Jonathan Takiff: In the Apple vs. Consumer Reports battle over the iPhone4 flaw, there's no clear underdog to root for
NOTE: THIS STORY HAS BEEN CORRECTED.
THE GIZMO: "Apple vs. Consumer Reports: The Movie."
From a vacation spot in Vermont, following the news online, last week's hue and cry over "Antennagate" struck me as an amusing distraction. In fact, the whole brouhaha brought to mind battling giants in one of those classic Japanese monster movies like "Godzilla vs. Mothra."
FEARSOME FOES: In one corner stood America's leading consumer-electronics product maker, Apple, defending the purity of its latest, greatest iPhone 4.
In the other corner was that most venerated (for 74 years) reviewer of consumer goods, Consumer Reports, declaring it could not recommend this otherwise terrific communicator because pressing one's hand against a tiny gap in the iPhone 4's case-surrounding antenna could cause dropped calls.
While hardly the first to chastise Apple for that quirk, CR had the clout to make the Cupertino, Calif., crowd - and late-night TV host David Letterman and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. - sit up and pay attention.
Thus was Apple's fearless leader, Steve Jobs, forced in a news conference Friday to finally admit "embarrassment" and offer restitution - a free case wrapper that would solve the problem or your money back.
But before Apple came clean, I imagined the battle could have gone either way in this evenly matched contest of willful, muscle-flexing titans.
CONTROL FREAKS: For starters, both Apple and Consumer Reports are masters at managing a conversation.
Apple does it with carefully staged news conferences and classy commercials, spending more for advertising a new computer, smart phone or digital music player than all other competitors in the category combined.
Apple also keeps the lid on by courting and serving advance samples of its latest goodies to a select and thus grateful crew of product reviewers and industry analysts - and by shunning others who dare to mock the king or leak information prematurely.
That now goes for loose-lipped accessory makers, too, who were mostly kept out of the loop on the new iPhone because of past indiscretions.
Is it surprising, then, that favored reviewers find it hard to fault Apple on almost any point, usually proclaiming their latest whatever "close to perfect"? That kind of puff stuff could give an already cocky company even more attitude.
Meanwhile, Consumer Reports controls the conversation in its pages by scrupulously refusing any advertising, product loaners or even the free lunch that often precedes a big news conference.
Flexing its muscle, CR also vigorously defends itself against defamation lawsuits filed by makers of poorly reviewed products. It also threatens legal action against advertisers who dare to cite a CR endorsement.
Such stonewalling forces shoppers to pay for CR's information: 3.9 million subscribe to the print edition; 3.3 million pay for access to its online archives.
The downside of all this scrupulousness is that CR is sometimes the last to get a product review into print, as the team waits to buy the item at retail. And in many categories (say, automatic coffee makers or gas barbecues) CR focuses on the most widely available models, sometimes skipping superior products that lack mass distribution.
You'll rarely see that shortcoming admitted, though. If a gizmo's not in a CR roundup, it's as if it didn't exist.
FROM GOD'S MOUTH TO THEIR EARS: Clearly, both Apple and Consumer Reports work hard and responsibly to make us happier, safer and more productive.
But sometimes such zealous pursuits can make a party believe you have the only true answer, make you deaf to criticism. What about the naysayers?
They're just jealous. Or heathens.
Now, clearly, some people inside the vast Apple organization raised the possibility that wrapping antennas around the outside of a mobile phone (never done before) could cause reception issues.
So Jobs' continued refusal to admit any knowledge aforethought of a potential antenna flaw is itself a "total crock," to reuse his words. Equally nonsensical was his claim that Apple had to be told by outsiders that an Apple-branded silicon bumper guard available for the iPhone 4 would solve the reception issue.
Apple-store reps were pushing those bumpers as an antenna fix virtually from Day 1. And making a huge profit on each sale - $29.50 (clear) on a little thingy selling for $29.99.
Talk about making lemonade from lemons!
Consumer Reports also acts at times as if it invented the wheel. The iPhone 4 didn't really have a problem until CR engineers did a lab test and officially said so early last week in a news release that bought 'em amazing publicity.
"In my five years here, we have never done anything that has gone viral, so fast," marveled editorial director Kevin McKean.
I've read CR reviews that I thought were nitpicky, that groused about things I deemed cool and practical - like the center-console ignition lock in my Saab. I still haven't forgiven CR for endorsing a TV set that wound up costing more in repairs than the original purchase price.
And there are documented court cases in which CR has refused to back down even when presented with evidence it had exaggerated a problem.
Take the oft-cited Bose 901 speaker review controversy. In 1984, CR claimed that the sonic image from this novel, front- and rear-firing speaker was "unstable." Their test had been conducted in a sealed, acoustically dead anechoic chamber. (Gee, just the way Apple measures the responsiveness of its iPhones.)
But who listens to music (or talks on the phone) in an anechoic chamber? After a 14 year legal tussle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (and had to cost both sides millions), it was finally decided that CR's imprecise language characterizing the speaker's performance was not intentionally false or published with reckless disregard, and therefore was protected by freedom of speech. Maybe coincidentally, CR no-longer conducts stand-alone reviews of loudspeakers.
Also demonstrating CR's hubris was its much publicized insistence that the 1988 Suzuki Samurai was prone to tipping over. Subpoenaed video tapes revealed it took 47 tries on a rigorously twisty test track before CR's road crew could get the vehicle to lift a couple of wheels.
Oops, so, um, maybe they overstated the risk, it was finally admitted eight years later.
BOTTOM LINE: I'm glad Consumer Reports confronted Apple and got it to blink. That cocky company needs to eat a little humble pie now and then, and be reminded (to borrow a catchphrase from Sony, another once omnipotent-seeming consumer-electronics company) that there's no such thing as "the one and only."
Many companies make good products. And everyone makes mistakes.
I'm also hoping this newfound publicity encourages more people to subscribe to Consumer Reports and give this nonprofit the funding to roar even louder.
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