Farhad Manjoo discusses the causes of Apple's recent troubles.

Farhad Manjoo discusses the causes of Apple's recent troubles.

Farhad Manjoo discusses the causes of Apple's recent troubles.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Aug. 28 2008 2:51 PM

Upsetting the Apple Cart

Farhad Manjoo takes readers' questions about flawed iPhones and Steve Jobs' other recent stumbles.

Slate technology writer Farhad Manjoo was online at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about Apple's recent woes. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Farhad Manjoo: Hi everyone. I'm here to chat about my story this week about Apple's troubles. According to thousands of reports logged on Apple's site, people are having trouble with their iPhones. Plus, there's the MobileMe fiasco. I criticized Apple for not being open and upfront about what's going wrong with its software. Agree? Disagree? Have any problems with your Apple products? Let's chat!

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Annandale, Va.: Your headline "Something Rotten at Apple" is inviting Apple bashing. I love, love, love my mobileme account, and Apple has extended my account by 3 months because some users had problems. That was the right thing to do. I used Windows for 20 years, and have been a Mac user for two. Microsoft is worse in their responses. With Apple, I can always get to a live person by phone or in person at the Genius bar. I will never go back.

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Farhad Manjoo: I'm glad you love your MobileMe account! Trouble is, lots of other people don't. As even Steve Jobs has admitted—in an internal e-mail to employees—"MobileMe was not up to Apple's standards."

Of course, by itself, that's not so bad—all companies make mistakes. The real problem is how Apple handled it. It waited many days—while people lost their e-mail, were locked out of all their important info—before saying what had gone wrong with the system, and when it would be fixed. True, it eventually offered a credit to subscribers, but as yet it still hasn't come clean about how or why the problem occurred.

The same's true of the iPhone. Thousands of people have logged comments on Apple's site about how their 3G phones refuse to connect to 3G networks and keep dropping calls. Why is this happening? Is it fixable—or is it a problem with AT&T's network? Apple is mum, which is really too bad for all its customers.

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Boulder, Colo.: While Slate may be excused for this type of thing... after all, who pays for their food in the Microsoft dining room?

The Post should know better...

Who bankrolled Slate? Does the term "conflict of interest" have no significance in journalism any more?

Farhad Manjoo:Slate was once owned by Microsoft, but it's now owned by the Washington Post Company. More importantly, over the years, I've both praised and criticized Apple and Microsoft. I invite you to Google my name and "iPhone," "Apple," "Steve Jobs," "Bill Gates," etc. in your search for bias.

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New Haven, Conn.: While I agree with the overall point of your article, particularly as it pertains to communications with customers affected by MobileMe outages, I find your information dated and speculative vis-a-vis the theoretical iPhone 3G problems. Three different scientific looks at the problems seem to be pointing the finger at AT&T's network rather than the iPhone. While Apple has done a poor job communicating, there's also been a lot of inflated expectations and frankly, poor journalism on this subject. Care to comment?

Farhad Manjoo: This goes to the heart of the matter. We don't know if it's Apple's fault or AT&T's fault because Apple won't comment. That's the biggest problem: iPhones are broken and no one will tell us what's wrong.

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Moreover, does it really make a difference to iPhone owners whether Apple or AT&T is to blame? AT&T is part of the iPhone; the only way to run Apple's device in the United States is through AT&T. So if we find out that the iPhone doesn't work very well because AT&T's network is awful—rather than because the phone itself is buggy—will that make iPhone owners feel better? It won't make me feel better—my phone will still drop calls.

Indeed, I'd argue that it's better for Apple if the problem can be traced to a flaw in the device rather than AT&T's poor network. An iPhone flaw can be fixed. But if the problem is AT&T's network, the only fix is to wait for AT&T to beef up its system around the country. That's a considerably bigger undertaking—and a huge reason to stay away from the iPhone for the foreseeable future.

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Refund?: My wife and I both purchased iPhones 3G. Total cost $600 and a 2 year contract with AT&T. If the phones don't do what they are advertised to do, and they don't, can we demand a refund from Apple and AT&T?

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We are ready to start a law suit in Virginia if things don't get fixed pretty quick.

Farhad Manjoo: If you bought them within the last couple weeks, you can take them back. If more time has passed, give Apple and AT&T a call—but I wouldn't count on it. As I mention in my article, a woman in Alabama has filed a class-action lawsuit against Apple. So, you could wait to see what happens there....

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Lisbon: Will Apple ever open up to the press? Even their PR department hardly ever returns messages to the press, sometime you get upgraded to something called EMEA for some management feedback. Secrecy on screw-ups only hurts them.

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Farhad Manjoo: It probably won't open up to the press. Apple gets a lot of mileage out of secrecy. My friend Leander Kahney, author of the great Apple book Inside Steve's Brain, estimates that the anticipation caused by Apple's tight-lips—and all the attendant press attention—is worth hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising.

But you're right, there's a downside to secrecy. Not being upfront with your customers about their difficulties is one of them.

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Essex Junction, Vt.: Just keeping things in perspective there are thousands of people who have not had problems so we don't hear from them. I have had only one problem with my MobileMe account and that was resolved within 24 hours. Living in Vermont, I don't have access to iPhones thanks to AT&T not being here so I can't comment on the iPhone problems but my iPod touch works like a charm.

Apple's problems with iPhone and MobileMe are minor compared to Microsoft's problems with Vista. My employer, with thousands of PCs, refuses to install Vista because of the problems with it. At least Apple is forward in saying they have problems.

Farhad Manjoo: Thanks for the perspective. It's true, there are many MobileMe users—and many iPhone 3G owners—who report having no trouble at all. It's helpful to keep that in mind, even if it is of little consolation to those people who are suffering with Apple difficulties.

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Bethesda: I've followed you from Salon to Slate (of which I was already an occasional reader before your move). Just had to comment on Boulder's accusation. For those of you who are less familiar with Mr. Manjoo's work, you should know that he has long been routinely excoriated as an Apple sycophant. (I think unfairly, but I'm a longtime Apple user and fan myself, so I can't exactly claim objectivity.) Every blog post about Apple would reliably prompt a dozen or so "you're such a lackey" comments.

I think he moved to the formerly-Microsoft-affiliated Slate just to balance out the vitriol.

Farhad Manjoo: Thanks for your note. It's true, I'm a fan of Apple and people have noticed. That's not why I joined Slate, but it certainly causes some confusion regarding my position in the MS-Apple wars.

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Pasadena, Calif.: Comment on the rotten Apple post: I noticed your reference to your 3G iPhone and your old iPhone—why do you even have them if you don't like them so much?

I also noticed that while you have noticed issues emerging on Apple computers, there is no comparison with similar issues for PCs, only comparison in customer satisfaction—as if PC failures had nothing to do with customer satisfaction, and Apple customer satisfaction is related only to marketing prowess.

As a convert from PCs with long experience with both PC failures and Windows software failures, I am very satisfied with Apple, because I have experienced very few problems in the three years I have used Macs, and when I have, they have been completely resolved by Apple.

I have been lucky to live close to two Apple stores—in Arlington, Va. and now in Pasadena—where I find knowledgeable people who help me address issues, usually because I never bothered to read the instructions. I'm just now beginning the iPhone journey, setting it up, reading instructions, etc. I want to be an informed consumer—that is my part of the bargain.

Farhad Manjoo: I bought the new iPhone because I loved the old iPhone. I expected the new phone would be like the old phone, just faster.

But the new iPhone—which, of course, runs on the same AT&T network as the old phone—drops more calls and rarely connects to 3G. I'm keeping it because I don't have much choice, do I? I'm locked into AT&T's contract.

I'm glad you mention the retail stores. Apple's Genius Bars are indeed genius. All of my experiences with them have been fantastic.

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Goleta, Calif.: As of 8:57 a.m. Pacific I'm unable to log onto my friggin' MobileMe Mail. I get a message that says to check the system status on an Apple support page. But get this: the support page says everything is hunky-dory!

Arrrggghhh!!

I've been a .mac subscriber for at least five years, but I'm ready to bail. How Apple could screw up the whole MobileMe thing so badly mystifies and irritates me no end.

I can't be alone on this, can I?

Farhad Manjoo: No, you're not alone.

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Dallas: I have been an AT&T customer for years, and I am eligible for a phone upgrade in about 5 weeks. I was planning on getting the new iPhone. Based on your article, would you suggest one wait until some of the kinks are fixed before purchasing. Also, I have been a Mac user now for just over a year and will forever be grateful for making the switch. thanks!

Farhad Manjoo: There are two options. You could wait for Apple to say what's wrong and whether the problems are fixable. Or you could take the iPhone plunge and closely monitor your experience. You have two weeks to take it back; if your phone doesn't work as well as you like in your area, then take it back.

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Farhad Manjoo: Well, thanks all for your interest. It's been fun!