The company is highly successful because the market cannot get enough of its products, but it has a poor name for labour in the developing world and on green issues, writes Tony Glover
AHaving just posted record revenues of US$24.67 billion (Dh90.61bn) and a net profit of $5.99bn, the digital electronics giant Apple appears to be at the pinnacle of its power.
The former two-hippies-in-a-garage start-up is now worth more than $310bn and is the second-largest corporation in the US after the oil giant ExxonMobil. Apple is also one of the world's most beloved consumer brands.
But dangerous cracks are beginning to appear in the company's consumer-friendly facade. Powering its vast computer banks with fossil fuels has resulted in Apple being named the world's least green tech company in a list compiled by Greenpeace.
There are also reports of a hidden data file on Apple iPhones that reveals the history of the user's movements. The location-based data are created by calculating the mobile phone's proximity to mobile phone masts and Wi-Fi hot spots. It has proved to be a gold mine for law enforcement agencies across the US. The revelation is already raising privacy concerns among iPhone users.
But the deepest flaw in Apple's image is its record for labour relations in the developing world. While the company's employees in Silicon Valley enjoy a well-paid, Frisbee-throwing Californian lifestyle, the staff in Apple's Asian parts suppliers' factories fare less well.
Workers at a factory in China that makes touch screens on contract for Apple have released a letter to the news agency Reuters that was destined for Apple. It refers to the lethal effects of hexyl hydride, also called n-hexane, which was used until August 2009 by Wintek, the Taiwanese company that owns the factory in China's SuzhouIndustrial Park. Consistent exposure to hexyl hydride can cause irreversible nerve damage.
"This is a killer, a killer that strikes invisibly … from when hexyl hydride was used, monthly profits at Apple and Wintek have gone up by tens of millions every month, the accumulated outcome of workers' lives and health," said a letter signed by five workers claiming to represent employees.
Workers at the Wintek plant in Suzhou allege those affected by the toxic chemical have received inadequate compensation. There are also claims that workers have not been offered reassurance that medical bills for future illnesses will be met.
But while Wintek claims it has discontinued use of the lethal chemical, the worldwide scandal surrounding Apple's global labour footprint continues to grow.
Last year, there were a spate of suicides at a Foxconn factory in China, which makes iPhones and iPads. There was wide speculation the deaths were the result of stress from poor working conditions.
The fact that Foxconn is planning to spend $12bn on a new plant in Brazil is also raising human rights concerns. Brazil is guilty of a long list of human rights violations including police brutality, torture and summary executions by civil and military authorities. The country also has an ugly history of child labour.
There is now a debate surrounding the extent to which companies such as Apple are legally responsible for the conditions of workers employed by contractors in developing countries. But consumer and investor sentiment may take a tougher view than the international courts.
Unlike its rival Google, Apple has not made declarations such as "Don't be evil". But Apple has consistently presented itself as a force for good. In his first incarnation as saviour of the technology industry, the Apple co-founder and chief executive Steve Jobs led a crusade against Microsoft's dominance of the PC market.
Since then, Apple has refined its west coast origins into a cool fusion of music, sleek design and the latest wireless computing technology. Apple's legions of ultra-loyal consumers see Mr Jobs as now leading humanity into a brave new world of futuristic, hand-held devices. Likewise, hard-headed business analysts are predicting continued growth for Apple stock.
But consumer and investor loyalty is fickle. In a world increasingly conscious of human rights in developing countries and of environmental pollution, Apple may soon start to feel the brunt of a sea change in sentiment.
Future business historians may well date Apple's decline from the day it breaks ground on its immense and luxurious new Silicon Valley office complex, reported to be being designed by the architect Lord Foster for a 36-hectare site bought from Hewlett-Packard.
C Northcote Parkinson, the author of the hilarious business literature classic Parkinson's Law, once showed that when organisations grow into large, purpose-designed headquarters, they generally begin a period of irreversible decline.
Apple refused to comment on the health problems suffered by Wintek workers, the safeguarding of human rights at Foxconn's new Brazilian facility or the tracking function on Apple iPhones.