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February 22, 2005 / jnolen

Apple fails the Open Company Test

Apple's lack of transparency probably doesn't come as any surprise to those of us who follow the company but DrunkenBatman's post about Apple's stone-aged bug reporting policy brings their failures into sharp relief. You should definitely start by reading the original post. I'm going to elaborate further on the points he makes.

The essay argues that Apple needs to "engage their users and bring them into the process, not shut them out." In short, Apple should become a more Open Company. Needless to say, I rather agree. Let me start by answering what seems to be the most common objection: Apple can't afford to be a more open because they must practice the utmost secrecy in order to introduce phenomenal new products with maximum effect.

Apple does depend on its wow-inducing introductions, its Jobsian PR bomb-dropping. But communicating openly and honestly about existing products does not mean that Apple has to tip its hand about upcoming products. Steve has created a culture of fear that prevents Apple from telling the difference between what should be kept secret and what should be shared.

As DrunkenBatman rightly points out, the biggest (but not only) problem with Apple’s communication is that it is entirely one way. You can talk to Apple, but Apple very rarely talks back. Your thoughts, suggestions, problems and complaints just go into the same black hole. As The Cluetrain Manifesto has taught us, “markets are conversations.” But Apple, despite having the most rabid fans in technology, shows absolutely no interest in engaging them in conversation.

Apple should recognize that customer contributed content (bug reports, forum posts, &c.) have real value. And they should treat the contributors with respect, as partners in a common effort. That means allowing people to see what happens with the information they contribute. And that also means accepting criticism and learning from it, rather than simply removing user comments that may be unflattering.

The removal of criticism is the aspect of Apple’s behaviour that I find most infuriating. In addition to being flagrantly dishonest and disrespectful in the extreme, it is also counter-productive. When a user reports a problem — especially when lots of users report the same problem — trying to hide it only makes things worse. Just look at Robert Scoble has to say about Kryptonite.

The bug is already out there, in the wild. Customers are experiencing pain because of it. By removing information, you are essentially telling your users that “You’re crazy. There is no problem. You’re just making things up. And if there is a problem it’s entirely your fault. Now go away.”

Imagine you just installed some software that accidentally deleted some of your data. In your frustration, you go to the vendor’s support site in an attempt to figure out what has happened. Which would make you happier: 1) a problem report (either from the company or from another user) that explains the problem, even if it offers no solution as yet, or 2) nothing at all?

Silence, especially if it is later revealed that there really was a problem that really was the software’s fault, just angers users and causes them to distrust the company. The old adage of politics is just as true in software: the cover-up is always more damaging than the crime.

Apple could change their behaviour; could choose to be a more open company. It could choose to open up it’s bug-tracker to everyone. It could choose to allow its employees to blog. It could start up blogs of its own. It could show that it takes customer suggestions seriously. But I am confident it won’t; Steve’s obsession with secrecy will never allow it. Apple will stay a black hole because its employees can’t risk having a conversation. Any communication not officially approved by Steve will get them fired.

Unfortunately, Apple is insulated from all of these mistakes by their success. Their products are so much better than anyone else’s that despite their arrogance, despite their condescension, despite their silence, I would never give up my Mac or my iPod. No matter how tall their ivory tower, I, and thousands of other customers, will still be crawling around the base, waiting for Steve to come to the balcony and grant us a few words. But I sometimes feel that rather than wanting me as a customer, Apple simply tolerates me.

And so Apple will lose the chance to make their users even more invested in their products. They will lose the ability to leverage the user-to-user support. And they will lose all of the information that their users (current and future) would give to them, about problems, about features, about new ideas, if only Apple would talk back.

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