The "dear user" letter on corporate websites is developing its own rhetorical conventions for situations in which high-tech companies must acknowledge limitations or flaws in their advertised products. Check out "Letter from Apple Regarding iPhone 4" for what might prove to be a classic in the genre, which was issued in response to forum postings, blog posts, and videos about the so-called "death grip" that seemed to cause signal strength to drop when the phone was held in a certain way. (It's also interesting to see outraged forum posts aimed at Dan Slocum, who publicized the flaw among fans of Apple's newest gadget.)
Unlike corporate headquarters that issue other kinds of official apologies, companies that launch computational media lines must be careful to avoid the tone of the mea culpa that has been cultivated by makers of traditional goods. Unlike the "dear valued customer" approach adopted most recently by Toyota and mocked here, "users" seem to have a different status. Apple also seems to have hurt feelings about the way that its competition has tried to exploit the apparent defect in advertising campaigns.
To demonstrate my point I'll provide the full text and then some explication of its rhetorical strategies.
Dear iPhone 4 Users,
The iPhone 4 has been the most successful product launch in Apple’s history. It has been judged by reviewers around the world to be the best smartphone ever, and users have told us that they love it. So we were surprised when we read reports of reception problems, and we immediately began investigating them. Here is what we have learned.
To start with, gripping almost any mobile phone in certain ways will reduce its reception by 1 or more bars. This is true of iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, as well as many Droid, Nokia and RIM phones. But some users have reported that iPhone 4 can drop 4 or 5 bars when tightly held in a way which covers the black strip in the lower left corner of the metal band. This is a far bigger drop than normal, and as a result some have accused the iPhone 4 of having a faulty antenna design.
At the same time, we continue to read articles and receive hundreds of emails from users saying that iPhone 4 reception is better than the iPhone 3GS. They are delighted. This matches our own experience and testing. What can explain all of this?
We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising.
Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.
To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately, providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.
We will issue a free software update within a few weeks that incorporates the corrected formula. Since this mistake has been present since the original iPhone, this software update will also be available for the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 3G.
We have gone back to our labs and retested everything, and the results are the same— the iPhone 4’s wireless performance is the best we have ever shipped. For the vast majority of users who have not been troubled by this issue, this software update will only make your bars more accurate. For those who have had concerns, we apologize for any anxiety we may have caused.
As a reminder, if you are not fully satisfied, you can return your undamaged iPhone to any Apple Retail Store or the online Apple Store within 30 days of purchase for a full refund.
We hope you love the iPhone 4 as much as we do.
Thank you for your patience and support.
First, off the half-hearted apology doesn't come until the very end, and when it does arrive, it takes the form of apologizing for the neurotic user who lacks the expected "patience and support" and can only respond with "anxiety" because they are not part of the "vast majority" who "have not been troubled.
Second, note the frontloading of expressions of "surprise," a term that occurs twice in this missive. The company isn't "shocked" or even "dismayed." Rather Apple registers its initial detachment from the kerfuffle, until it explains that it is "stunned" once it has figured out the actual cause and can share its learned discourse with the user.
Third, observe also that the company reminds the user twice that the appropriate response to the new iPhone is "love," thus also emphasizing a corporate branding strategy built around holding the status of a so-called "lovemark."
Fourth, notice that when it names its rivals in the smart phone business by name, it starts with Droid, which had launched the offending snarky anti-iPhone campaign.
Finally, in choosing to bash its software rather than its hardware, note Apple's use of adverbial hyperbole: "totally," "mistakenly," and "erroneously" emphasize its abasement and its lack of competence as a software company. Apple must go to AT&T (among consumers, known as the hated monopolistic sole carrier of the phone) to come to its rescue with a better algorithm.