Sense and Sensibility Regarding Apple’s iPhone Tracking

“Rationalization is the highest form of technical development achieved by some executives.” — Anon

Between the almost religious extremes of outrage and loyalty to Apple lies the heart of the matter regarding Apple’s iPhone tracking data. That is, how does Apple treat its customers?

It’s no exaggeration to say that, once again, Apple has gotten behind the public relations curve on a critical technical issue. This doesn’t happen because, from time to time, Apple slips up or because the media decides to kick some sand in Apple’s face. It happens because Apple is a large, aggressive company and these kinds of events become typical. Like cancer, hoping that it will all go away and that things will return to normal is unjustified.

One of my favorite TV commercials, and there are a few that are charming, is from IBM about a decade ago. An IT manager is told that he’s in denial. His response:

“No I’m not!”

With every incident, Apple seems to go through the Five Stages of Grief. First is denial. The problem will go away. But the customers are angry, and it doesn’t. Lawsuits are launched. Then, I am sure, Apple gets mad, internally, at the press for fanning the flames. Then there’s some internal bargaining. How can we make this thing go away without spending a lot of money? There’s no depression phase. Instead Apple goes straight to the Acceptance phase and finally issues a press release. Or, perhaps Steve Jobs, as he did on September 11, 2010, when he addressed “Antennagate,” makes a public appearance.

Now I realize that it takes time to, first, identify the technical issues and, second, consult with the legal staff. But Apple, again, has acted very slowly and hasn’t gotten out in front in another public relations nightmare. Will things improve? These events, that never plagued Apple when it was a boutique UNIX hardware company, will only increase in frequency now.

USA TODAY’s Byron Acohido quoted Michael Robinson, senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications. He advises senior Wall Street executives and U.S. politicians.

By staying silent, Apple and Google risk losing control of a message that location tracking technology embedded into popular iPhones and Android handsets are desirable and mostly benign. In a crisis, you want to over communicate and define the narrative before it’s defined for you. Silence only fuels fear and speculation.”

Is the Media Getting it All Wrong?

Several articles I’ve seen on this affair suggest that those stupid people in the mass media just can’t get the technical facts right. And so they are responsible for confusion and disinformation. Actually, I’ve been fairly impressed with the coverage by professional news organizations, on the Web and TV. They must summarize the facts and inform their readers. They do homework and report. On the other hand, some of the coverage by tech columnists has been too paranoid or too apologetic.

Last week would have been a good time for Apple to publicly explain the situation and put the problem behind them, showing that customers matter most. Apple could have explained why the data was being collected, point out that they realize that with the iPhone in the wrong hands, the data could be harmful, that it was never intended to be collected for an entire year, and that a future update will give customers control. An apology is always good form. Instead, we got a (purported) one-liner snarky e-mail from Steve Jobs. But perhaps that’s because Mr. Jobs is watching, observing and analyzing from a distance* how the executive team, perhaps without his direct, energetic, daily guidance, is performing in a case like this.

I am still holding out hope that Apple will make an announcement in the next few days.

Meanwhile, Apple is facing an inquiry from the U.S. Senate’s Al Franken in addition to the Illinois Attorney General.


A final aspect of this is more denial. Apple doesn’t appear to believe that customers can possibly turn against the company. The old AT&T, Dell, and Microsoft didn’t believe it could happen either. Paul Allen recently referred to it as Microsoft’s “breathtaking fall from grace.” Big, rich, powerful companies are beholden to no one and never believe that customers will turn on them. Ever.

It takes time. The customers keep score. The betrayals by any sufficiently large company add up and become the collective legacy of the company. It’s the biggest risk Apple faces nowadays, and I know that we’re all rooting for Apple to emerge unscathed by this snafu. It’s time to act.


* Mr. Jobs went on medical leave in January, 2011.