Why the Group Face Time Bug Could Wind Up Being a PR Win for Apple

Software bug scandals, analysts say, do not have a long shelf life. 

Less than a day before Apple’s Tuesday earnings call, the company suffered one of its worst security bugs in recent memory. The Group FaceTime flaw allowed users to start a FaceTime call and instantly hear the audio from the recipient’s microphone, without their permission. It affected any iPhones running iOS 12.1 and was big enough of a lapse that Apple has since taken Group FaceTime offline.

The company’s executives were already expected to be grilled a little more than usual over its recent revenue projection revision. The FaceTime blunder only served to cast yet another shadow over the call, as Apple highlights superior privacy protections as a competitive advantage. But three Apple analysts tell Inverse that this snafu won’t hurt Apple in the long run, and paradoxically, my wind up as a net positive: After all, Group Face Time was a troubled product subjected to delays. It’s unlikely that a lot of people were using it.

“It’s not a good look for Apple but I suspect that most people didn’t even know they could do Group FaceTimes,” Philip Elmer-DeWitt from Apple 3.0 tells Inverse. “The fact that as of [Tuesday] morning 63 thousand people had watched 9to5Mac’s video and 27 thousand people were talking about it means awareness of the feature has increased dramatically. Hell, even the Governor of New York gave it a plug. Apple’s pulled it for now, but when it comes back a lot more people will give it a try.”

Tim Cook might get some tough questions during the earnings call, but they won't be about the FaceTime bug.

No Such Thing as Bad Publicity?

A bit of background: As you may recall, Group FaceTime was announced early in June of last year during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, but didn’t roll out until late October. It was touted to let users engage in live video chat with up to 32 people, much like the Houseparty app.

Those delays apparently weren’t enough, as the product still shipped with the mortifying bug, which if abused allowed users to eavesdrop on anyone with iOS 12.1. It was a particularly ironic oversight, just last week Apple CEO Tim Cook took to Time to castigate his peers in big tech for being too reckless with monetized personal data, and calling for more government regulation. Like most CEO-written op-eds, Cook’s effectively doubled as an advertisement: Buy our products because we truly care about protecting your personal data. It’s hard to see how the Face Time bug doesn’t undermine that.

But Ben Klaiber, the author of Anatomy of an Apple - The Lessons Steve Taught Us, also echoed the sentiment that the bug would present all that enduring of a scandal. He tells Inverse that Apple will likely use this slip up to create the impression that double downing on users’ security.

“The fact is that it’s a good thing this came to light,” he said. “By talking more about how this will lead them to improve security testing in beta, they can shift the focus.”

It’s also hard to keep up with all the privacy scandals these days, and the Group Face Time bug was mercifully contained to an app few used. Analyst Horace Dediu — once called the “king of Apple analysts” by Fortune, says that Apple has weathered similar privacy scandals in the past without trouble.

Group FaceTime.
Group FaceTime has been long-delayed and has flown under the radar. This snafu could serve as free publicly. 

Similar Scandals Didn’t Take a Bite

Even Apple’s biggest scandals haven’t had a huge effect on sales, Dediu says. Take “Antennagate” a 2010 issue with the iPhone 4 that left users dropping calls if they touched the lower left edge of the phone, as an example. People concerned about the Face Time bug had a pretty simple fix, disable the feature and go on with your day. Customers who got burned by Antennagate needed to replace their phones. For that reason, Dediu says software scandals are easily forgotten.

“Hardware issues are more impactful but they also have short half-lives,” Dediu says. “Forgotten within weeks and no effect on sales. Software issues are forgotten within days.”

Dediu drew a comparison to the Volkswagen emissions scandal, when the automaker used illicit software to mislead regulators during emissions tests. The incident involved criminal convictions, billions of dollars in fines, and company restructuring. It only took a couple of years for VW to bounce back. Even if privacy is central to the Apple brand and the price premium it places on its products, there’s every reason to think this significantly lesser scandal will be similarly forgotten.

The timing for the bug is undoubtedly horrendous, but the escapade is also unlikely to move the needle all that much for the company. Somewhat ironically, the bug may end up proving a minor PR win in the long run, once there’s a patch. After all, you’ve heard of Group Face Time now.