Can Apple get things back under control?

How many more things can go wrong?

Easter hasn’t been a happy holiday for Apple -- a bug-laden software upgrade means users will think twice before they upgrade their devices, and a move by a third party to break device security for a U.S. law enforcement team that likes to call personal privacy a “marketing gimmick.”

That’s not great

The two things are major setbacks. Not only is Apple less able to claim its devices are 100 percent secure, but it now knows that any government anywhere can break into iPhones belonging to any Apple customer, thanks (some claim) to some Israeli firm. Presumably that firm will work with anyone who pays making us all less safe than we were before.

Whatever the risks, I think most agree with the company’s statement that: “This case raised issues which deserve a national conversation about our civil liberties, and our collective security and privacy.”

While the case between Apple and the FBI rolled through the court, it also became clear that whoever was writing the anti-Apple script may as well have been briefed by an Android fan. The FBI’s San Bernardino case lawyers poured out a prime selection of the kind of accusations diehard fans of the platform spout, “privacy” became “marketing” and “security” meant undermining the encryption on which every online business transaction is based, meaning no one is safe.

Suddenly a company most people see as being synonymous with America became tinged with a feeling of being “un-American”. Adding insult to the injury some dangerously populist billionaire Republican presidential candidate began making US Apple employment promises he cannot keep.

It’s all in the software

It’s all in the software, of course, but having taken great pains to paint a picture of Apple being safe and secure, it’s not great to find the latest iOS 9.3 update delivering major problems:

  • Users of older devices saw their mobiles “bricked.”
  • Users of the latest iPhones are experiencing a bug in which links won’t work in Safari, Mail and other apps.

Apple has shipped a software patch to fix the first problem, but the second continues to impact what appears to be a significant number of users. Apple has said it is aware of the flaw and promises a patch is in development.

Meanwhile it seems we must Force Restart their devices frequently; use alternative browsers and/or disable JavaScript on their iPhones until the fix is found.

Interesting times

It seems ironic that a company so frequently accused of being “too controlling” seems to be losing control. On the one hand events beyond its power to control such as the FBI case are blunting its message and denting its reputation; on the other those things that should be fully within its grasp, such as long beta-tested software updates, are also unfurling fast.

Apple is also under great pressure elsewhere: Competitors compete and where they can’t compete with originality they do so with flattery; economic turmoil means consumer durables sales are in free fall on a global basis; hardware suppliers are unreliable and market protectionism gets in the way of some potentially good plans such as expansion into India or Brazil.

Meanwhile it is experiencing weakness in some product lines and the allure of new products is fading as middle class consumers in most of its biggest markets are working to control spending as they feel the economic squeeze.

These are all big challenges Apple executives sitting down to their Monday morning meeting this week will need to face up to.

It remains to be seen if their responses will be strong enough and if the company can once again regain control.

Because as an outside observer looking in it seems to me that even when the company threatened to go “thermonuclear,” it was blissfully aware the forces ranged against it had already hit the red button.

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Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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