A close reading of Apple CEO Steve Jobs' e-mail correspondence.

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July 1 2010 5:11 PM

"Just Avoid Holding It That Way"

A close reading of Apple CEO Steve Jobs' e-mail correspondence.

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Whatever the cause of these problems, there's one thing about Antenna-Rama that I can't get enough of: Steve Jobs' e-mails to angry customers, which are surfacing on tech blogs at the rate of one or two per day. Yes, the above quotes are from actual e-mails the Apple CEO sent to customers who wrote him to complain about the iPhone 4.

Steve Jobs. Click image to expand.
Steve Jobs

My interest here is primarily journalistic; since Jobs returned from medical leave last year, he has started e-mailing customers regularly, and the messages now offer the only shred of transparency in a company that is otherwise completely locked down to outsiders. Of course, Jobs isn't responding to customers in order to accommodate Apple-watchers like me. He's doing it as marketing—he knows that his messages will get posted on the Web, and thus understands that whatever he says can be used against him in the court of public opinion. It makes sense, then, to evaluate Jobs' missives as PR statements. Are his responses helping Apple overcome the iPhone 4 antenna issue, or is he only making matters worse? Beyond the newest iPhone, are Jobs' e-mails good for Apple's brand?

The argument in favor of Jobs' off-the-cuff mailing is that he's putting a human face on an often-aloof company. Many people feel they have a connection with their Apple products. By selectively responding to customers, Jobs deepens that connection. He seems to understand this magic, often choosing to respond to people who say they're longtime Apple fans but have lately had some problem with a product or have started getting worried about Apple's larger strategy.

The CEO also doesn't dodge questions or discriminate based on the scope of your problem. He recently commented on the spate of suicides at the Chinese factory that makes its devices ("We are all over this"). Last week, Steve O'Hear, a Mac fan and journalist who uses a wheelchair, asked Jobs if the company would continue to make disabled-accessible Macs as iPads and iPhones came to dominate its bottom line. "We will keep making the best computers on the planet. We love it," Jobs said.

Jobs does tech support as well. A customer named Jonathan Cowperthwait e-mailed the CEO to ask why the iPhone 4 had replaced the "hold" button with the button to invoke FaceTime, Apple's new videoconferencing system. How should you put someone on hold, Cowperthwait wanted to know—and then he added, "Thanks for your leadership on this magical product. I remain a loyal fan." A couple hours later, Jobs responded with some advice—use "mute" instead of "hold."

There have been suggestions that Jobs isn't really behind his e-mail—that some underling is responding as Jobs. That could be so, although it's clear that whoever is behind the Steve Jobs e-mail account has been given free rein to say whatever he or she wants, in language that doesn't look like it's been cleared by the folks in media relations. (That e-mail about the iPhone's "attenuation of antenna performance" was an anomaly.) Jobs' replies are often comically terse ("yes" or "no" are common responses) and prone to typos, likely because he often dashes them off on his iPhone or iPad.

While Jobs' typos likely won't affect Apple's reputation, he has written a bunch of dismissive, stupid, or laughable things. "Just avoid holding it in that way" is about the worst thing you can say to a customer with a buggy phone. I'll bet that if Jobs heard of an Apple Genius responding that way, the guy wouldn't have remained a Genius for long.

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If the advantage of having Jobs speak for the company is his ability to rise above PR-speak, the disadvantage is that he sometimes spins the truth to an absurd degree. In May, Ryan Tate, Gawker's tech-industry reporter, sent Jobs a critical note after seeing an Apple ad that called the iPad "revolutionary." "Revolutions are about freedom," Tate argued—a comment on the way Apple has locked down the iPhone and iPad platform.

What followed was a late-night back-and-forth in which Jobs and Tate sparred about Apple's corporate philosophy and ethics. Among other things, Jobs offered this argument for why the iPad meant "freedom":

Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom. The times they are a changin', and some traditional PC folks feel like their world is slipping away. It is.