Baby Shaking App and Apple's Bad Designing [UPDATED]

Last Updated Apr 23, 2009 9:19 AM EDT

Apple has a reputation for some of the best design in the world. But for this company, beauty is often only case and UI deep. When it comes to designing a good reputation for the vast majority beyond the fanboy demographic, management continues an uncanny knack for shooting itself in the foot with a howitzer.

The latest astounding blunder was Apple's vetting and setting loose an iPhone app called Baby Shaker. It had a picture of a baby on the screen and was accompanied by incessant crying. The app would then time how long you could let the wailing continue before shaking the iPhone, at which point red Xs appeared over the baby's eyes. Not a pretty picture, particularly if you are a parent, like Patrick Donohue, of a child with shaken baby syndrome who then went on to start a foundation for the problem, which put together a press release alerting much of the media to the app:

Patrick Donohue, Founder of the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation, stated in an e-mail to Apple CEO Steve Jobs and several of his Vice Presidents, "As the father of a 3-year-old who was shaken by her baby nurse when she was only 5 days old, breaking 3 ribs, both collarbones and causing a severe brain injury, words cannot describe my reaction."

He continued, "You have no idea the number of children your actions have put at risk by your careless, thoughtless and reckless behavior! We will do everything we can to expose your reckless actions and reverse the horrific impact it will have on the innocent children throughout the United States."

The group not only wanted the app removed from sale, which has already happened, but is demanding a personal apology from Steve Jobs and a "significant effort to reverse the damage they have already undoubtedly caused," given the downloads that have already occurred.

How does Apple look through all this? Inept. On one hand, it claims to be reviewing all iPhone apps to make sure they are appropriate. Tom Krazit at CNET put it succinctly:

When the App Store was first announced in March 2008, Apple said it would vet every single application submitted to the App Store and approve or reject applications based on its internal standards. So, as Apple approaches the one billionth download of App Store applications, let's review what Apple has decided you're allowed to do, and what you're not allowed to do, with iPhone applications.

You are not allowed to have swear words in your application.

You are not allowed to develop applications that could potentially harm existing or future Apple businesses.

You are allowed to develop applications that break App Store rules if you work for one of the most important companies on the planet, whose CEO happens to sit on Apple's board of directors.

You are allowed to simulate infanticide.

Will Jobs personally and sincerely apology? I sincerely doubt it. This is part of arrogance that cripples Apple, no matter how well it appears to do as a business. (As my BNET colleague David Weir points out, Apple's performance arguably makes it worth 150 times the value of the New York Times and shows a keen understanding of changing market dynamics.) What good financial results don't show is the admittedly impossible-to-quantify business that the company could have had. Apple frequently indulges in actions that could only be considered unmitigated blunders -- whether repeated iPhone activation disasters on the release of new models, problems that have driven multiple consumer class action suits, or exhibiting a degree of capriciousness that angers many engineers developing apps for its platforms.

The reason Apple remains arrogant is that it thinks it has a right to do as it wishes, given the business performance that sits on an enormously loyal fan base and an extension into pure consumer electronics with enough dash to command purchases. But this is conditional success, because most of its expanded customer base lacks the conditional loyalty that its core customers have, and it's that expanded customer base, via consumer electronics, which has really fueled the company's fortunes.

[UPDATE: Apple finally did issue an apology, but a day after it pulled the app.]

Consider that its market share in personal computers made gains and then actually dropped from 8 percent to 7.4 percent over the last quarter -- a huge and rapid change in a mature market. Was that simply because of price? You'd think so, except that achieving the higher number happened in the last quarter of 2008, hardly a happy monetary time for most people. Maybe it's a morning after reaction by consumers -- or perhaps it is evidence that eventually a company's mistakes catch up to it and begin to take a toll. Arrogance can prevent a business from seeing its weaknesses -- and those same weaknesses keep it from reaching its full potential. In other words, all the dominance that Apple seems to show in its markets might be only a preview of what it could accomplish with a different attitude.

Screenshot by Tom Krazit/CNET.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.