clear challenge to the press to go compare. This is a lose-lose for Apple, even if others are implicated too, every time Death Grip is mentioned, Apple is the leading culprit of the news story. Every time the iPhone 4 is reminded to have Death Grip problems! And for every story where rivals are also implicated, there will be stories where at least one of the rivals is not shown as bad, or in the worst case, that Apple's iPhone 4 comes out worst at Death Grip. Apple's news coverage will be bad - or worse.

In other words, exactly because Steve Jobs wanted to implicate other phones in this problem, Antennagate will come back to haunt him. We can expect a string of press releases from other mobile players, saying something along the lines of “In contrast to Apple’s iPhone 4, our flagship product X does not suffer from an antenna problem.”

Note that it does not matter who’s right here. Even if Jobs is completely right and the other phone vendors are lying through their teeth, the world will again and again be reminded of Antennagate. That’s not disastrous, but it’s certainly a major annoyance that will hurt the iPhone 4’s sales figures somewhat.

Still, Antennagate alone will not spell doom and disaster for Apple. I would expect the hubbub to die down within a few months — if Antennagate were an isolated incident.

Problem is, it isn’t an isolated incident.

Apple pisses off everybody

I said it before and I’ll say it again: this year, Apple is being serious about pissing off absolutely everybody in sight. I do not think this is a viable long-term strategy, and I do think that if Apple keeps this up long enough it will eventually run into serious problems.

So what exactly did Apple do wrong?

First things first: in 2007 it barged in on the mobile market, changed the rules, and succeeded beyond everybody’s wildest dreams. That’s of course a huge success for Apple, and rightly celebrated as such, but it has also created a host of enemies: basically all other powerful mobile players. That’s not a disaster, but it does mean wolves are on the prowl, and Apple has to keep its defenses in order.

Its main line of defense, as always, is PR. And it’s exactly here that cracks are starting to show. Let’s recap Apple’s year so far:

(Incidentally, there are two groups that Apple hasn’t pissed off yet, and that I don’t expect them to piss off, either. They are consumers, who get their covers against Antennagate, and web developers, who’re still allowed to play with the most advanced mobile browser in the world. I continue to believe that web development is Apple’s ace in a hole. If everything else goes wrong, Apple will still have the best mobile web platform in the world.)

Is any of these mistakes fatal? Certainly not. Apple handled the technical aspects of Antennagate correctly, its rejection of Flash and the new SDK license agreements are defensible from a UX perspective, its dissing of Mac developers is understandable in the light of its mobile strategy, and I don’t doubt the lawsuits against HTC and the prototype culprits have a solid legal grounding. Finally, the PR flap is manageable in every case taken by itself.

Hubris

However, if we take all these issues together we see Apple spending 2010 by sending a cheerful Fuck You to people of all colours and all nations, and especially its own developers and former allies.

Is Apple suffering from imperial overstretch? Is Apple guilty of an old-fashioned case of hubris?

Judging from the evidence that’s certainly a possibility.

Fortune’s wheel. What goes up must come down. The throne of the once-almighty king is toppled because he grew overconfident.

Those are powerful story lines that have interested humanity for at least 2,500 years. Since they conform to some sort of basic human expectation of how history works, the tech commentators who are Apple’s PR mainstay could start to pursue them in order to present a different perspective and gain more readers. (Come to think of it, so am I.)

Right now Apple is doing everything in its power to push those story lines. In the long run that is not healthy.

I feel Apple has a PR problem, but isn’t aware of it, possibly because it doesn’t want to be aware of it.

Now let’s see how this plays out. The story isn’t done yet, and who knows, Apple might even see the errors of its ways before it’s too late.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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1 Posted by Roland van Ipenburg on 22 July 2010 | Permalink

If Apple keeps screwing up like this, will that increase the chance of them getting themselves in a corner they could only get out of by opening the door to Flash on the iPhone?

2 Posted by Dominykas on 22 July 2010 | Permalink

"[..] Apple is being serious about pissing off absolutely everybody in sight. I do not think this is a viable long-term strategy"

Just take a look at Ryanair... Sure, there are huge differences, with one playing on price and the other on UX, but _really_ pissing people off is much harder than it looks like - even long-term.

3 Posted by Evan Kaufman on 22 July 2010 | Permalink

Hubris is absolutely what's happening here, and it makes me sad because -- despite my problems with Apple's corporate procedures and policies -- I really do enjoy their products, particularly what they've built Mac OS X into.

I sincerely hope this doesn't turn into a Nero situation...Steve Jobs playing the fiddle while Cupertino metaphorically burns.

4 Posted by NotAFanBoy on 22 July 2010 | Permalink

Burn apple burn!!!!

5 Posted by tom on 22 July 2010 | Permalink

you forgot about the "fuck you" to google (google voice, bing on iOS, etc..)

6 Posted by tom on 22 July 2010 | Permalink

also, i forgot about (google's) AdMob not on iPhone, and iAds going against google's top business.

7 Posted by Jaanus on 22 July 2010 | Permalink

Yeah, those arrogant bastards. “Obviously, Apple’s excessive arrogance will be their downfall. Never mind that their market share has been so rapidly increasing for so long in so many categories. Or that Apple’s business model produces vastly more profit than those of other technology companies.” http://kensegall.com/blog/2010/07/the-ever-arrogant-apple/

8 Posted by Teddy on 23 July 2010 | Permalink

Well atlease Apple can be "arrogant" because they have the sales and user base to prove that they are making great products that not only "geeks" like but non technical people as well, like your grand parents. http://bit.ly/dhYQe4

Now atleast a lot of videos of RIM, Nokia, HTC etc antennagate problems show on YouTube and Vimeo to prove that it's not only Apple that has this problem. So You Apple haters can be Apple haters all you want but the rest of the Smart Phone makes won't be able to beat Apple at their own game for a long long while. Apple is focused on Solutions, Solutions, Solutions. Compared to the rest where their motto is Features, Features, Features.

Apple is an honest and user focus company, hence the full refund and free cases. If you don't like the iPhone 4 then return it.

9 Posted by ppk on 23 July 2010 | Permalink

Teddy,

Thanks for illustrating the Apple fanboi archetype so brilliantly.

10 Posted by Steven on 23 July 2010 | Permalink

As you said, they've pissed off everyone except those that matter: the consumer. And usually they've pissed off everyone else on behalf of the consumer. Good for them.

"Its main line of defense, as always, is PR". Hogwash. Apple's first and most important line of defense is and always has been their vastly superior products.

Apple knows who their customer is, and it isn't Adobe, Google, AT&T, or Gizmodo. They'll do just fine.

11 Posted by ppk on 23 July 2010 | Permalink

>"Its main line of defense, as always, is PR".
>Hogwash. Apple's first and most important line of defense is
>and always has been their vastly superior products.

I disagree. Without superior PR a superior product will languish on the shelves. The tech press says time and again that Apple has superior products, and without that PR Apple wouldn't be nearly as successful as it is.

Compare Apple to Palm, which also had a superior product (not superior to the iPhone, but better than anyone else), but singularly failed to capitalise on it because they botched the PR.

12 Posted by Mario Palomera on 23 July 2010 | Permalink

Then how has MS survived all these years? Specially messing directly with the Web for so long. (Power and money sadly resume it). The main problem with Apple, almost every single company and person in the world is the lack of honesty. The lack of having the guts to accept a mistake. That's it!

13 Posted by Steven on 23 July 2010 | Permalink

Flash - This has actually greatly increased the momentum of HTML5, even in my own corporate-centric web design firm. 5 stars for that.

3rd Party runtimes: Apple didn't lose any good app developers over it. Want open? Use web apps.

Suing HTC: Tech company sues competition over patents. Yawn.

WWDC: Apple focused the whole thing on iOS, making many iPhone developers very happy. Probably an overall PR gain.

Gawker: Apple should have absolute control over when its products are announced. Stealing and announcing prototypes isn't even close to journalism. Rock bottom was them stabbing Grey Powell in the back.

Antennagate: Apple was right to wag their finger at the absolutely idiotic press reaction to a few YouTube videos. Any in-depth analysis (you know, actual journalism) I've read says the antenna is a very minor issue. For example: http://www.anandtech.com/show/3794/the-iphone-4-review/2

14 Posted by Steven on 23 July 2010 | Permalink

I forgot to reply to PPK - PR is important, but Apple's PR with its customers hasn't been hurt by any of these until the antenna issue. And even then, I don't think by much. I've shown several people my phone gets great reception and doesn't drop bars.

It's PR with the tech industry may have been hurt, but that isn't going to affect actual sales. Like a previous poster said, nobody gets more bad PR from tech press than Microsoft. Luckily for Microsoft, the big decision makers at major corporations don't seem to read the tech blogs. Lucky for Apple, regular consumers don't read tech blogs either.

15 Posted by Deadmeat on 24 July 2010 | Permalink

Apple's lack of PR finesse has definitely pissed off some of their customers.

I'm one of them. I own a mac laptop, but I won't be getting an Apple smartphone.

Apple has always had a tendency to tell it's users what they actually want.

It's a strange form of PR speak.

MS once tried to sell DOS over GUI OSs saying that DOS was more powerful, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Apple says HTML5 is better, faster and more efficient, and widely usable than Flash, despite all evidence to the contrary.

It's always depressed me how well this seems to work. How there always seem to be enough stupid sheeple for PR drones to get away with it.

It doesn't matter who says it, anytime a sales guy tells me what I really want, I translate it to what they really want to sell to me.

16 Posted by Wayne on 24 July 2010 | Permalink

I don't think you have much background or understanding on the issues you throw out. And you mention "I don't care if ... it looks bad" a lot, which is really self-fulfilling prophecy: if you don't care about the facts, then you're going to be swayed by the only thing left which is your impressions and biases.

Your ignorance of facts is everywhere, but let's look at Flash. The iPhone has been out for 3+ years and mobile Flash is STILL not here, and most reviewers have found it to be buggy and incomplete. So, does Apple: a) do mobile Flash for Adobe, b) not release the iPhone and iPad until Adobe is ready, some time next year, c) use alpha-quality Flash and have everyone say that the data-consumption iPhone and iPad have buggy browsers, or d) say what any techie knows: Flash is a serious security risk and buggy as any software out there, so it won't be imposed on Apple consumers?

Third-party-wise, you obviously don't know anything about Adobe and Premier. It was basically a Killer App for Macs, but then Adobe decided to port it to Windows and let it rot on the Mac for two years. Apple had no alternatives, until they finally bought Final Cut Pro, and since then they will not leave their fate in third-party hands. Rightly so.

17 Posted by sethaurus on 25 July 2010 | Permalink

I'd like to echo Waynes excellent comment (↑), and add: it's a technology soap opera. Or better yet, it's professional wrestling. Apple has played a Face for too long, and now they have to be a Heel to some people. The current controversies are either evidence of hubris and terrible PR decisions, or they are the continuation of one of the most successful brand strategies in history. We will only know in retrospect, and since your post doesn't really make any measurable predictions, it's hard to take much away besides your distaste for Apple's general philosophy.

18 Posted by Roland van Ipenburg on 25 July 2010 | Permalink

e) allow users to install whatever quality Flash on their iPhone and iPad and have them decide for themselves if they can live with the bugs and security risks. Like they can on OS X.

"most reviewers have found it to be buggy and incomplete". So until the majority of reviewers find mobile Flash not buggy and incomplete the minority that disagrees and the share of users they represent get a big fuck you from Apple?

19 Posted by Steven on 27 July 2010 | Permalink

@Roland - for the average consumer, they would install flash almost without knowing it (click Yes to whatever dialogs pop up on Disney.com), then their battery life would suck, their phone would crash, and they'd be open to security vulnerabilities.

How many consumers would say "Flash sucks", and how many would say "my iPhone sucks"? Most wouldn't even know what Flash was.

Sacrificing the entire point of the iOS (absolutely user-friendly device, with no security or performance worries) just so a few geeks can install alpha software doesn't sound like a winning strategy.

20 Posted by Bobby Jack on 27 July 2010 | Permalink

@Deadmeat: "Apple says HTML5 is better, faster and more efficient, and widely usable than Flash, despite all evidence to the contrary." - can you provide some examples of this evidence?

The reaction to this story in the press has, indeed, been ridiculous. A problem that affects a very small number of people, that is present on all handsets, has been reported as if it affects every user of Apple's iPhone 4. However, as ppk rightly points out, they certainly haven't handled it a sensible way at all. Whilst pointing out competitors' equal flaws seems a logical means of defence, it's exactly that: defensive. The right response is to apologise, right the wrong (i.e. provide free cases) and leave it at that. The problem with other handsets is not up to Apple to try to report on; others will do that if necessary.

I'm totally undecided on the whole debate about the general approach: openness vs. usability. Obviously, we want both, but no-one seems to have cracked that. I find the whole 'closed nature' of Apple's products incredibly offensive, but I also find buggy software that crashes all the time and wastes resources offensive too. I just can't work out which is MORE offensive.

21 Posted by Roland van Ipenburg on 27 July 2010 | Permalink

@Steven - so what's the difference between Flash, JavaScript, Plug-Ins, Block Pop-ups and Accept cookies? Why would an absolutely user-friendly device have no problem with giving the user the option to disable JavaScript, but have a huge problem with giving the user the option to enable Flash?

And by mentioning that the entire point of iOS involves not having performance worries, you clearly illustrate why the antenna issue deserved to get this attention: the antenna design didn't perform, users had to start worrying and the entire point of iOS fell apart.

22 Posted by resominator on 28 July 2010 | Permalink

Apple fanbois (oops) => fan-boys

23 Posted by Bobby Jack on 28 July 2010 | Permalink

@Roland: JavaScript is an open standard, implemented natively within the Safari browser. Flash is a proprietary plug-in. It's much easier for Apple to resolve any issues with their Javascript engine than it is to convince Adobe to do the same to their software.

24 Posted by Roland van Ipenburg on 29 July 2010 | Permalink

@Bobby: If Apple could provide statistics about how many of their users had disabled Flash because it sucks it would probably be much easier to convince Adobe to resolve any issues. Now Adobe probably knows Flash would be perceived as good enough by 99% of the users, but because Steve Jobs is in the 1% that thinks different none of them are allowed to have Flash.

25 Posted by Robert Fisher on 3 August 2010 | Permalink

The vast majority of people don’t take this stuff personally. They are either happy with the actual products and stick with Apple, or they aren’t and don’t. They just smile or roll their eyes at the drama.

e.g. The vast majority of Mac developers can’t afford to attend WWDC. They couldn’t justify the cost if they could afford it. They aren’t looking for hidden insults in the agenda at WWDC.