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Old 18th August 2010, 07:53 PM
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Rotten Apple?

Why the shine is coming off Apple - and how it could change.

I'll fully admit it: I'm a big fan of Apple.

Their computers cost more than your average PC, but to me, the user experience they offer - and the lack of viruses (or virii if you're a pedantic nerd) - is well worth the premium.

Although the iPhone is, in many important ways, totally inferior to my old BlackBerry, I like it because it fits so seamlessly into my digital ecosystem. It syncs not only my music, but my contacts and calendars as well. And it does it a whole lot better than my old BlackBerry ever did. It even has James Bond-like qualities: once, when I lost it, I was able to go online and locate it very quickly through Apple's MobileMe service. (Anyone who knows me won't be surprised to learn that I lost it, then found it, in a bar.)

Then there's the iPad. I bought one when it first came out. It subsequently became so popular around my house that, faced with a week-long business trip, I realized I would either have to go without it or my wife and kids would basically hate me. So I bought them one of their own. Harmony ensued.

Lately, though, Apple's shiny happy image has increasingly come under fire. I'm not just talking about frivolous stuff like the complaints about major reception problems with the company's newest phone, the iPhone 4. Or the dismissive tone with which CEO Steve Jobs handled them. That stuff's all par for the course. Jobs may do good presentations, but let's be honest, he's always come off as a bit of a wanker.

No, I'm talking about the darker stuff we don't normally associate with Apple - but, as it turns out, probably should.

Back in May, the company was rocked by reports that workers at Foxconn, a factory in China largely dedicated to the manufacture of Apple products, were committing suicide at an alarming rate, apparently in response to the stress created by all that market demand for the newest hipster candy.

Now news has broken, on Saturday, that a mid-level Apple manager, Paul Shin Devine, has been indicted on charges of wire fraud, money laundering and kickbacks. Authorities claim he was leaking proprietary information to Chinese manufacturers in exchange for kickbacks.

According to the report in the San Jose Mercury News,

Devine, 37, is accused of accepting more than $1 million in exchange for providing confidential information to Apple suppliers in Asia. The suppliers allegedly used the information to negotiate favorable contracts with Apple, which is based in Cupertino.

Although Apple flacks are dismissing the incident as the work of a lone rogue - effectively throwing Devine under a bus - something smells rotten at Apple.

It's well known that Jobs keeps his Apple employees on a pretty short leash, so it seems hard to imagine - especially in light of the Foxconn affair - that he had no idea that some middle manager might be getting his wheels greased in the highly competitive Asian manufacturing space.

Time will tell whether that turns out to be the case. Maybe Devine was a rogue. Or maybe he's just taking the initial fall for something that will turn out to be a much bigger story.

Either way, Apple should recognize that the bad news surrounding it lately is a serious challenge to its long-term viability. More to the point, Apple should - in classic Apple fashion - turn this latest challenge into an opportunity.

Now that its market capitalization has exceeded that of its once-unassailable nemesis, Microsoft, Apple is in a position to shift the way we make consumer products and become a force for good, rather than just another exploitative juggernaut.

For whatever reason - and surely some of it has to do with its own marketing, which some have dismissed as greenwashing - people seem to expect that Apple is a more responsible corporate citizen than most.

If it can actually start to back that up with some real action, it could have as big an impact on corporate social responsibility as it's had on the digital music industry.

If not? Well again, time will tell. But they'll be running a risk that people like me might think twice before grabbing that sexy new iPad. And blog about it, too.
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