Martin Hickman: A cautionary tale of corporate hubris and high-handedness

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Apple's reputation for reliability and probity has been tarnished, much like the screens of its first iPods, which it claimed, for a while, could not be scratched.

The problems have arisen because even the human tornado of the company's driven, egomaniac chief executive, Steve Jobs, cannot sweep away the flaws in its latest star product nor distract from its secretive and sometimes high-handed approach.

In many ways, Apple's denials of a serious glitch with the reception of the iPhone 4 resembles the difficulty another big global brand, Toyota, had in owning up to problems with the braking system on some of its cars. But Apple's difficulties are arguably more worrisome because its commercial success has rested not just on the functionality of its products, like Toyota, but on their style, fashionability and the world-beating power of its brand.

Lots of companies make MP3 players and smartphones, most of which are cheaper than Apple's versions, but only Apple makes the iPod and the iPhone. They have become must-have gadgets for the style-conscious: as sleek, stylish and fun as the iMac – Apple's coloured, rounded desktop computer which put its grey rivals in the shade in 1998.

But Apple is now a different company to the creative, edgy innovator that launched the iPod in 2001. Then it was seen as an underdog snarling at the bloated belly of Microsoft. Journalists tolerated and were even amused by its obsessive secrecy, communicating with press officers who knew, or claimed to know, nothing about the work done inside its top-secret research labs.

Now, Apple Inc (it dropped the "Computer" from its title a few years ago) is the world's biggest technology company, an entertainment and information colossus. And its almost Maoist control has become an issue, because its record of openness has been less than impressive when important things have been at stake.

In 2008 rumours circulated that Jobs, who had survived an earlier bout of pancreatic cancer, was ill again following conference presentations when he looked gaunt. Last January Apple released a statement saying he had been suffering from a "hormone imbalance" for several months. Eyebrows were raised three months later when it emerged that Jobs had undergone a liver transplant.

The company experienced a fresh flurry of criticism this April when US police, acting on its tip-off, raided the apartment of an editor of the Gizmodo website, which had leaked the look of a prototype of the new iPhone, which had been left in a bar by an Apple employee. In May, the company's response to unwelcome news was again questioned when it denied the vast Foxconn factory in China, which makes the iPhone and iPad as well as gadgets for other firms, was a sweatshop. Eleven staff who had toiled for 70 hours a week in a military-style regime had committed suicide.

Now the company is facing intense scrutiny over its claim that the iPhone 4's reception problems result from a software fault, not its new built-in antenna. Yesterday Apple was limiting discussion of the controversy on its bulletin boards. Ironically, it may find that in the fast-moving information age it has done so much to popularise, it is no longer easy to control the news. And that reputations which can take a decade to build can crumble much more quickly, and take a long time to rebuild.

Apple is still hugely successful, and people will continue buying its sparkling and innovative gadgets, but, like Toyota, it must confront the truth and recast itself as a humbler, more open company. That would be a good call.

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