Short cuts 55

by Paul Stephens

Paul Stephens takes a sideways look at the world of IT.

HardCopy Issue: 55 | Published: February 1, 2012

Feet of clay in Cupertino?

Has Apple’s legendary obsession with secrecy backfired in a big way in British Columbia? This is the question that’s been taxing us here in the Short Cuts office as we try to piece together the threads of a mystery that could lead from the development labs of Cupertino to the retail outlets of Vancouver.

Given Apple’s fondness for giving nothing away, we can’t say we were all that surprised by the recent claim, in Adam Lashinsky’s book ‘Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired – and Secretive – Company Really Works’, that new Apple employees are put to work on fake products to see if they can be trusted not to email the details to, or leave the prototype on a bar stool on payday evening.

iPad clay photo

Was this iPad-sized lump of modelling clay an employee loyalty test too far from the ultra-secretive Apple?

But then a story breaking on Canadian TV network CTV made us wonder whether Apple’s loyalty-testing strategy might have gone horribly wrong. The station reported a spate of incidents in the Vancouver area in which customers had bought iPad 2s from reputable retailers, only to open the boxes and find lumps of modelling clay where their gleaming new tablets should have been.

The police’s theory is that members of the criminal classes are buying iPads then swapping out the machine, re-shrink-wrapping the boxes (nice touch) and taking them back for a refund, leaving the unsuspecting retailers to sell lumps of clay to the next customer.

However we think there might be a more embarrassing explanation. Could it be that Apple told a bunch of newly-brainwashed – sorry, inducted – employees that the lumps of clay they’d been assigned to work on were actually a new, ultra-uncluttered iPad design (“not even an Apple logo to break the perfection of the line – awesome, huh?”), and that someone forgot to tell them the truth before they got them boxed up and shipped out to BC? Far-fetched perhaps, but for us it’s all just a bit too much of a coincidence.

• The Vancouver story got us wondering whether the practice of putting new employees to work on fake products might be more widespread than previously thought, and whether this might not be the first time it’s gone wrong. Our investigations revealed some shocking examples of products that were never meant to reach the shelves:

Windows Vista: “Bill was getting paranoid about new employees giving our technology away,” said a subdued Steve Ballmer, “so I said, let’s give them something so bad it’ll make those Linux guys think we’re losing our grip. Then we forgot about it and the next thing we knew it had shipped and we had 140 million dissatisfied customers. To be honest it’s been a nightmare.”

BlackBerry Playbook 1: “It was more a test of intelligence than trustworthiness.” said former co-CEO Jim Balsillie, “We didn’t think that anyone would think we were serious about shipping a pad computer that couldn’t do email, but these guys did – and they shipped it.” Former co-CEO Mike Lazaridis added: “On reflection it was a dumb move.”

XML: “Of course it wasn’t supposed to happen.” said a W3C spokesperson, “We had some interns in one summer and for a joke we told them to design a language with no vocabulary. Next thing we knew they’d put it on the Web site and now 75 per cent of the world’s cloud storage is occupied by unnecessarily verbose tag names, 63 per cent of them generated by Microsoft Office applications. To be honest it’s not something we like to talk about.”

Sony Playstation: “We suspected that our competitors were spying on us,” said a senior Sony source, “so we thought we’d fool them into thinking that we were going to sell a machine with a DVD drive, fast processor and plenty of RAM for less than the price of a cheap laptop. Unfortunately the Sumo was on in Tokyo and by the time we got back from the honbasho our subordinates had launched it. The whole industry’s been losing money ever since.”

Server Virtualization: (that’s enough fake products – Ed).



Kent NHS Free Condom app screenshot

Kent NHS’s new apps tells under-19s the nearest source of free condoms – but not if the only phone they can afford is a cheap Android handset.

Short Cuts strongly approves of Innovation Centres, such as the one run by Plymouth University at Redruth in Cornwall where start-up software firm HeadForwards does outsourced development for telecoms giant NTT – an appropriate focus in the county where mighty transatlantic cables come ashore, providing vital communications links to the Americas.

At Kent University’s Innovations Centre in Canterbury the application focus is different, although quite possibly still appropriate. Here development firm Tinderhouse has just shipped an app which uses GPS to tell under-19s the nearest place to stock up on free condoms provided by Kent NHS Trust’s C-Card community-based contraception scheme. “Apps like the Kent C Card demonstrate how mobile phones provide direct access to relevant information,” said Tinderhouse Director Nick Tatt, “in this case, the nearest condom pick up point in Kent.”

Our only gripe is that the app is currently only available on the iPhone, which we regard as discriminatory against users of lower-priced Android handsets. As the old saying goes, “It’s the rich who get the pleasure, and the poor who have to make do with a browser-based interface…”


Photo Extra – “Whaddya mean you prefer Android?” No, seriously, this is Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer doing what he does best (showmanship) during his CES keynote session with radio personality Ryan Seacrest. In face he was saying how pleased he was with the Xbox; that’s just the way Steve says he’s pleased.