Bottom Five Apple Stories of the Year

Last week, I presented the Top Five Apple Stories of the Year. Today, I swing the pendulum to the opposite extreme and review the Bottom Five Apple Stories of the Year. By “bottom,” I don’t mean “least important” or “worst.” Rather, these were the five biggest stories of the year in which Apple is cast in a negative light (as opposed to last week’s “positive” topics) or that otherwise reflected negatively on Apple’s finances and popularity. These are the stories that, if Apple had the power to induce amnesia in the public, they would most likely want us to forget.

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Without further ado (another drum roll, please), here are your Bottom Five Apple Stories of the Year:

5. Android’s success. The smartphone market is not entirely a zero-sum game. There is room for more than one successful product. Still, there is a battle for supremacy going on between Android phones and iPhones. The final outcome remains too uncertain to call. We’ve seen a good deal of reports this past year pointing to the overall success of the iPhone — stunning sales figures, huge popularity of the App Store, and superior features. However, Android’s accelerating pace of sales, “surging” popularity, and favorable assessments — must be making Apple executives more than a bit nervous.

4. Ping. Apple’s attempt at an iTunes-based social networking service was introduced on September 1. It tripped on a virtual banana peel the very same day: Ping was apparently designed to link up with Facebook, but the deal was pulled at the last minute. So last minute that, on launch day, Apple’s website still erroneously stated that Ping could connect to Facebook. Apple had to do some quick back-pedaling to explain what happened.

That was hardly the end of Ping’s troubles. Although there have been a few exceptions, the overall response to Ping has ranged from lukewarm to harshly negative (as typified by this review). The nadir of this criticism was reached on December 21, when NPR declared Ping one of the “Worst Ideas of 2010,” rhetorically asking “How did the Apple crew create a social networking site for music way back in September, but only introduce a way to swap playlists four months later?” [Bryan Chaffin, here at The Mac Observer, offered a partial rebuttal to the NPR assessment.]

3. App Store controversies. Apple’s App Store is incredibly popular. The quality and variety of its apps may well be the biggest advantage that iOS devices hold over competitors. Yet, the very same App Store remains at the center of an ongoing series of controversies. Among the lows that were hit this year were:

Flash ban. Steve Jobs triggered a long and ugly debate when he declared that, not only will Flash continue to be missing from Safari on iOS devices, but Apple would prohibit apps that were developed using Flash Packager for iPhone. Although Apple had its defenders, the consensus was that Apple had gone too far. Apple ultimately agreed and subsequently backtracked on this ban.

Freedom from porn. In defending the App Store’s policy regarding rejecting apps, Steve Jobs emailed Gawker’s Ryan Tate that the App Store offered “freedom from porn.” Regardless of whether or not you believe pornographic apps should be permitted in the App Store, you have to go through some serious contortions to define a ban as a “freedom.”

File Sharing. Coinciding with the release of iWork apps for iPad, Apple introduced a way to share documents between iOS devices and Macs. Unfortunately, as I have previously covered, the procedure is klunky and unnecessarily complicated — and hampered by Apple’s insistence that data for each app be isolated within the app’s sandbox (making sharing a document among more than one app practically impossible). Although Apple has since taken a few steps to improve how sharing works, the essential complaints remain. As a result, Dropbox has become a popular alternative to using iTunes for sharing. While Apple’s sharing restrictions also prevent this app from working as well as it should, it’s definitely an improvement.

Add to this list the steady drip-drip of stories about “unfairly” rejected apps, Apple’s efforts to block jailbreaking, the wrangling over a model for magazine app subscriptions, and general criticism of the “closed” nature of the App Store — and you have a recipe that is likely to keep the App Store as a contender for the Bottom Five in the years ahead.

2. That stolen iPhone 4 prototype. Months before the phone’s official release, Gizmodo published details of an iPhone 4 prototype. Gizmodo had acquired the prototype from someone who claimed to have found it in a bar. A controversy erupted. Had Gizmodo stolen the prototype? Would there be arrests? The story became front page news. The saga continued to make headlines long after Apple began selling the iPhone 4.

Apple claimed that the revelations significantly hurt sales of the then-current iPhone 3GS. They indicated they would seek damages.

While Gizmodo deservedly took the brunt of the negative press, Apple’s (overzealous?) interest in pursuing criminal charges began to reflect poorly on Apple as well. The low point came with a questionable police search and seizure of Jason Chen’s property. Regardless of who wound up on the losing end of the blame game, it’s safe to say that Apple would have preferred if this incident had never occurred.

1. iPhone 4 reception and Antennagate. The #1 Bottom Story of the Year was an easy call: Antennagate. The problem: 3G reception of the iPhone 4 was significantly hindered if the user held the phone in such a way as to cover the antenna exposure on the side of the device.

While some (including me) felt that the problem was fairly minimal and that press coverage was way overblown, it none-the-less escalated to another front page story. Perhaps worse, the iPhone became the butt of a national joke; editorial cartoons, blogs and TV shows all had a field day.

Apple didn’t help itself when Steve Jobs initially suggested that the solution to the problem was to “avoid holding (the iPhone) that way.” A bit later, a letter from Apple wrongly suggested that the problem resided entirely in software.

The low point was reached when Consumer Reports described the reception loss as a “hardware flaw” and declined to recommend the iPhone 4. Apple countered with a hastily-prepared press conference, a rare event where no new products were announced. Instead, Apple attempted to show that the reception problem affected all smartphones, not just the iPhone. More importantly, Apple announced that they would be giving a free iPhone case (a confirmed work-around for the symptom) to all iPhone 4 owners. Over the ensuing weeks, coverage of the matter finally began to fade.

(Dis?)Honorable mention: AT&T. A special nod goes to AT&T for the negative press it received throughout the year. While not directly an Apple story (which is why I did not include it in the Top Five), it’s too close for comfort to ignore. There was AT&T’s one year delay in support for the iPhone’s tethering feature — enabling it only with an absurdly high fee. There was AT&T’s canceling of the iPad 3G unlimited data plan — only a month after the iPad 3G shipped. And, of course, there are the ongoing reports of AT&T’s poor 3G service.

[Don’t forget to check out the Top Five Apple Stories of the Year, posted last week.]