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The Opaque Side of Apple

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, August 7, 2008

If your computer annoys or amazes you, and you yell at it or congratulate it, you'll be met with silence. But if you direct your feedback to the company that made it, will you have any more of a dialogue?

Calls to tech support can enlighten or exasperate, but they shouldn't terminate a company's interaction with its customers. Over the last month, few tech firms could have received a clearer lesson in that idea than Apple.

The Cupertino, Calif., corporation provides some of the best tech support in the business -- no other major computer vendor makes it easier to sit down with a live employee and get help. But if you're not at the Genius Bar at one of its stores, Apple can be one of the least communicative companies around.

And when Apple's MobileMe online service melted down after its launch last month, subscribers might as well have been yelling at their monitors.

Apple's silence isn't a recent update to its corporate operating system; it's been keeping upcoming releases secret for years. But lately, Apple has also clammed up about current events, from chief executive Steve Jobs's health to the state of its shipping products.

Most tech firms have gone in the other direction. They post updates about their work daily and invite readers to leave comments (see, for example, Microsoft's Channel 9 site, at http://channel9.msdn.com). They ask users to suggest improvements (witness Dell's http://dellideastorm.com). They continue the conversation on popular social networks (note how firms like Comcast scan Twitter for user gripes).

Open-source developers take these practices further, publicly documenting their bugs and letting anybody download and edit the source code of their programs.

Apple does almost none of these things. It's given its users excellent tools to share their thoughts online -- podcasting in Garage Band, blogging in iWeb -- but appears uninterested in those pursuits itself. Instead, this firm confines its public statements to news releases and the occasional open letter from Jobs.

The rest of its Web site can be just as opaque. Apple's tech-support discussion forums, for example, rarely feature contributions by Apple employees, leaving customers to chat amongst themselves.

Even the release notes accompanying its software have become uselessly vague. Would you believe that the latest version of iTunes "includes fixes to improve stability and performance"? That's verbose compared with this week's iPhone 2.0.1. software upgrade, a roughly 250-megabyte download that merited two words of description: "bug fixes."

Making small talk with consumers does not guarantee great products. If anything, the last few years give convincing evidence that Apple's approach of hiring smart people and holding them to high standards of usability and elegance can beat any design-by-committee strategy.

But with MobileMe, the Mac machinery broke down. Users who could no longer check their e-mail or see calendars or contacts wanted to know what went wrong, while the luckier subscribers to this $99-a-year service had to guess if they'd be bitten by these bugs next.

After a few days, Apple posted an apology from Jobs. Then it launched into the most halfhearted sort of blogging imaginable -- brief, no-comments-welcome updates ( http://apple.com/mobileme/status/) attributed to a faceless, amorphous "David G."

Poor communication can sink any gadget, but it's worse on a Web service such as MobileMe. When these things malfunction, they often do so for reasons beyond our control or even comprehension. When a Web-based application misfires, you can't walk up to the data center, knock on the front door and ask if everything's all right inside.

So the companies running these services need to speak up, promptly and with sufficient detail to give users cause for optimism. "Trust me" and "We'll do better" won't do -- not when users paying $99 a year can see the providers of competing, free services offering far more information to their users.

This is not about telegraphing product plans years into the future. Apple's secrecy about future releases may drive reporters nuts, but that's a business strategy it's free to pursue -- and one that is more honest than talking up "vaporware" that ships years behind schedule or not at all.

But don't-look-behind-the-curtain tactics don't work when customers just want to know that their purchase will work as advertised, or when would-be customers want reassurance that they're not buying into a failed experiment.

Last year, Jobs noted how Apple's silence about its environmental efforts hurt the company: "This has left our customers, shareholders, employees and the industry in the dark. . . . Our stakeholders deserve and expect more from us, and they're right to do so."

Apple should think about applying this logic to the other ways it shuts itself off from its users.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com. Read more athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/

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