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

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
July 1 2010 5:11 PM

"Just Avoid Holding It That Way"

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

Are you having a problem with your new iPhone's antenna? Have you had bad reception or seen calls drop when you hold the iPhone 4 a certain way?

Let's e-mail Apple CEO Steve Jobs for help. Got any ideas, Steve?

Wait, what? I think you're ignoring reality, Steve. Look at all these videos showing the phone losing its connection when you hold it along its left seam. Come on, Steve, at least cop to the problem!

Seriously? That's your advice? You think people need a lesson in how to hold their phones? Isn't there some way to fix the phone so folks can hold it any way they like? After all, here's a picture of you, Steve, holding the phone in exactly the same way that you're telling people not to.

Gripping any phone will result in some attenuation of its antenna performance, with certain places being worse than others depending on the placement of the antennas. This is a fact of life for every wireless phone. If you ever experience this on your iPhone 4, avoid gripping it in the lower left corner in a way that covers both sides of the black strip in the metal band, or simply use one of many available cases.

Hello? Are you still there, Steve? That sounded like something crafted by the PR department. *

OK, let's get this straight: You want people to buy your $29 iPhone "bumper" just to avoid dropped calls? Doesn't that strike you as slimy? Especially considering this leaked Apple document prohibiting customer service representatives from "appeasing customers with free bumpers."

I can't tell you whether or not the new iPhone has a potentially devastating problem with its antenna; I don't have one yet, so I haven't been able to try the iPhone death grip. Reports suggest the reception problems are affecting lots of people, but that it is inconsistent and depends on a range of factors, including the network in your area and the specific phone you happen to own. It's unclear if Apple can find a way to fix it, given all these variables.

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.

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.

Here, Jobs was taking a shot at Google's Android OS, whose built-in app store isn't as tightly managed as Apple's. But his message elides the truth in many ways. Sure, Android's store allows adult material—but both the iPhone and the iPad can access plenty of porn on the Web, so they're not exactly porn-free. Then, as far as I can tell, Apple's store offers no inherent "freedom" from apps that trash your battery; I've downloaded many, many games that make mincemeat of my battery life. Programs that steal your private data? Google has never condoned such programs. I'm not even sure what Jobs is talking about there.

So Steve Jobs sometimes says dumb things, and sometimes he doesn't tell the truth. You know, this sounds like a lot of people I e-mail with regularly. Maybe that's the key to interpreting Jobs' messages: Think of him as that crazy uncle who always forwards you odd conspiracy theories. He's often amusing and sometimes annoying, but you can bet he totally believes what he's saying.

One more thing: I e-mailed Jobs once, a couple months ago, for comment on a story I was working on. I didn't hear back. Maybe you'll have better luck. He's sjobs@apple.com.

Correction, July 2, 2010: According to Fortune, an Apple spokesman has denied the legitimacy of a recently published e-mail exchange allegedly between Apple CEO Steve Jobs and an angry customer. (Slate has contacted Apple and is awaiting a response.) Slate's article originally included two quotes from this disputed conversation: "No, you are getting all worked up over a few days of rumors. Calm down" and "Retire, relax, enjoy your family. It is just a phone. Not worth it." (Return to the revised passage.)

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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