For Apple, this week has been a storm of bad news. And, based on recent events, the company's image could be starting to take a hit. Here are the main lowlights.
- It's been revealed that Apple reportedly knew that the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus would bend before their 2014 release, even though the company claimed there were no issues with the handsets when customers complained. Those complaints turned into a class-action lawsuit.
- Apple just rejected Valve's Steam Link app, after initially approving it, citing "business conflicts with app guidelines." The app lets users access their Steam library of PC games from a mobile device.
- A growing number of iPhone X owners are saying that the back camera lens is cracking without warning, and the only way to fix it is to have the whole unit replaced at their expense (if you don't have AppleCare+).
The biggest red flag is the revelation by Motherboard that Apple knew that the iPhone 6 was 3.3 times more likely to bend than the iPhone 5s, and that the iPhone 6 Plus was 7.2 times more likely to bend, based on internal documents made public through a court filing.
This is troubling because Apple denied that there were engineering issues with the handsets. What's more, behind the scenes the company started reinforcing the part of the phone related to the bending and the touch screen failing a year and a half after the phones were released.
At least for now, Apple isn't commenting on the issue, which is understandable given that it's part of an ongoing legal matter, but the controversy raises serious questions about the company's transparency and integrity.
"Apple is going to be sued over ridiculous things. But if the legal discovery process is going to show that Apple knew about an issue – even if it didn't consider it serious – why hide that?" said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at GlobalData. "Just state up front that all designs have different potential failure points, and that most consumers should never have a problem with it."
According to Harry McCracken, the technology editor at Fast Company, it's not about how bendy the iPhone 6 was but how Apple communicates with its customers, especially in light of Apple recently admitting that it was throttling older iPhones to prevent random shutdowns.
"The throttling issue clearly has had an impact on Apple's reputation in that a lot of people heard about it and concluded that something fishy was going on," McCracken said. "It's not as simple as that: If the company hadn't implemented the throttling and left the phones more prone to crashes, that would hardly have been a satisfactory outcome."
Apple's reputation isn't in the best of shape overall. According to the most recent annual Harris Poll Reputation Quotient study, which surveyed 28,000 adults, Apple dropped from No. 5 to No. 29. However, according to a Reuters report, the Harris Poll CEO attributed the fall to a lack of attention-getting products.
Meanwhile, Apple also just rejected the Steam Link app for iOS, which could be seen as an anti-competitive move. Already available in beta on Google Play, the app lets you stream Steam games over a local network only in tandem with a gaming PC.
Apple had accepted the app on May 9, but it revoked its approval two days later after Valve promoted its release. The explanation? In a press statement, Valve said it was "business conflicts with app guidelines that had allegedly not been realized by the original review team."
"It seems like yet another example of a matter as old as the App Store itself: Apple rejecting apps for reasons that are arbitrary and inconsistent and in some cases driven by Apple's self-interest rather than what consumers want," McCracken said. “The only good news is that sometimes they eventually get to the right outcome — especially after a bout of bad publicity — and perhaps that will happen here."
Although Apple doesn't specify the exact business conflicts, it could be that the Steam Link app connects to a store other than Apple's App Store. But it's also clear that Steam Link would cause iOS users to buy and play fewer iOS games.
"I can see why Apple might consider this a way to sell apps outside its own Store, which does violate Apple's terms, Greengart said. "But the ability to stream PC games is a use case that Apple should want to enable."
As for the iPhone X back camera cracking, the disturbing part is not that the sapphire lens isn't as durable as once believed, it's that users are reportedly being asked to fork over upward of $549 for a full replacement (without AppleCare+). This is clearly stated in Apple's repair policy, but if iPhone X owners in Apple's own forums and on Reddit are to be believed, the lenses are cracking on their own, without the phone being dropped.
If that's the case, it would seem unfair to levy such a penalty. However, it's not clear how widespread the problem is.
"Apple is in a unique position where it sells products in enormous volume, yet the company is such a magnet for press attention that any problem quickly goes viral," Greengart said. "It can be difficult to know whether problems are just normal manufacturing variations or a genuine design flaw."
Apple's image is still recovering from the way it handled performance-throttling on older iPhones last year. The company claimed it was slowing down devices running updated versions of iOS to protect them from random shutdowns. But users countered that Apple was forcing obsolescence on them.
Apple apologized for the fiasco and offered a $29 battery replacement program to try to make up for it. (Customers who replaced their battery before the $29 offer went into effect found out this week they're eligible for money back from Apple.) You could argue that this response came a little late, and out of fear of litigation, but at least Apple made some corrective steps.
However, the revelation that Apple released a phone it knew to be more brittle and divulged that information only under court order isn't exactly great optics. And while rejecting an app seems like small potatoes by comparison, Apple comes off looking like it's limiting consumer choice.
As for the iPhone X lens problem, the handset actually fared quite well in our recent drop tests, but spending $549 to fix a $1,000 phone that reportedly cracks on its own is bound to anger some of your biggest supporters.
It remains to be seen whether Apple's reputation is starting to crack, but this week's events won't help. What's most important now is how the company responds.
"I don't think it's clear that Apple did anything outrageous, but the lesson is still that being up-front would be in the company’s interest, since if the facts come out later, people will look at it as a cover-up," McCracken said. "I hope that Apple has drawn this conclusion and that we'll see it reflected in how it deals with future issues."