Is Apple losing its quality magic?

The iPad and iPhone 4 aren't the first products to tarnish Apple's rep for impeccable product design

Apple has long basked in a glowing reputation as a purveyor of high-end, well-designed products. Sure, the company's wares typically cost more than those of its competitors, but such is the price of quality. Lately, though, Apple's rep has taken a hit, first with the antenna woes of the iPhone 4, and now with a class-action lawsuit over the iPad's propensity to overheat not only in direct sunlight but also "under common weather conditions that it does not function for prolonged use either outdoors, or in many other warm conditions."

Apple has acknowledged the iPhone 4 antenna flaws (sort of). The complaints about the iPad's problem with heat and sunlight aren't entirely new -- and it's not clear just how significant a design flaw they represent. But given these recent complaints about two different high-profile Apple products, one might wonder if Apple quality control has slipped.

[ The quality control issues come on the heels of what InfoWorld's Bill Snyder flagged as a major development: Apple topping Microsoft in revenue for the first time. ]

A closer look at the history of Apple product history, however, suggests that the company's product quality is no better or worse. But now that Apple is a Wall Street darling and a mainstream hit, its products are suffering greater scrutiny. Then again, perhaps we are seeing signs of greater quality decline than before, attributable to Apple's attempt to take on too much at once or to push out products too quickly.

Notably, Apple does have a track record for both hardware and software problems. MacBook Airs, for example, have suffered overheating issues resulting in CPU lockups. Apple released a software patch for the problem, with reportedly mixed results.

As for the MacBook, early models suffered random shutdowns, necessitating the replacement of the CPU heatsink and firmware updates. Some MacBooks from 2006 and 2007 had battery problems caused by a logic board fault. Additionally, some machines bought between 2006 and 2007 had hard drive issues, for which Apple announced a warranty extension and recall.

On the desktop, meanwhile, versions of the Mac Pro from early 2009 running Nehalem-based Xeon processors had problems with overheating and performance degradation. Apple released a patch for the problem last February. Further, the iMac that rolled out last fall initially had screen problems.

On the mobile front, while the iPhone 4 has its well-known antenna issue, the iPhone 3G S suffered reported overheating issues, which some analysts attributed to the battery. Apple never acknowledged the problem but did add heat management advice about the device to its support page.

In terms of software design, Apple has also enjoyed a free pass while Microsoft is continually pounded as cranking out shoddy, insecure code. Evidently, Apple software isn't bulletproof at all. In fact, a recent report from security company Secunia indicates that Apple software has the most vulnerabilities and Apple Safari is the second-most vulnerability-ridden browser among the big four, while Internet Explorer has the fewest.

Apple's relative obscurity has long been its greatest defense against high-profile malware and hack attacks, just as it has helped shield the company's pristine reputation for crafting high-quality, impeccably designed hardware. Apple's hardware is by no means shoddy, but with more eyes fixed on the company, its blemishes are becoming increasingly noticeable -- and potentially costly.

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