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Apple and Ethics

Several months ago, my research team did an ethics audit comparison of Microsoft and Apple. Surprisingly, Microsoft came out overwhelmingly in the lead on most ethics and governance issues. Apple has a dismal track record on environmental concerns, seems to have little sense of global social responsibility beyond the education realm, and has been targeted for poor labor practices in China. This is distressing, as I vastly prefer their products to Microsoft’s. I love the industrial design, the user interface, and just the bloody cleverness of the products and how they market them. What I do not like are first release products with giant bugs, software with giant bugs, snotty customer service, and difficulty finding documentation on known issues.

So let’s add to this list: Deceptive Business Practices

This week Apple announced that you can now rent videos on iTunes. You pay for the movie, download it (this takes about two hours with DSL) and then you can watch it on the Apple device of your choice, including Apple TV, which we have. You have to watch the movie within 24 hours of starting it. So I figured it would be fun to try it out on Saturday night after dinner. After waiting two hours for the download, I spent the remaining two hours of the evening trying to get my Apple TV to recognize the file. I tried every suggestion I could find on the support site, and finally came across a document explaining how to transfer a rental to my Apple TV. Unfortunately, the interface described in the document didn’t exist. So I emailed iTunes support asking where it was. I got this response:

“All the new features of Apple TV—including movie rentals—are coming soon as a free software upgrade.”

Gosh, there’s a really big difference between “now available” and “coming soon”. So I emailed back:

“Why are there instructions on how to transfer rentals to my apple tv on your support site when it is actually not possible yet? This is misleading and unethical.”

And received this response:

“Thank you for responding. I entirely agree that it is misleading, although I will dispute the “unethical” with you.

So my question is, how is a statement that is knowingly untrue not unethical? The customer service rep went on to explain that it was okay because they were releasing the software upgrade soon that would fix the problem, and other parts of the documentation were actually already accurate.

Not so much.

This is a BIG problem. Selling something under false pretenses is not cool. Ever. And saying that since some of it was accurate, it’s okay that other parts were misleading does not make it better, it makes it worse.

I believe that Apple suffers from the same disease that I used to observe in the opera industry. When you worked with a talented person, say a really great conductor, if they acted abusively or sexually inappropriately, people would excuse it, saying he/she was a genius, or brilliant, as if one canceled out the other. But in the grownup world, someone can actually be brilliant and abusive, or talented and immature. Both qualities can exist in the same person, and the negative traits may in fact prohibit the person from being able to exercise the positive ones. But in the entertainment industry, people seem unable to resolve this dichotomy.

Similarly, Apple, and I think probably specifically Steve Jobs, seem to think that because they are design and interface geniuses, that they are not subject to the same basic ethical scrutiny as other companies. They are wrong, as the increasing number of lawsuits against Apple show.

Rather than expound even more on the possible effects of poor ethical practices, I will distill my advice to Steve Jobs and Apple into two words:

Grow up.

Learn to be a responsible, adult member of the world business community and adhere to commonly recognized ethical principals (and the ethical minimums dictated by those pesky law things). Stop behaving as if being smart/talented/pretty places you outside the social norms or the law. It doesn’t.