By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
August 7, 2009

The tech press is buzzing this week with the news that a senior Apple (AAPL) vice president took the time to e-mail a blogger.

The senior VP was Phil Schiller, one of Steve Jobs’ top lieutenants. The blogger was Daring Fireball‘s John Gruber, one of Apple’s staunchest defenders. The issue was Apple’s apparent censorship of an iPhone dictionary called Ninjawords that included some four letter words you won’t find in Webster’s Collegiate.

But this isn’t really about a bawdy dictionary. It’s about a public relations problem that has already triggered a federal investigation and now threatens to spin out of control.

The problem is that Apple Inc. has two faces, and the mask that hides the side that’s not so nice has started to slip.

The computer and gadget-buying public sees Apple, by and large, as well-managed company extraordinarily attentive to its needs, from Apple’s user-friendly operating systems to its legions of hand-holding retail and support staff.

Apple’s suppliers know it as something quite different: a tough, no-nonsense, hard-bargaining client that demands total secrecy and takes no prisoners when things go wrong.

It has always been thus with Apple, at least as long as Jobs was running the show. What’s changed is that the iPhone App Store has dramatically expanded the population of Apple suppliers to include thousands of independent software publishers — 16,765 of them, to be precise, as of Friday morning.

Suddenly we’re hearing a lot more about the darker side of Apple.

Trouble in the App Store

We’ve covered some of the developers’ complaints in the year that the App Store has been open — the overcrowding, the unexplained delays, the arbitrary approval process, the summary rejection of programs that might compete with Apple’s own.

Ninjawords’ problems were the least of it. They weren’t even Cupertino’s fault, which may be why Schiller — in a rare moment of Apple’s transparency — decided to tell Gruber what had happened.

What Schiller is not talking about is the far more serious issue of Apple’s rejection of Google Voice, the voice-mail management system that threatened to cut into AT&T (T) revenue stream and upset Apple’s relations with its overseas carriers. That’s the issue that triggered an inquiry by the Federal Communications Commission and may have precipitated the resignation of Google (GOOG) CEO Eric Schmidt from Apple’s board of directors.

The FCC is asking Apple and Google all the right questions

To get a feel for how serious a PR problem this has become, check out the tone of New York Times columnist David Pogue’s latest e-mail newsletter.

Pogue is a huge Apple booster. He gets preferential access to Apple’s newest products and makes millions from his Apple Hidden Manual series. He was also a great fan of Google Voice; he predicted it would do for telephony what Google search did for the Web.

On Thursday Pogue wrote angrily about the behavior of Apple’s not-so-nice side. It’s not just ham-fisted, he says, but futile:

“[W]hat Apple and AT&T have accomplished with their heavy-handed, Soviet information-control style is not to bury these useful apps. Instead, Apple/AT&T have elevated them to martyr status—and, in effect, thrown down a worldwide challenge to programmers everywhere.

‘Get around THIS,’ they’re saying.

But guess what? It won’t take long. They’ve put a rock in the river, but the water will just find a way around it.” (link)

Reconciling the two faces of Apple may not be so easy.

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