Tim Cook's iPhone apology to China: Weakness, arrogance or evolution?

Apple [AAPL] appears defensive in its handling of media critics, with CEO, Tim Cook, delivering yet another apology yesterday, this time for matters raised by Chinese state media. Does this mea culpa echo a more open Apple, a firm on the defensive, or is it reflective of a company seeking to redefine itself?

Apple says sorry to China and China likes it

Chinese Apple

For a recap of the many voices pontificating on Chinese criticism of Apple's iPhone warranty policies, take a look here. Apple also moved to change the way it handles product replacement for Chinese consumers.

Cook's apology appears to have been well received in China, with state media seeming to pull back from its two-week attack on the company over the matter.

Apple's CEO clearly felt a public statement was required in an attempt to underline the importance with which the company regards its growing Chinese market. This itself reflects Apple's understanding that as developed economies contract China and other developing markets will become the biggest global markets.

China's Foreign Ministry praised Apple for "conscientiously" responding to consumers' demands. "We approve of what Apple said," spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news briefing on Tuesday, as reported by Reuters.

Open to discussion?

Apple's CEO's last apology came in the wake of the Apple Maps debacle, when he said: "With the launch of our new Maps … we fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better."

Since then the company has put work into improving its Maps app. It recently began recruiting staff to act as "Ground Truth" verifiers, tasked with checking the accuracy of the firm's mapping data.

This open handling of criticism isn't new. Apple took a similar approach in its handling of negative publicity generated by revelations of the way its workers were treated by third party manufacturing partners.

Apple very publically committed to improving worker's rights, opened itself up to independent reporting and increased its checks on suppliers.

In all these cases Apple has stepped up to address criticism, making promises and taking steps to resolve problems as they are identified.

This readiness to publically face challenges appears to be a watchword of Apple under Tim Cook. More minor criticisms addressed under his leadership include introduction of a share dividend system for stockholders and a move to match fund charitable contributions made by company staff.

Not as arrogant

This willingness to engage is new. Apple under Steve Jobs appeared less willing to engage in such an open-seeming way, a practice that gave the firm a reputation for arrogance. Apple is finding this reputation hard to abandon, despite its increased openness.

What's interesting is that this nicer, more open, more willing to engage company doesn't appear to be winning people over. The firm faces a seeming endless storm of criticism as it seeks to implement a more ethical approach across its business structure. Even the firm's commitment to use renewable energy across its US server farms doesn't appear to have been fully recognized as the huge effort it represents.

One could almost imagine that critics miss the older, more arrogant Apple. They reject the company's attempt to engage as being nothing more than marketing, yet when it attempts to maintain any silence they then quickly castigate the firm for being remote, distant and hard to reach.

Compounding the matter, in the event the company moves to address criticisms, critics then slam the firm for seeming "weak." Apple is damned if it does, and damned if it doesn't.

What can it do?

Finding a new center

Myself, I welcome the company's move to address criticism. I respect that the firm fundamentally aims to offer products that delight its customers, however I also think the current malaise it seems to be facing reflects an inward focus at the firm while it seeks to regain its soul, following the death of its spiritual leader, Steve Jobs.

This pause for self-reflection appears to have been predicted within the company's succession planning. As part of this effort, Apple reportedly launched an internal university tasked with capturing and teaching the identity of the firm. In talks with senior executives, Jobs tried to explain the need not to think like he did, but to think in the here and now. To listen to the company's inner self in its decision making process. "Just do what's right," he told Tim Cook.

In an attempt to create the space it will take for the firm to forge its own slightly new identity, Jobs got involved in product development for future devices. We recently learned he was involved in the design of the iPhone 5 and iPhone 6 -- which might help explain the incremental improvements included within the most recent release.

The Apple that seems to be emerging is a more open company seemingly prepared to engage with critics and with customers. This may be misconstrued as a weaker Apple, but can also be seen as reflective of a firm that's attempting to design its own new identity within a changing world.

Meanwhile company executives continue to strive to understand the markets it serves, focusing perhaps on what new products it might want to offer in future.

In this journey share prices are of little consequence. Media critics, in their determination to declare the company doomed, are making their decision far too early. That's because it's not until 2014 that we're likely to see the firm begin to introduce products designed independently of Jobs.

Meanwhile the company appears to be listening to its audience as it attempts to define its new identity.

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