Apple iPhone 4 vs Consumer Reports

For the record.

Post-Mortem: No Hair Shirt for Steve Jobs – By DAVID CARR – July 18, 2010 (New York Times)

By now, most people know what happens when your fingers come in contact with the lower left-hand corner of the iPhone 4 — are you there? — but it took the touch of an old-line, nontech tester of technology to get Apple to admit as much.

When Steve Jobs took the stage on Friday to defend the iPhone 4 against criticism that it had reception problems, he made his feelings about the press abundantly, peevishly clear.

“This has been blown so out of proportion that it’s incredible. It’s fun to have a story, but it’s not fun to be on the other side,” he told reporters.

Even as he apologized and acknowledged that there was indeed a problem, he was joined by Scott Forstall, a senior vice president at Apple, who attacked an article in The New York Times that blamed an interaction with the phone’s software as “patently false,” and then Mr. Jobs went on to call a Bloomberg article that suggested the company knew about the problem last year a “total crock.”

In general, he suggested that media organizations were just making blood sport of a company that had sold three million handsets in just three weeks: “I guess it’s just human nature, when you see someone get successful you just want to tear it down.”

Anybody who expected Steve Jobs to wear a hair shirt when he took the stage was bound to be disappointed. That the company responded at all is a testament to the power of at least one part of the press. When he got to the heart of what the company was going to do about the controversy, he cited Consumer Reports saying, “The bumper solves the signal strength problem” and its suggested remedy of free cases for all. “O.K., let’s give everybody a case,” Mr. Jobs said.

The iPhone’s antenna problems might have remained a dust-up between Apple fanboys and skeptical bloggers except that Consumer Reports — that stolid, old-media tester of everything from flooring to steam mops for the last 74 years — came out with a report detailing the issue and concluding that “due to this problem, we can’t recommend the iPhone 4.”

How did Consumer Reports make Apple blink? In large measure, the article in Consumer Reports was devastating precisely because the magazine (and its Web site) are not part of the hot-headed digital press. Although Gizmodo and other techie blogs had reached the same conclusions earlier, Consumer Reports made a noise that was heard beyond the Valley because it has a widely respected protocol of testing and old-world credibility. Mr. Jobs acknowledged as much, saying: “We were stunned and upset and embarrassed by the Consumer Reports stuff, and the reason we didn’t say more is because we didn’t know enough.”

The organization — Consumer Reports is owned by the non-profit Consumers Union — sells its subscribers dutiful research rather than pithy discourse, and it often goes unnoticed unless you are in the market for a new car or toaster. This time, its tests became an inflection point. (One that many tech reporters say Consumer Reports promoted endlessly, but who can blame them?)

“In my five years here, we have never done anything that has gone so viral, so fast,” said Kevin McKean, editorial director of Consumer Reports. “That is not something that we made up or manufactured. It’s by no means a critical issue like some of the product safety conclusions we have reached over the years — no one has ever died from a dropped cellphone call — but it was obviously an issue that affected millions of consumers.”

It was a big week for Consumer Reports and a reminder that media that is unsupported by advertising can often have an impact that more traditional publishing, or even the most tech-savvy, enterprises don’t. With 3.9 million subscribers to its magazine and 3.3 million paid subscribers to its Web site, Consumer Reports has a combined paid circulation of 7.2 million, up 33 percent since 2004.

To begin with, Apple fought back. Some references to the Consumer Reports findings were stripped out of the support forums at Apple. But there was no way to get the milk back in the bottle: a pattern of stubborn denial that had survived countless stories in the tech press, a class-action lawsuit and a wave of customer complaints gave way to a direct address of the issue, from Mr. Jobs, live on stage no less.

Mr. Jobs may have come around to admitting the problem, but in the presentation on Friday, he also took the time to show videos of other devices from rival companies that he said had similar problems. He implied that Apple was being singled out and that reporters were taking special joy in knocking down the most successful cellphone launch in history.

“Haven’t we earned credibility for the press to give us the benefit of the doubt?” he suggested, somewhat plaintively.

So was Apple cornered by an overzealous press, drooling at the prospect of laying Apple low? Hardly. Consumer Reports had already put the iPhone 4 at the top of the recent rankings of smartphones.

“We didn’t do this testing because of the attention we thought it would receive,” said James A. Guest, chief executive of the Consumers Union. “This is a product that affects millions of consumers, we heard a lot of complaints about it, and we tested it as carefully as we could and reported out the results.”

And in what might have been intended as a salve but came off as a dig, Consumer Reports came up with a remedy for the problem: Affixing an ugly piece of duct tape to the gleaming surface of the iPhone 4. “It may not be pretty, but it works,” Consumer Reports said on its Web site.

Rather than have its customers queue up for rolls of duct tape, Apple offered to provide a frame around the phone that the company has said in the past added “a dash of style” to the device. It will now also add a heap of functionality, free of charge. Mr. McKean, editorial director of Consumer Reports, said that giving everyone the add-on, the so-called bumper, was a good idea, but not ideal.

“My sense is that when the consumer buys a product it ought to come ready to use, with or without a bumper,” he said.

In his barbs at the press, Mr. Jobs continued what A. M. Sacconaghi Jr., an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, called “a pattern of hubris.” He pointed to the company’s denigration of Flash software, its cooperation in sending law enforcement to a Gizmodo reporter’s home after the site published an early video of the phone, and its restrictions on apps.

“The worry is that collectively these issues may over time begin to impact the consumer’s perceptions of Apple, undermining its enormous prevailing commercial success,” Mr. Sacconaghi said.

Perhaps no company could live up to the near-mythic reputation Apple has developed. It still has enormous good will and a huge base of devoted customers willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. In that context, the antenna flaw is probably less important than the flawed strategy of addressing it in the first place.

If you can’t attack the message, attack the messenger. That’s a maxim of modern public relations, one that’s on display every day in Washington, on cable TV and, last Friday, on stage in Cupertino. But, with its long history and reputation for efficacy, Consumer Reports is the opposite of a juicy target.

E-mail: carr@nytimes.com;
twitter.com/carr2n

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