Apple's Disappearing Cursor and Corporate Arrogance

I am an Apple Mac believer. I switched from Windows in 2005. I liked the Mac computer so much that I bought stock in Apple. Apple is a very successful company with $137 billion in the bank. But, success contains the seeds of destruction and success breeds arrogance.

Speaking of arrogance, Ron Johnson is the Apple executive who created Apple's incredibly successful retail stores. He decided to go on to other things so he got a job as the CEO of JC Penney department stores. JCP is headquartered in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. Evidently Johnson, who lives in Palo Alto, California, considers Dallas a downgrade after the bright lights of swinging Palo Alto, population 65,412. So, Johnson commutes with his private jet. Apparently it is of no consequence to him that the income tax rate for extremely rich people is 13.3% in California and 0% in Texas. Early on, Johnson decided to hire the most famous lesbian in America, Ellen DeGeneres, to be the new spokesman for JCP, a lower middle class, family-oriented department store. DeGeneres lives in Beverly Hills and makes $53 million a year. Apparently it never occurred to Johnson that "Hollywood" and "lesbian" could be a problem. That is what they call, outside of Silicon Valley, provincialism. An organization called One Million Moms, not headquartered in Silicon Valley, announced a boycott of JCP. Since Johnson took over, JCP's stock went from $34 to $15. Johnson's huge success at Apple bred the arrogance that is killing JCP.

When Steve Jobs was alive he was a quirky dictator who kept people on their toes. When he died, inevitably Apple started to regress to the big company mean. Another recent illuminating incident was the firing of Scott Forestall, another self-important Apple executive. Forestall refused to sign an apology to Apple customers concerning a goof when Apple maps was released and turned out to be a disaster, compared to the Google maps service that it was intended to replace. Although he was the responsible executive, apparently, in his mind, the customers, not his department, were wrong. Keep in mind that most Apple executives have net worths requiring 8 or 9 digits to write, a consequence of stock options and Apple's meteoric rise. It may be difficult to be humble when you've made a hundred million dollars.

While working on my Apple Mac computers I began to notice a problem. The cursor, an arrow on the screen moved by the mouse, would on random occasions disappear. The computer thought the cursor was there and the invisible cursor could be still moved by the mouse. I knew this because when the cursor rolls over certain objects on the screen they light up. The cursor could be brought back to life in various ways. By goggling disappearing cursor mac, I discovered that thousands of other people were having the same problem. Many of these customers were complaining bitterly, but Apple was in denial.

I thought I knew the nature of the problem. I had seen difficult bugs like this, that would only manifest themselves very rarely or in circumstances that were hard to pin down. A complex computer system like the Apple system has many different subprograms that constantly interrupt each other. The separate subprograms have to communicate or talk to each other. The programs will put messages in a data structure to communicate back and forth. While one program is reading or writing a message in the data structure the program must be protected against being interrupted until the message is complete. For example, if I'm reading a message from the data structure and I've read only half the message, and I'm interrupted by another program that changes the message, when I resume execution, I'll continue reading that message but what I'll end up with is half of two different messages spliced together, in other words, garbage. Depending on the relative timing, the programming fault of failing to protect a data structure while it is being manipulated can result in bugs that appear very erratically, because a timing coincidence is necessary to have a failure. A timing coincidence that requires something that takes place once a second to fall within a one millionth of second window is something that is literally a one in a million coincidence.

I was once a consultant to a company that made a small computer that clamped onto the tube bringing intravenous drugs from a bottle to a needle inserted in the patient's vein. The computerized device controlled the rate of flow of the drug by counting drops of fluid exiting the IV bottle using a photocell/light beam arrangement. About once in 6 weeks, one of thousands of devices in use in hospitals would fail and unexpectedly shut off the flow of drugs. Fortunately the valve controlling the drugs was shut rather than opened wide

It would have been easy for the company to dismiss this bug as the fault of the hospital or as something that wasn't important or didn't really exist. But given the stakes, they were hypersensitive and aggressive about finding and fixing such problems. It took about 6 weeks for a team of experts to find the bug by inspecting the code and by building a program to check the soundness of the code structure. There was no way that the bug could be reproduced in the laboratory because it happened only once in thousands of hours of operation. The bug was caused by the problem mentioned above, a corruption of a data structure shared between different subprograms.

After reading Apple discussion groups and experiencing the disappearing cursor bug myself, I was pretty sure that the problem was one of these hard-to-fix bugs. I was sure that if Apple was shaken out of denial and acknowledged that there was a problem they certainly had the expertise to fix the problem. The problem was how to get their attention. Clearly, thousands of people were already complaining and their complaints were being dismissed. Remember, Apple has tens of millions of users and everyone can't be given customized attention. I placed a message on one of Apple's forums suggesting that thousands of letters should be sent to Tim Cook, the Apple CEO, via the investor relations department and provided the mailing address of the department. My posting on the forum was censored but I sent a letter with a copy of the posting and a note to Tim Cook at the investor relations department. This, amazingly, got the attention of someone important. I got a telephone call from a Stanford MBA type, assigned to assist the big shots at Apple. I was given a contact technician and considerable attention. I wish I could say that the problem was solved, but it soon became apparent that I was a case (complete with case number), and that the Apple people were anxious to close the case, jumping at various excuses. I never was able to find out if the problem actually got the attention of the software engineers who could actually fix it, once they acknowledged that it existed. Fortunately I discovered a work-around that a user described in one of the discussion forums. A program, called pinpoint, is available that places a rotating wheel around the cursor. It is intended to help in visually locating the cursor, but when the cursor disappears the wheel doesn't, so it allows you to know where the invisible cursor is on the screen.

I still have my Apple stock, even though it recently declined 30%. I hope I'm not making a mistake holding on to it.

Norman Rogers is a retired computer entrepreneur and a former resident of Palo Alto. He mainly writes about global warming and alternative energy as a skeptic. He is a senior policy advisor at the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank. He has a personal website.