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Bumps in the road for Apple?

Posted by Christopher Shea  August 27, 2008 03:08 PM

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There's something strange about this piece, in Slate -- currently No. 1 on the "most emailed" list -- on whether or not Apple is falling down on the quality front. It begins by cataloging a host of alleged problems: The iPhone drops calls and doesn't connect well to 3G (the fast-but-not-as-fast-as-Wi-fi data network); much-ballyhooed iPhone apps fail to load; MobleMe, a new online service to help sync data and documents across phones and computers, was glitch-a-riffic upon its recent launch; the new iMacs, some tech-bloggers report, break down at alarming rates.

But when the piece reaches the crux of the issue -- "Is it possible that Steve Jobs' reality distortion field is finally weakening -- that the scales have fallen from our eyes and we're now seeing that Apple's products are just as flawed and prone to failure as any other hardware?" -- it abruptly changes the subject: "Well, not really. As Apple fans point out, people still love Apple." Or, as one industry-watcher says, "Apple has an almost Teflon-like quality. Its problems don't really seem to matter to consumers."

Well, but that's not the issue, is it? The question is: Are there quality-control problems with iPhones and iMacs, compared with other phones and computers (or equal to those of other phones and computers, which itself would be a chink in Apple's armor)? Apple admits the problems with MobleMe, and it kinda-sorta-not-really confesses to the 3G problem, but its default position is to stonewall.

Farhad Manjoo, author of the Slate article, writes: "It registers as big tech news when a high-flying blogger like Michael Arrington" -- of Techcrunch -- "gets a few unlucky Macs, but such difficulties probably don't filter down to most customers." How does Manjoo know that? The article doesn't have any data by which we can judge how often Macs need repairs. But if Arrington is simply "unlucky," as Manjoo says, then Apple's off the hook. But we just don't know if he's unlucky: Apple ensures that with its zipped-lip policy (about which Manjoo does complain).

The bottom line is: Apple's strategy of withholding information about problems with its products and counting on its fans to shout down people with contrary evidence works. Even the best tech reporters have no data on which to base conclusions, and so they can only speculate -- and fall back on the "but Apple fans don't care" line.

PS Lest you assume that I'm anti-Apple, I'm typing this on an iMac, a wonderful machine except for the eye-annihilating glossy screen.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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