Tattoos, taptic engines and other Apple MacGuffins

I like that. “Slap on the wrist” is clever and feels about right for a 2.71% haircut. “Reported problems” is perfectly, appropriately vague.

Investor’s Business Daily might have added that Apple was ripe for profit taking Thursday, up 20% for the year with a lot of in-the-money options ready to be harvested.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that when things look up for Apple — after a blockbuster quarter, say, or the launch of a new product category, or both — the press needs a story to bring it down.

This tale is what Alfred Hitchcock would call a MacGuffin — an object, a person, a plot device whose only purpose is to move the plot forward. It almost doesn’t matter what it is. “The audience,” Hitchcock once said, “don’t care.”

The tradition among headline writers is to make the Apple McGuffin a “gate.” Antennagate. Mapsgate. Bendgate. It’s not too late for Tattoogate, I suppose. Tapticgate? Tapgate for short?

I don’t know what to say about people with wrist tattoos who are getting false readings from the heart beat monitors on their Apple Watches. This just makes me feel old.

Those faulty haptic feedback vibrators — Apple calls them “taptic engines” — are another story, one with a lot of twists and turns.

It started quietly three weeks ago when John Gruber mentioned in his Daring Fireball review that the taptic engine in the first unit Apple loaned him died after a couple days. Apple hurried to replace his faulty Watch with a new one.

A couple weeks later, KGI’s Ming-Chi Kuo, a Korean analyst with a better-than-average track record, attributed the mismatch of Apple Watch supply and demand to, among other things, “inadequate production” of the Watch’s haptic feedback engine. 9to5Mac reported Kuo’s remarks, but they didn’t get much traction.

Then the Wall Street Journal— without reference to either Gruber or Kuo — picked up the story on Wednesday, and the media had their MacGuffin.

CNBC’s headline — “Apple finds defect in its watch” — made it sound like Apple’s first new product since Steve Jobs’ passing was going have to be recalled like so many GM trucks.

As if to disabuse readers of that notion, a later version of the Journal story included this sentence:

“Apple doesn’t plan a recall, because there’s no indication that Apple shipped any watches with the defective part to customers.”

I wondered if I was seeing the hand of Apple PR, which has been known to give discreet backgrounders to reporters who don’t get things quite right. I didn’t hear back from them, but a few hours later I got an unsolicited e-mail from a publicist representing FusionOps, a supply chain analytics company.

Far from screwing up, according to FusionOps, Apple did everything right: (I quote)

  • Had multiple suppliers of the taptic part. Two suppliers allowed them to toggle production of the taptic part once the quality issue was discovered
  • Did not ship faulty watches to customers. Adequate testing and inspection means that customers never received faulty product, allowing Apple to avoid a recall of the product
  • Took orders online first. By skipping its retail channels in the initial launch phase, Apple avoid building up too much inventory of the faulty product
  • Adding a new assembler of the Apple Watch. Apple may add Quanta Computer of Taiwan to assemble the watch in order to meet demand once the taptic part shortage has been addressed


“This would be catastrophic for most companies.” said CEO Gary Meyers in a made-for-publication soundbite. “Apple has the world’s best supply chain, and has incredible brand loyalty, so they’ll weather this fine.”

Apple’s own publicists couldn’t have put it better.

Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter at @philiped. Read his Apple (AAPL) coverage at or subscribe via his RSS feed.

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