What the hell is going on with Apple?

A lot going on.
A lot going on.
Image: Reuters/Beck Diefenbach
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The commonly held belief is that Apple charges ridiculously high prices for its products because they’re well-built, beautiful objects that the company generally stands behind. As founder Steve Jobs loved to say, Apple’s products “just work.”

By and large, they still do. Apple recently became the first trillion-dollar US company, and sells tens of millions of iPhones, iPads, computers, and other gadgets each year at premium prices. But it feels as though there’s a creeping undercurrent of discontent among its customers as quality control and customer service seem to be slipping from their previous heights.

In roughly the last year, there have been more than a few troubling instances that make you wonder what exactly is going on with Apple.

Here’s a quick refresher on everything that’s happened recently:

MacBook keyboards stop working

Apple launched a new MacBook design in 2015, with a new keyboard design that was meant to cut down on the space keys take up. It’s since expanded a modified version of the design to its MacBook Pro laptops, which it refreshed in 2016. Throughout, the keys have been criticized for their shallow, clacky design that seemed to easily break. In May, a class-action suit was brought against Apple by a group of consumers whose keys have either gotten stuck or become defective because of the design. Users have reported that things like pieces of dust seem to have been enough to break one of the keys. In June, Apple admitted fault and said it would cover the cost of replacing keyboards for four years.

MacBook Pro overheating

Around that time, Apple released a new, ridiculously powerful MacBook Pro that has a redesigned keyboard that’s supposed to be both less loud and less susceptible to crumbs. But the laptop has its own problems.

Right after Apple’s newest computer came out in July, reports started emerging that the super-fast machine ran so hot that the powerful processors were throttled to run below their regular speeds out of fear of damaging them. Apple apologized for the issue with its laptop, which can cost up to nearly $7,000 when fully decked out, saying the issue hadn’t come up in its testing, and that a software fix would patch everything. Reviews are still quite mixed.

Delayed products

Apple is traditionally very quiet about products it’s working on, but recently, it’s started to show off devices a little ahead of when they’re ready to hit the shelves. Recently, it’s struggled to deliver a few products it’s previewed on time:

  • AirPods. Initially announced in September 2016 for an October release, the wireless headphones hit stores in a limited capacity in December, with most shipping after the Christmas shopping season. Most consumers weren’t able to pick them up until 2017.
  • HomePod. Apple’s smart speaker was announced in June 2017 for a December release, but didn’t hit stores until early February 2018.
  • AirPower. Apple announced its novel wireless-charging system alongside the iPhone X in September 2017. The company was vague on when it would be released, saying to “look for AirPower charger next year.” There are now four months left in that year, and there have been no updates on AirPower, although some believe it will be launched at Apple’s September event.
  • Group FaceTime. The company also announced a feature for its new operating systems where groups of up to 32 people would be able to FaceTime video-chat together. It was revealed that it was pulled from developer releases of the operating system, and reportedly won’t ship with iOS 12 and macOS Mojave when they launch later this year.

Throttling phones and dubious replacement batteries

Late last year, research found that Apple was surreptitiously slowing down iPhones as their batteries aged. Apple said this was to preserve the batteries as long as possible. However, since it was done without the user’s knowledge, many saw the practice as confirmation of the long-held rumors that Apple slows down old phones when it releases new ones to convince people to upgrade.

Class-action lawsuits swiftly followed, and Apple apologized. It lowered the price of its battery replacement service for anyone with an iPhone 6 or newer from $79 to $29 through the end of 2018. In March, the company introduced software to give users more control over how their phone managed its power.

But there have been scattered reports that some phones with replacement batteries have been exploding. Even some new phones have experienced battery-swelling issues. Apple wasn’t immediately available to comment on the swelling batteries.

Exploding Apple Watches

There have also been reports of Apple Watches of all models exploding or bursting on users’ wrists. Threads on Apple’s support site suggest that in some cases users are being blamed for the issue, with Apple support staff suggesting the wearers whacked their watches on something without noticing and damaged the devices. Given that Apple’s watches are supposed to have durable displays, this seems highly unlikely. (Having recently witnessed this exact issue, I can say it does seem to be a real concern.)

But in a class-action lawsuit against Apple, the plaintiff alleges that all Apple Watches are susceptible to their screens breaking or popping off due to a design defect.

The company has also tacitly acknowledged that there’s an issue with its original and Series 2 Apple Watches, extending repair coverage for three years for original watches whose batteries expanded, as well as a similar program for the Series 2 watches.

“Apple has determined that under certain conditions, some Apple Watch Series 2 devices may not power on or they may experience an expanded battery,” Apple said in an internal document obtained by MacRumors.

The company hasn’t said how many original and Series 2 watches have been affected, and declined to comment for this story whether there was a similar issue with the Series 3 watches, which was released less than a year ago. The watch I witnessed burst and Siegler’s watch above were Series 3s, and from reports on the web and Twitter it seems they’re not alone:

Genius Bar Grove appointment chaos

There was once a time, when Apple primarily still sold computers and iPods, where you could walk into an Apple Store with a defective product under warranty, and the company would often replace it or repair it as soon as possible. For the most part now, partly as a result of the company’s unbridled successes, increases in scale, and a cost-containing mentality, it’s nearly impossible to just walk into an Apple store in a major metropolitan area and grab ahold of a Genius to get something sorted quickly.

As Google Ventures (GV) partner and tech writer M.G. Siegler recently outlined on his blog, you have to schedule appointments in advance, and even then, a Genius will likely not get to you at your allotted time, they’ll fill out a ton of digital paperwork, and then tell you your device will be repaired in two weeks. In Siegler’s case, Apple adjudged him to have been at fault for his broken Apple Watch, which showed up after repairs… still broken.

And when there appear to be legitimate issues with multiple products that Apple has released in recent years, having long wait times or staff who act as if you’re guilty of damaging your devices until proven innocent, isn’t exactly an ideal situation for one of the few companies still succeeding with physical retail stores.

Gasesous iPads and iPhones

Earlier this month, a group of employees at an Apple store in Amsterdam had to be treated for fume inhalation after an iPad started leaking gases into the air. Early reports suggested it had exploded, but it doesn’t seem any fire was involved. A similar incident transpired at a Swiss Apple store in January, when the store had to be evacuated for gases coming from an overheating iPhone battery.

A new Apple?

All of this isn’t to say that there haven’t always been issues along the way. Steve Jobs once told someone to hold their phone differently when their brand-new iPhone 4 wouldn’t make calls; Apple once recalled 1.8 million defective laptop batteries; and the iPhone 5 seemed to have its own swelling-battery problem.

Yes, some of these recent reports are anecdotal complaints amplified by social media. And when you’ve sold as many products as Apple, there are bound to be the occasional quality control blip along the supply chain. But it feels as if something has gone pear-shaped at Apple recently.

Since taking over as CEO in 2011, Tim Cook has only introduced two new product lines—the Apple Watch and HomePod (well, three if you count AirPods). Instead, he mainly chose to expand the variations on existing products, pumping out new sizes, features, and colors each year. This approach has obviously helped make Apple so rich, but it’s difficult to see that this expansion of products has done anything other than make it difficult for Apple’s manufacturers and support staff to retain their focus.

Perhaps this is just an awkward blip in Apple’s long history—but it’s possible that it signals that something deeper may be wrong at the world’s largest company. All may seem well from the outside now, but how long can the company keep expanding from its core—especially with the moves into health care and autonomous cars on the horizon—before more serious flaws emerge?