May 11

Apple’s double-edged sword of silence

Any good musician will tell you that what you don’t play is as important as what you do play.

Filmmakers have milked the pregnant pause as long as there has been film.

Apple, as we well know, is a big believer in silence as well. In fact, the most intense buzz actually begins when Apple says the words, “no comment.” That’s merely the cue for rampant speculation to begin.

But hey, this is part of the fun. Apple has relied on secrecy for years, all to build anticipation for the moment when Steve Jobs gets on stage to pull the curtain once again.

However, Apple is also enamored of another kind of silence. They tend to shut down when things take a dark turn — as they did with the iPhone antenna issue, or the more recent iPhone location-tracking issue.

Unfortunately, these are the times when people most need to hear something. Anything.

In talking about the location-tracking flareup the other day, I used the analogy of air travel. It’s horribly frustrating when the pilot keeps passengers in the dark about a long delay, but he relieves all the pressure by simply getting on the PA system to acknowledge the problem.

I get — and totally appreciate — Apple’s explanation that these are complicated issues, that they need time to understand what’s happening and formulate the proper response. They certainly need to be thoughtful. But the airline pilot doesn’t need to understand all the reasons why that airplane is blocking our gate before he tells us we’ll be delayed. It’s common courtesy. It doesn’t make passengers gleeful, but it does quell the mass rebellion in the cabin.

In both Antennagate and Locationgate, Apple could have done the same thing — acknowledge the issue and promise to tell us more as soon as they are able.

The Apple of old might have been able to get away with the silent treatment. But this Apple is different. As the biggest technology company on earth, it’s become a huge, juicy target. By going silent when negative issues arise, they gain nothing — they only encourage the image of arrogance and unresponsiveness. It’s just not necessary.

Last week, Apple came up with yet another way to play the silence card. They announced that the white iPhone is finally shipping, but failed to mention one little detail. It’s a tiny bit thicker than the black iPhone.

(Update, May 3: I fell into an embarrassing trap, and I have to take it like a man. With so many sites reporting that the white iPhone was thicker than the black one —with photographic evidence — I assumed it was true. Not. Consumer Reports stepped up to the plate with a micrometer to put the rumor to rest. So … never mind. I’ll be more vigilant next time.)

This isn’t the kind of thing you shout in a TV commercial. But it is the kind of thing you note in a press release — spinning it to show how cleverly Apple overcame the engineering challenge. To say nothing, and leave it for others to discover, is just asking for another black mark.

(Phil Schiller went on record this morning to say the thicker white iPhone story is “junk.” Interesting, because that doesn’t exactly match up with the photos. Anyone have a micrometer?)

Maybe Apple should tweak their policy on silence a wee bit. It’s inevitable that the brand takes a hit now and then. It’s just a shame when the damage is self-inflicted.

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  • Totally agree.

  • “Apple could have done the same thing — acknowledge the issue”
    Only makes sense if Apple actually believes it’s an issue. In both cases it was not in the real world, only in the link-bait world of the media. In fact, if the media had actually done some investigative journalism, they would have found both to be less juicy than they implied. Most if not all phones have antennagate like areas and all cell phones track something.

    As far as the thicker white phone – Doesn’t a single media person writing about this have a micrometer?And, even if it is a little thicker – or at least that particular phone in the pics, maybe it’s within manufacturing tolerances. Again, before jumping on the link-bait headlines, do some dang journalism.

    The so-called hits sure don’t affect their sales. Stick with what works Apple. They’ll link-bait ya no matter what you do.

  • Randolph Kirkpatrick

    This argument makes no sense to me. Just what are they supposed to acknowledge and what good would it do them?

    They answered in less than a week in a well-prepared manner in the WSJ. They were able to clarify the issue, and announce that they would be fixing it soon.

    No point in saying anything if you’ve got nothing good to say.

  • Dave
  • Patrick

    Sign me up as a disagreer as well.

    The problem with this early response is that it will never be enough for you. Whatever Apple says, you will want more, and want it sooner.

  • ken segall

    I don’t think Apple felt it was an issue — and in fact it wasn’t much of an issue. So why allow the mainstream press to turn it into a negative issue with the general public? Why sit there and watch a negative story snowball? If Apple planned to provide a full statement anyway, what purpose does secrecy serve other than to give detractors ammunition?

    I truly believe that Apple cares about its customers. My personal experience is that Apple will always “do the right thing.” That’s why I’m a loyal customer. Like the passenger stuck in that plane, all I ask is to be kept informed. I’m angry if the captain keeps us in the dark, I’m understanding if he tells us they’re working on the problem. It doesn’t do any good if the captain only explains the delay when we’re finally getting off the plane. Timing is everything.

  • Jim Stead

    This wasn’t a new issue, and the recent flurry wasn’t the first time it was reported. When you say they “can’t get away” with it, what are you referring to? Jumping the instant the “press” turns their gaze?

  • ken segall

    You are welcome as a disagreer. However, you’ve got me wrong. I’m an Apple supporter. After all Apple’s done, I think they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Personally, I didn’t give a hoot about the location-tracking thing.

    More than any other technology company, Apple understands human behavior. They should understand that silence makes people think all kinds of crazy thoughts. A few simple words would make all that go away.

  • ken segall

    The news may have been reported before, but not in the mainstream press. What’s important here is that, merited or not, the negative stories were snowballing.

    When I said the old Apple could “get away with it,” I was referring to the fact that when Apple was marginalized, their various adventures weren’t front-page news. As the world’s biggest technology company, they’re constantly under the microscope. There are a lot of people/companies with a vested interest in “bringing Apple down.”

    Like John Kerry discovered in 2004, you can get seriously damaged by not responding to negative news quickly, even if it’s false news. I don’t think it’s healthy for Apple to let negativity snowball when it would be so easy to just nip it in the bud.

    Let me be clear, though. I’m not suggesting that Apple suddenly become the world’s most open company, with Steve Jobs giving regular fireside chats. I think Apple handles itself masterfully for the most part, secrecy included. It’s just that in this case, there’s nothing to gain from being secretive — and some customers to lose.

  • “Why sit there and watch a negative story snowball?”
    Because, it’s going to snowball anyway. They’re better off waiting for a definitive answer. And, actually, they answered in both antennagate and locationgate early via Steve Jobs emails and they were accurate – “hold it different” and “we don’t track”. Did that do anything but further snowball the link-baiters? No because they weren’t satisfied and didn’t believe it. Interim, non-complete, short answers won’t satisfy. Their lengthy ones barely do.

  • ken segall

    I’m really okay if you don’t think there’s any value in Apple issuing statements in these circumstances. We can disagree. But you don’t really believe that those two email quips from Steve do anything near what I’m suggesting.

    “Hold it different”: sounds wise-guyish and doesn’t even hint at the fact that all phones have this issue. “We don’t track”: flies in the face of the fact that you can literally see your city-to-city travel in your own file, and doesn’t suggest that Apple uses the anonymous information to improve iPhone performance.

    I love the fact that Steve communicates with his customers as he does, but these are hardly the type of statements I’m talking about.