‘Eavesdropping’ glitch adds to many troubles bugging Apple
Apple built a reputation on the rarity of such mistakes, but that perception now hangs on a balance
The iPhone video calling bug, which allowed FaceTime callers to eavesdrop on each other’s conversations before a call was answered, would be a serious blow for any technology company.
But for one of Apple’s standing, it was worse than that.
The company has made safeguarding people’s personal information one of its key marketing pillars of late, as the privacy issue shoots up the agenda and continues to weigh on the likes of Facebook.
You might pay extra for an iPhone, Apple chief executive Tim Cook is fond of saying, but at least that’s all you’re paying: with us your data is not going to end up sold to some Russian troll network or online scam artist.
So Monday’s glitch, which erroneously exposed individuals’ camera and microphone feeds, is a bad look.
The existence of the bug was reason enough for concern, but Apple also appears to not have acknowledged the repeated attempts by Michele Thompson, whose 14-year-old son discovered the flaw last week, to report it.
It was only after news of the flaw was widely reported on Monday that Apple responded, disabling the group FaceTime feature that was the source of the error.
The company has been in touch with its main privacy regulator in Europe, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, on the issue, but its only public statement on the matter has been to say a fix is coming later this week.
Cook did not take the opportunity to address the matter on Tuesday when he presented Apple’s quarterly results to investors.
The glitch was certainly serious, but perhaps more eye-catching because of its apparent rarity.
Apple is able to charge a premium for iPhones, which sell for as much as R25,000, because it does not seem to make these kinds of mistakes often.
But that halo is slipping. For watchers of the company, it is impossible to avoid the perception that mistakes are becoming more common.
This week’s bug is not even the first related to group video calls since the feature was introduced to Apple’s FaceTime app in October.
A separate issue, discovered shortly after its release and now fixed, exposed the entire address book of a locked phone.
There are others.
The controversial “butterfly” keyboard on Apple’s current crop of MacBooks has been a repeated problem, with multiple reports of keys ceasing to work when they come up against specks of dust (an updated design last year has not extinguished the issue).
Many of the latest high-end iPad Pros have been delivered to customers with noticeable bends in their chassis, something the company has claimed is a side effect of the manufacturing process, and not a problem.
That is not to mention the multiple products that have been delayed before release in recent years – Apple’s HomePod speaker and AirPod headphones both missed crucial Christmas shopping periods – or are yet to hit shelves (Apple’s AirPower wireless charging mat, of which there is still no sign, was announced 16 months ago).
Delays are twice as long under Cook as they were under his predecessor, Steve Jobs, according to one report.
Mistakes, delays and bugs are inevitable at big, complicated organisations. Neither are they a new phenomenon.
The iPhone 6 had its own “bendgate” back in 2014. When owners of the iPhone 4 complained they were losing reception, the company famously advised them to hold it differently. Apple Maps still carries a whiff of its botched 2012 launch.
But today, issues certainly seem to be piling up at a more frequent rate than we have become used to.
It’s possible, of course, that social media allows errors to come to the fore more often than they would otherwise, and amplifies them when they are discovered, rather than there actually being more mistakes – the FaceTime bug, for example, spread virally before it was addressed.
Apple is also a much more complicated beast. Where it used to sell one model of iPhone, it now sells seven different versions.
It has delved more deeply into software, and has released new products at a faster rate than in the past (even if none of them have matched the iPhone for sales).
Its customer base numbers in the hundreds of millions, rather than the millions, increasing Apple’s exposure.
Fighting on a dozen fronts rather than two or three is bound to yield more chinks in its armour.
Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies, says the company is “doing a great deal more than they used to, so instead of having one problem from one product, you have one problem from multiple products”.
Meanwhile, each year we demand new features and more powerful specifications, forcing companies to push the envelope despite improvements becoming harder to achieve.
“I wonder if sometimes they get ahead of themselves,” Milanesi said.
“They do feel the pressure and maybe push a little more than they should.”
On Tuesday night, Apple revealed a rare decline in sales. Revenues from the iPhone, its most important product, fell by 15% and, while those from its other businesses increased, they did not make up for the iPhone’s decline.
Apple’s shares rose by 6.3% yesterday in response to the figures, although this was partially put down to relief that the fall was not worse.
It would be facile to link Apple’s revenue decline revealed on Tuesday to any perceived increase in mistakes. The Chinese economy and broader trends in the saturating smartphone industry are better explanations for that. Ignoring China, Apple’s sales rose year-on-year.
The company is embarking on an increasingly diverse sales strategy – selling more software and media services, as well as wearable devices and accessories – in order to keep growing and fend off accusations that it is over-reliant on the stuttering iPhone.
But this strategy carries its own risks if the company opens itself up to accusations of spreading itself too thinly.
As Apple looks to its next chapter, it will have to be wary of letting its high standards slip.
– © The Daily Telegraph