'Pathologically constipated': A critique of Apple's customer relations

November 4, 2013: 8:03 AM ET

Harvard's Lawrence Lessig puts his finger on the problem with Apple's software updates.

From Joy of Tech

From Joy of Tech

FORTUNE -- I was lucky. As soon as they were available, I installed Apple's (AAPL) new software suites on all three of my workday computers -- iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air -- and have yet to come across a stumbling block serious enough to prevent me from doing my job.

Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig -- one of the most influential defenders of civil liberties on the Internet -- was not so lucky. In a note posted Friday on Lessig Blog, v.2 he reported that after he "stupidly" upgraded, every Apple-related product he depends on was "crippled in important ways."

Although he goes on to detail the headaches he's having -- starting with the way the Maverick's Mail app mishandles Google's (GOOG) Gmail (see Joe Kissell on what a pain that can be) -- that's not his point.

His point is that is that only Apple knows whether these changes are deliberate (i.e. permanent) or accidental (i.e. temporary), and the company -- in the Jobsian tradition of secrecy -- is not saying.

"In the 'hybrid economy' that the Internet is," Lessig writes, "there is an ethical obligation to treat users decently. 'Decency' of course is complex, and multi-faceted. But the single dimension I want to talk about here is this: [Apple] must learn to talk to us. In the face of the slew of either bugs or 'features' ... a decent company would at least acknowledge to the public the problems it identifies as problems, and indicate that they are working to fix it.

"Why is that what decency requires? And why, then, is the pathologically constipated way in which Apple communicates with its customers indecent?

"Because when you see the incredible effort that is being devoted to dealing with these either bugs or features, there is an obvious incredible waste of time and resources that Apple could avoid simply by saying what they know."

Lessig, to the consternation of many of his friends in the Free Software movement, is a loyal Apple user. He maintains two office Macs, uses a MacBook for presentations, carries an iPhone, and owns an Apple TV.

But after this latest round of software updates, he seems to have reached a breaking point.

"Apple deals with us in a psychologically pathological way," he writes, "and if that doesn't change, it's time to leave."

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