Apple's Recent Missteps

July 27, 2008

Apple is known for its exceedingly well planned and executed products. They charge a premium for them and they’ve built a fiercely loyal customer base because of the quality level. Mac computers are simply the best computers available, iPods are the best music players, and the iPhone is the best phone - all by a wide margin. But they’ve started blundering ever so slightly. Not enough to destroy any of the religiosity surrounding them just yet, but they need to pick their pace back up to its normal level.

Here’s a brief enumeration of what’s gone wrong:

3G and AT&T

The iPhone 3G requires activation in the Apple Store unless you ordered it. Picking up an activated phone isn’t so bad, but store activation is a hideous idea. The activation process for my 4 GB iPhone was completely painless. It gave me a great first impression of the iPhone and it actually endeared me to AT&T as well - and I never thought I’d have any respect for a cell carrier. The original iPhone was purchased in an Apple store. Then you brought it home, hooked it up to a computer with iTunes, and took care of all the AT&T plan setup online. There were no long lines and you didn’t have to deal with any commission-based sales idiot convincing you to get the more expensive plan. It was simple, elegant, and endearing in a world full of technology with horrible customer interfaces.

The 3G activation process is a pre-planned bottleneck through which all new and returning customers must pass. Doing it in the store adds interaction with people, possibilities for delays based on connectivity, people, and hardware, and longer lines based on the number of employees handling 3G sales.

Who ever thought this was a good idea?

AT&T of course. See, lots of people purchased the original iPhone as a delightful little piece of commodity hardware, brought them home (or sold them), and never activated them with AT&T. They used them on other networks or sold them overseas. So AT&T is losing sales and probably blaming Apple’s process for the loss (not to mention Apple customers). So they plotted this delightful little program where all new phones are activated in the stores, thus bolstering their profits and theoretically making happy shareholders.

Here’s why this scheme is a bad idea for both Apple and AT&T. Apple has never, ever (at least since Steve Jobs has been back) compromised on the quality or elegance of anything about their products. Now they have. An exclusive corporate partnership with a cell carrier sort of requires the occasional compromise, and this is probably only the first example.

You know all those stupid little stickers you get on PC hardware that say “Vista Compatible” or “Windows Certified”? Yeah, they’re stupid, so people put them on toilets and other fun things. Microsoft has huge resources at work ensuring that hardware vendors produce hardware that will be beefy enough to work with their products. It’s sort of a natural continuation of the market forces that drove Microsoft to be such a behemoth in the first place. And being the major software player in the PC industry, Microsoft wants to make sure that their software doesn’t run slow. Most users aren’t going to know that a piece of hardware is causing their problems, they’ll just blame it on the software. The process breaks down quickly; hardware vendors take the minimum requirements, build with the cheapest components possible, and push commodity pieces out the door. It makes me wonder how many Microsoft products really aren’t that bad if they only had a decent machine to run on. It doesn’t take much to see that a lot of their usability sucks, but there are still some bright people that work there and they crank out some interesting stuff.

Anyway, Apple has always taken the opposite approach in the market. They rigorously maintain both software and hardware for all their systems. You can’t get OS X for anything but a Mac computer. They use all the best hardware. Their screens are famous for color representation. The laptop keyboards have a light sensor and illuminated keys so you can see at night. The cases are made out of aluminum for crying out loud. Macs are just beautiful, elegant machines and Apple ensures that they all have the chops to run any of their software products. It makes for a seamless environment with very few holes. They push elegance through the whole company. The buying experience, whether online or at a store, is better than competitors. Even the packaging that the products come in is better thought out than some products. Their packaging department must have one hell of an origami collection in their workspace.

Apple has never had to compromise on the package they provide to their customers. And their customers are fiercely loyal because of it. Demented, even. The company’s success is derived straight from that loyalty. Apple customers buy more Apple products. They don’t buy other stuff. They talk about the products. They create buzz. They tell their friends. Apple has taken computing and made it elegant and cool. The quintessential image of a hacker, artist, photographer, and college student all now involve a Mac laptop.

Now they need to fulfill agreements with a corporate entity larger than themselves and on whom they depend for making their products viable (since a phone without phone service sort of defeats the purpose). AT&T isn’t as hip and cool as Apple. Their network infrastructure is seen as second rate and their customer service is nearly as maddening as other unnamed larger carriers. AT&T sticks with the consistent corporate view that sales are what matters, not customer satisfaction.

So Apple and AT&T have compromised and ensured that every 3G iPhone purchased comes with an AT&T plan by activating it in the store. This is not a dealbreaker. But making the experience ornery in any way for customers is a misstep for Apple. They live on buzz, and if their customer loyalty starts to disintegrate they will lose the tremendous edge they have in the marketplace.

It’s a misstep for AT&T too. By teaming with Apple they’ve gotten a chance to capitalize on some of that buzz and bring it into the cellular service arena. Imagine a cell carrier with fierce customer loyalty. I know, it’s hard. But imagine a humane and comfortable customer service system, a network with great coverage, 3G service with consistent fast speeds, and reasonably priced (dare I say included) SMS plans. Gosh, if something like that existed, I’d be hyping it everywhere. You would too. We’d tell all of our friends and they’d all be switching. The business would be growing by spades (rather than growing solely on an exclusive hardware agreement), infrastructure would be growing, and there would be some great long term projections.

Instead, in an effort to bolster short term sales numbering strictly in the hundreds of thousands (if that), we get a poor introduction to the service created by a bottleneck in activations. It reeks of desperation for every last penny they can squeeze out of us. It kills the buzz - in my mind the only reason I’m going to use AT&T is because I’m forced to.

AT&T is missing a big opportunity and Apple is diminishing its customer zealotry.

iPhone 2.0

To be fair to Apple, that first one isn’t really their fault. But I can’t see how this one is anything but.

Apple customers are pampered. We’re used to our cozy little spaces where nothing goes wrong, every software update is flawless, and every product feature works exactly as advertised, if not better. When the iPhone came out, everybody rushed out to see if it worked in person as well as it seemed to in Steve Job’s introductory keynote. Amazingly, it did. It had tactile feedback and responded instantly to what you wanted. If you hit the lock button, the screen turned off immediately and you heard a little “click”.

Joel talks a lot about that sort of feedback in Hitting the High Notes. He goes on and on (as he should) about how the little design decisions made for the iPod resulted in a great product that customers really enjoyed using.

It seems as if the new 2.0 software has lost that. Here’s a list from DHH, as an example:

“Here are just a few of the griefs I’ve felt:

  • Annoying delays all over the place.
  • Changing to the SMS view can take more than 10 seconds at times.
  • Transitions between apps are being dropped entirely or cut short (the latter looks like a UI stutter).
  • It some times requires 3 clicks on the fast-forward button in iTunes to get a response.
  • The screen will freeze for 4-5 seconds not accepting any input, then replay ALL your feverous tapping when it finally returns.
  • Some times the keyboard will not keep up with your input (and I’m not that fast of a typer).
  • I’ve had applications crash numerous times.
  • The entire phone has crashed twice.
  • Restarting the phone kinda helps some of these problems, but not for long and it feels so dirty and Windows-like to do.”

If 1.0 was so great, why is 2.0 such a big step backwards? Just like everyone else, I went and got a bunch of apps as soon as I downloaded the 2.0 software. The problems started immediately, followed quickly by cursing and gnashing of teeth. The worst, in my mind, is that when I lock the phone, it sometimes takes several seconds for the screen to shut off and hear the click. I don’t feel in control anymore. That makes me feel uncomfortable, and literally overnight my iPhone has gone from devoted daily use to halting use only when I need it. Without the great user experience, the same emotional appeal isn’t there. (A side benefit may be that my friends don’t all have to listen to my unending rants about Apple’s greatness.)

Now I’ve taken all the apps back off the phone, except for Twitterific, in the hopes of staving off the slowness. It’s still there. Scrolling is choppy and ugly. Typing is slow. The whole UI is just a shade away from perfection, but without that quick interaction, it’s just another phone.

It’s ironic that the keynote introducing the new phone and software spent so much time describing Apple’s new Push service. They went on and on about how other phone OS’s use hidden processes and process managers and other crap to maintain connections for apps. I really have no idea if the 2.0 changes are caused by opening the OS up to allow all these other apps to run. If that’s the reason, the apps just aren’t that important. Or at least I’ll wait to use them for the hopefully stable 2.1 release. But I shouldn’t have to do that, which leads me to my final gripe.

Release Dates

The whole computer industry, by and large, is still pushed by dates. We all get to read about the hip, cool ways some companies work, but in the day to day software world, the deadline still reigns supreme. I think Apple is past the more foolish, historical reasons for dates. Most people in the software world understand now that dates ought to be soft if you’re going to get the best product. Adobe seems to do this. I’m waiting desperately right now for LightRoom 2.0 to be released. I’m running the beta version and I love it. Adobe refuses to release a date for a software release. One day, it will just be released. I’m content to wait, knowing that when I purchase LightRoom it will be “complete”, and I won’t have to deal with any nagging bugs the team didn’t have time to track down before their deadline.

But Apple’s buzz has started causing such a stir that they’re almost shackling themselves back to a date system. It would almost seem a travesty now if some big, cool new product wasn’t released at WWDC or MacWorld. Steve’s keynotes have become legendary, and we’ve seen hit after hit introduced in the same way. I worry now that catering to the buzz has produced a new artificial deadline to push products to ensure the buzz continues.

This year, the iPhone 3G and 2.0 software were announced at WWDC. Half of me wonders if the software was even done. Obviously the 3G may need some lead time for production, but why not release the software immediately? If it isn’t done, wait until it is. Or make sure your date is realistic. The buzz only works if the product is worth the wait. A big new version shouldn’t be a buggy, interim release. It should be a solid, mature system already, especially when they started with such a seemingly stable 1.0 version.

Another example: in the last two weeks, my MacBook Pro has frozen 3 times. It’s never frozen before. None of my Macs ever have. I didn’t even know the option-apple-esc sequence to kill a process, I just always used the command line. Having to reboot suddenly sucks, and it has made me weary of OS X updates in the same way as I’ve become weary of iPhone software updates. I’ll wait now until some friends try them, and then see if there are any problems.

It’s not lost on me that there are rumors circulating that Steve Jobs may have some health problems. If he does, I wish him all the best. He’s done a lot for the industry. There are also longstanding rumors of an amazingly tight grip on quality and vision from the top down at Apple. If both of those rumors are true, it makes me wonder just how much influence the top brass had on their most recent product releases. I can’t imagine a company of Apple’s stature still being so tied to one man’s control that it would falter even a little without his watchful eye, but it is an interesting situation to consider. If Steve Job’s were to retire, for instance, how would the direction of Apple’s offerings change?

Apple makes the best computing products available today. I still spout off regularly to all my friends about how they need to have Mac computers to be productive. But the religious gleam in my eye has dwindled. The zealotry of many of the Apple customers I know is fading ever so slightly. All of their major products are still the best things going today. But keeping that edge is going to be more and more vital as they continue to gain market share. If they expect to maintain their momentum, they’ve got to make sure they keep treating their customers like humans they care about, rather than like a chance to extract dollars.

I hope they keep doing it right.

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