The two faces of Apple

“Cognitive dissonance” is the way to describe what I’m feeling this morning after reading this amazing, blistering investigative piece in the New York Times about Apple and its Chinese manufacturing partners. This time former employees at Apple and Foxconn are speaking out, and the picture is worse than previously believed. Even the notion that “every company does business this way in China” (which many people, myself included, have espoused) turns out not to be true. Apple, according to the article, is worse than the others. It pushes suppliers so hard that the only way they can make a profit is to cut corners and hurt workers. If the article is to believed, Apple does this knowingly. While Apple talks a lot about inspecting factories and dormitories, and insisting on a code of conduct, in reality these inspections don’t accomplish very much. Meanwhile, factories blow up. Read the article and see if you can ever forget the story about the guy who got his face blown off and died when a completely preventable aluminum dust explosion ripped through his workspace.

It’s all incredibly depressing and disappointing.

And confusing, too, because this side of Apple contradicts so sharply with the Apple that all of us experience. It seems there are two different Apples — the one that deals with suppliers and the one that deals with customers. And the two are so different as to be almost unrecognizable. Earlier this week when Apple reported its jaw-dropping financial results for the fourth quarter, I wrote an article for the Daily Beast saying that Apple deserves every bit of its success, because it was winning the old-fashioned way, by making great products and delivering awesome customer service.

If you’re an Apple customer and you’ve ever had to deal with Apple customer service, you no doubt know what I’m talking about. They’re consistently amazing. They’re beyond pretty much anything I’ve ever experienced with any other company. They’re friendly. They’re generous. They’re kind. What’s more, this feels sincere. Apple truly has created a culture that is built around treating customers extraordinarily well. Moreover, over the years I’ve met people who work at Apple, and they are good people who really believe in what they are doing.

Of course Apple isn’t being nice to customers for the sake of being nice. It’s smart business. And it’s so obvious that you wonder why all companies don’t do this. For whatever reason, most don’t. But Apple does. It may be the biggest part of Apple’s value proposition — the fact that, if anything goes wrong, you know Apple will take care of it for you.

So maybe this two-faced culture makes sense from a business perspective: Treat customers like royalty + treat suppliers like slaves = profit.

But a real sense of discomfort arises from being the one who benefits from that bargain.

I don’t begrudge Apple its profits or its $100 billion in cash. The problem I’m having isn’t with Apple, but with me.

In our household we have two iMacs, four MacBooks, four iPhones, a Time Capsule, two Apple TVs, an old Mac Mini and countless iPods.

I love these products. I love Apple’s customer service. I’ve recommended Apple products to countless friends and relatives.

I hate feeling crappy about that. But right now I do.

Apple has enough money and enough influence to change this. They could make things right. It might not be easy, or cheap. But they could do it.

Apple could make the face they show to suppliers more like the one they show to us. I hope they will.