With iPhone's secrets, Apple loses track of reality

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.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

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.

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