Editorial: On What to Expect From iPhone 3GS Reviews, And Why

With the release of the iPhone 3GS now only days away, and reviews likely to appear very soon, we wanted to share some behind-the-scenes information that might help you to better understand media coverage of this device, as well as other Apple products that have been released in recent times.

For years, iLounge has been proud of the fact that we’ve actually purchased the iPods and iPhones we’ve reviewed here. In order to get the full experience of what it’s like to be Apple’s and AT&T’s customers, we’ve stood in the launch day lines in various cities, endured the same activation failures and customer service problems you’ve dealt with, and chronicled them in news stories, reviews, and occasional event reports on iLounge. We buy a lot from Apple, and that’s the reason we can tell you when the eco-conscious company has, for instance, shipped nine iPod nanos from the same place in nine separate FedEx boxes. It’s also part of the reason we actually care about the prices and durability of Apple’s products, like you do. When you buy something, you really care how long it will last, and how much it costs.

Since the launch of the iPhone two years ago, and particularly since the iPhone 3G’s release last year, a lot has changed at Apple. Steve Jobs fell sick and took an extended leave. Some of the company’s key people, including everyone from PR to engineering staff, left to join Palm. And others, including the “father of the iPod,” have walked away from the company. During this same period, noteworthy lapses in Apple’s marketing and execution started to undermine its credibility with fans. When it was sued over its “twice as fast, half the price” iPhone 3G marketing, Apple at one point claimed, stunningly, that “no reasonable person” should have actually believed its “statements as claims of fact.” Now the company has made similar claims about the iPhone 3GS. Buyers of iPods and iPhones discovered that Apple had quietly broken new device compatibility with accessories it was selling only weeks earlier in its own stores, and hiding post-release changes to the devices rather than disclosing them openly to consumers. Those who speak too much truth about these and related issues are threatened by the company, as the BBC learned this week. That’s the BBC, for God’s sake. For customers and longtime fans like us, watching these sorts of things happen at the same time as Apple products have hit new peaks of popularity has been truly sad—it’s like seeing an indie rocker hit it big and lose his soul in the process, alienating the fans and media who helped him succeed in the first place.

What compelled us to write this article was another oddity that we discovered in the past week: without explanation, the web site Gizmodo abruptly retracted an iPhone 3GS hands-on it posted during WWDC—an event where Apple told us specifically that no one save broadcast journalists was getting hands-on time with the phone. A reliable source told us yesterday that Apple had quietly given Gizmodo an iPhone 3GS in advance under embargo, and told it to yank its hands-on, photography, and video content because they were too early; Gizmodo allegedly complied. Another source added that “Apple went ballistic and they… now are banned from attending Apple keynotes going forward,” a claim that we have not been able to verify. We twice offered Gizmodo the opportunity to comment—once before our story, once after hearing from these sources—but it hasn’t.

To be clear, Apple’s practice of giving certain people advance access to its products is done for a specific reason: it has selected writers who it believes will say positive things about the products, and then will feature their quotes on its Hot News page and in its keynotes. (We pointed out the almost amusing nature of those gushes here; they continue today.) But if you think that there’s nothing more going on here than people simply receiving Apple’s products early and writing nice things about them, you’re in for a surprise. After receiving advance review units from Apple, writers then receive marketing-driven phone calls from the company, in which they’re told the various things Apple wants to see spotlighted in the reviews. Those who participate in Apple’s calls have no obligation to parrot the marketing pitches back to their readers. But some of them do.

We can’t speak for others, but we can tell you this: we have never participated in a pre-review call like that with Apple. We don’t do it with other companies, either. And we won’t. Our impressions aren’t necessarily the most positive you’ll find on the Internet, but we promise you that they are always—always—honestly reached, without any interference from marketing people or executives trying to tell us what we should tell you. Thus, even if our review of the iPhone 3GS isn’t the first one you see, and it surely won’t be given the embargos Apple has gotten people to sign, you can be sure that it wasn’t written with input from Apple.

In an ideal world, other writers would join us in taking a stand against overaggressive product marketing tactics and the dangers of coziness between the media and the subjects of its coverage. We invite and strongly encourage like-minded people to do so. But if they don’t, we’ll gladly stand alone, and continue to bring you the objective, independent coverage you’ve come to expect from us over the years. Thank you, as always, for your continued readership and support.

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