With iPhone's secrets, Apple loses track of reality

With iPhone's secrets, Apple loses track of reality

Summary: Steve Jobs normally talks to the press about as often as the Earth gets visited by Halley's Comet. And, like the comet, it's usually a portent of doom.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

Steve Jobs normally talks to the press about as often as the Earth gets visited by Halley's Comet. And, like the comet, it's usually a portent of doom.

There have been three sightings in living memory: the iPhone 4's Antennagate, the as-yet-unexplained rant against Android and tablets in last October's earnings call, and yesterday's response to the discovery of iOS 4's unexpectedly good memory for location. Let's call it Trackergate.

Leaving aside the Android rant — perhaps Eric Schmidt ran over the family cat — the two other responses show strong similarities, and make a fascinating insight into how a company reacts when it's backed into a corner and can't ignore the flack.

The tone is slightly hurt and petulant — why do these little people question us? — and the content a mixture of there is no problem, everyone else is worse, users just don't understand, it's all for your own good and is actually brilliant, and we're fixing it anyway. All this is served up with a supporting press release that the uncharitable could say is designed to be far easier to report as 'all is well, move along' than to accurately parse and analyse.

With Antennagate, there were videos of other phones doing badly and of Apple's superb radio engineering laboratories, together with 'this is the best, most sensitive phone we've ever made' and the press just overblows everything — oh, and a previously unsuspected bug that misreported stuff and free bumpers just because nothing was actually wrong. The fact — that an antenna like that working at those frequencies will have real problems when in contact with lumps of human flesh — is an inconvenience of physics to be discarded as unworthy of mention.

This time, the discovery of months' worth of location data stored on iPhones and synched with iTunes has provoked an even more delightful bundle of cognitive dissonance. No, we don't track your location with your iPhones. Your iPhone merely records and reports every useful bit of information about your location. And anyway, we're just collecting it all to give you a better experience. It's crowdsourced, even if the crowd had no idea. There's absolutely nothing wrong with what we're not doing anyway, but we'll fix the previously unsuspected bugs that made absolutely nothing wrong happen in the first case.

When Steve Jobs says "We haven’t been tracking anybody’s location" at the same time that the web was filling up with remarkably detailed maps tracking people's location, Chico Marx applies: who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?

It doesn't have to be like this. The idea of using millions of mobile phones to gather data is rather wonderful, and the creation of huge databases of information at low cost that benefit all users is pretty much the spirit of the age. But you have to ask first. You have to be up front, you have to over-explain what it is you're going to be doing, and you have to get informed consent. Which doesn't mean hiding fuzzy phrases in the middle of a novella-length terms and condition document, and then berating people for failing to spot or understand them. You have to be pathologically, over-emphatically open.

But Apple cannot do this, nor understand why it might be necessary. Having decided on its reality, the company enforces it. Hence Antennagate, where a bad decision — to allow the style of the phone to compromise its utility — was never referenced, but hidden under a thicket of pseudo-explanations why what people thought was wrong. Hence Trackergate, where institutional secrecy poisoned a good idea, but the complainants (and those darn journalists) just cannot understand that it's just Apple trying to do good deeds by stealth.

The good news for Apple is that openness and secrecy can work well together. It's a question of making the appropriate judgement on the mix required for the job in hand. In general, when you mess up, the open approach goes a long way: using it to avoid messing up in the first place is even better.

The bad news for Apple is that the company — or Steve Jobs, if there is any difference — seems addicted to a different reality. That explains both the sins and the inability to confess; it even goes some way to make sense of that Android rant, where Jobs was furiously baffled why people should think Google is more open than Apple. In his reality, it isn't.

It's only in the bigger reality outside his famed distortion field that a different consensus applies. Even for Jobs, that bigger reality wins in the end.

Topic: Emerging Tech

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • A splendidly mordant article, although I have grave doubts about how gathering "huge databases" about people's mobile phone use and other behaviour is going to benefit any users at all, much less all users.
  • @preilly2

    There's a lot going on. A recent article in th eWall Street Journal, The Really Smart Phone, will give you a few ideas...
    Jack Schofield
  • Great blog. Everyone (outside the apple's fanboy ecosystem) for many many years, has known that steve (and consequently, apple) has suffered from a "reality perception field" -in which distortions, plain flat lies, and outrageous false claims about their products or another company's devices come out of the company on a regular basis. Their traditional strategy to exaggerate, misrepresent, and lie about their products and their actions has been seen by their fanboy base as "marketing tools" - when in fact they are intended to confuse, mislead and abuse consumers with rather limited knowledge about their practices - all in the name of maintaining a corporate image of secrecy, worker exploitation, misinformation, and lies.
    My feeling is that the so called "apple haters" are those people who can clearly see the deviant and unethical practices of the company - that results in a deep rejection towards any product coming out of their factories. It is undeniable that they make many nice looking products (most of them simply aesthetically enhanced version of products already in the market that later on apple claims they invented or created) - but that doesn't give them the right to their never ending lies and manipulations that ultimately affects the public and their safety and privacy.
  • I don’t usually put my opinion in blogs, because I feel that giving “the world at large” insight into my thoughts can be used against me by unscrupulous lurkers on the Internet. Then I realized that the world is made up of billions of people who are just like me and will accept or excuse my ranting. What am I so worried about? It’s not like I’m going to do something really dumb like saying something slanderous or untrue. With respect to the location data in my iPhone, I’m going to really appreciate it when my insurance company (State Farm) uses the location data with its new free app to analyze my driving habits. I’ll probably be able to understand myself better, because I’ll realize that when I accelerate to fast or don’t come to a full stop at intersections, that I am putting myself and others at risk. Yes, it is true that in some evil place in the world, someone might use that data to adjust how much I pay for the insurance in the first place, because it’s a “true” and “live” risk assessment of my driving abilities, but in the end, the best way to lower costs, impact on the environment, and to avoid speeding fines, is to be a safer drive. The app will probably make me proud of that, and provide hard evidence to show my friends. So it really comes down to whether we embrace the good in the world, or hide from evil. Which do you think dominates society? It’s best to answer that question about yourself first.
  • I'm surprised that I haven't seen anyone else cross-reference between your paragraph 8 and part of The Dark Knight movie.
    "The idea of using millions of mobile phones to gather data..." is indeed rather wonderful, but where does it stop? Lucius Fox thought it should stop very early on.

    It certainly shouldn't be collected by Apple without users' consent, because in these days where privacy seems to be an anachronism, who knows who is going to be using it, and for what purpose.
    Tracking traffic speeders?
    Whistle-blowers acting in the public interest?
    Companies tracking employees when they go for interview with competitors?