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Apple Shakes Baby, Kills Freedom of Speech

By Rob Enderle
Apr 27, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Apple was having a good month until last week. Sales were up explosively -- at least, for the iPhone and iPod -- but all of that good news was trashed when the company first allowed a questionable application onto the iPhone and then killed it without explanation. Already, the tone surrounding Apple appears to be changing.

Apple Shakes Baby, Kills Freedom of Speech

It often seems as though Google and Apple are in competition to see who can have the worst PR department. In one step, Apple went back into contention for the lead after Google was being chased around Europe by villagers as if it were Frankenstein's monster. It is interesting to note that at IFA's press event last week, part of the discussion turned toward people expressing hate for Apple. However, there are broad implications to this that go beyond where their Nobel-winning, ineffective-politician board member Al Gore is hiding at the moment -- though I think that, too, bears some discussion.

I'll close with my product of the week: the best Bluetooth cell phone headset on the market.

Shaking Babies

The iPhone/iPod application that caught all the attention last week was a simple one. It showed a poor animation of a baby crying, and when you shook the phone, it eventually killed the baby. Certainly not the most tasteful thing in the world, and it clearly upset a large number of people -- particularly groups that focus on infant deaths due to shaking.

After the application had been available at the App Store for several days, Apple took it down without comment or explanation. That made it look as though Apple agreed it was a bad idea but didn't initially feel the need to apologize -- though eventually it did -- creating an image of a company that neither cared about the feelings of the people who were upset by the application or the partner that originally placed the application in the store.

It is unusual for a company's response to a problem to upset all sides of an issue while potentially crossing into censorship territory. I'm not sure what Apple could have done -- short of actually shaking a real baby -- that would have upset more people. Its actions spotlighted what appears to be a horribly ineffective PR department, as well as a tragically inconsistent process for vetting applications prior to posting them on Apple's service.

Free Speech: Apple the Censor, Al Gore the Empty Suit

There are a lot of insensitive things on the market at the moment that are actually designed to save lives and do good. The most visible have to do with antismoking campaigns that have depicted dying babies both pre- and post-birth, as the antismoking focus shifted from firsthand to secondhand smoke.

Most recently. there was an uproar over one showcasing a child who had apparently lost his mother. While clearly upsetting, if these ads were to save even one life -- particularly the life of a child -- it would be hard to argue that they weren't worth it.

At this writing, I still don't have any real idea of what the purpose of the shaking baby application was, but it did make the related problem -- and avoidable tragic result -- more visible. If this visibility resulted in saving one baby's life, the method could likely be forgiven -- even by the groups most upset over it, given that the outcome would be consistent with their own goals.

Going to the core of all of this is free speech and censorship. In this instance, there may be -- and I stress "may," because I have no idea why this thing actually exists -- two groups focused on doing the same good deed, while disagreeing as to the method. In choosing one side, Apple effectively entered as censor with a possible adverse impact: That one life that might have been saved will now be lost. It appears that both the initial acceptance and later removal of the application came without any deep review.

Why this is a problem for Al Gore is that the Democratic Party -- the one he belongs to -- tends to aggressively defend free speech and has supported aggressive antismoking efforts in the past that could potentially be viewed as bearing similarities to the current controversy. With a Nobel Prize, the expectation is that Gore would play a significant role when issues like this arise.

However, either with the Greenpeace problem or now with this one, he is simply not a factor, being content to take his big check as a board member while doing very little else. It really makes you think that someone else actually won the Nobel award for Gore and he simply took the credit. Other than helping keep Steve Jobs from going to jail, where he appears to have been successful, his only apparent impact on Apple's behavior is spending his check. Certainly consistent with the times, but given his rep, I'd expect more from him. This probably explains why he plays no apparent role in Obama's administration.

Amazingly Bad PR

At the end of all of this, one has to be amazed at how bad the PR department is at Apple. Allowing this issue to actually result in public demonstrations against the company by mothers who have lost children seems to set the low bar for incompetence. Some time ago, I chatted with a top PR professional who had been recruited by Apple and refused to even participate in an interview because she felt that being connected to the firm would eliminate any future she had in the profession.

This was because Apple's PR reputation was so bad it was only matched, sometimes, by Google. It continues to amaze me that a company known for marketing prowess and excellence would allow this complete lack of quality to exist within it. While Apple can and should be admired for many things, when it comes to PR, it remains the worst of the worst, and last week it took that decayed crown back from Google. It is hard to believe how Apple could ever do worse than upsetting mothers who have lost children, coming down on the wrong side of censorship, and making Al Gore look like a fraud all at the same time. Now that's impressive -- even for Apple.

Product of the Week: Generation 3 Jawbone

I was one of the first Jawbone users, and I've tried almost every competitive premium wireless cell phone headphone and found them all wanting. I've become so tied to the device that recently, one of the vendors created a caricature for me and painted the headphone into the picture.

What makes these different is that they have sensor that touches your cheek and can tell what noise is coming from you and what is not, doing the best job of filtering out ambient noise of any headset.

Well, Jawbone just refreshed its lines and came up with new colors, made a massive improvement in the noise cancellation technology, and even made a slight improvement in the user interface.

The new Jawbone costs US$130 and will arrive in stores around May 2. Making a product I can't live without even better -- that's a product of the week no-brainer.

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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