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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




Apple's Internet Strategy Questioned
January 29th, 2001

As I have said before, the Internet could be the most important revolution since the advent of print. We are not likely to calculate its real impact for years to come. It may even take a couple of decades or more to get a basic feeling for it. This is what happens when revolutions take place.

What we know so far is that it transforms the way we communicate, because of its speed and the many other ways it breaks barriers. We also know that everybody has to adapt to it, companies and individuals alike! Even the most powerful people in the computer industry - such as Bill Gates, who has been able to predict many key changes in business - misunderstood it at first. They did not grasp its significance and thought that it was just another temporary trend.

How silly.

Everybody woke up a couple of years ago. These people realized that not getting into the Internet and the information economy could spell failure for their businesses. Moreover, it could presage disaster for many individuals' careers.

Corporate society played catchup, and here we are. Where? An Internet that became more corporate, more powerful. Software took a giant leap to integrate its operations to the mother of all networks. The downside is that the individual has lost control of the Internet, but sometimes, there are sacrifices to make in order to bring change.

On to the big question.

What about Apple?

Did Apple react appropriately to the advent of the Internet? Did it adapt its business strategy to the immense worldwide network? Did it "get" the Internet? It is hard to say, but let us examine it before coming up with a conclusion. A trip to Apple's site and a bit of reflection should reveal most of what we need to know.

Sales

This is a stronghold. The Apple Store is incredibly well done. I visited a number of Web stores, including the widely appreciated Dell, and I never found a computer sales site that works as nicely. It is perhaps the best in its field for ease of use and its intuitive feel. Apple fans and wannabe Mac users are spoiled with the Apple Store, since you can never underestimate how a good sales site makes the difference between buying from it and staying away from it. I am ready to bet that Apple would sell fewer units today if it did not have the Apple Store.

Product information

With its comprehensive sections about hardware, software, and a strong Macintosh product guide, there is no doubt that Apple delivers. From specifications to an overall feeling of the product - including photography and QuickTime movies - Apple is a winner.

Customers

This issue deserved being sliced into several parts. The first one is support. With the creation of its online Technical Information Library, Apple scored huge points. From ReadMe files to archived information about known bugs and its discontinued Macs, it is a gold mine that everybody should use before going anywhere with troubleshooting. The discussion areas help a lot if you wish to exchange tips and troubleshoot with the help of other users. They bring interactivity to a site that could easily be a "business to customer" model.

What about updates and downloads? Is Apple doing a good job? As far as the Apple.com Web site is concerned, of course. When it is about integration of updates with the operating system, however, it becomes ugly. The Software Update control panel, available since Mac OS 9, is far from perfect. Too little functionality, too little control over its operations, and too little reliability for many users.

Pride and identification with the company are important issues for businesses. Does Apple recognize and serve that need? Not anymore. The Think Different campaign and the Why Mac? section were keys to this aspect, but they vanished. Shame on Apple.

Entertainment

In an "Internet and communications" class, I recently had the opportunity to examine what makes good or bad Internet strategies and Web sites. One of the most subtle but super important facets was the additional benefit of the site. It does not have to relate entirely to the company or its products. It has to entertain the user, or to give him a virtual gift to make him feel at home when visiting. With its QuickTime movie trailers section and QuickTime TV streaming available on virtually any Mac's desktop, there is no doubt that this is an Apple stronghold. Everybody likes watching movies and trailers, and it would be hard to do better than that for additional value. iTools is a positive element, too.

The media

This one is more difficult. When I had the above-mentioned class, I learned that companies, however reluctant they are, have to make sacrifices toward the online media. This includes copyright concessions. Why? The online media are difficult to control, and they are (normally) friendly to the company, or at least not offensive. Consequently, it is advantageous to loosen up and tolerate a few things, such as the use of your company logo and site images without protesting. That is, unless they cross the line to go beyond the limit of what most people consider to be acceptable.

For this aspect, Apple's behavior is dubious. Many fan sites felt spanked by Apple, while all they wanted was to somehow promote the platform or at least offer resources to Mac users. Playing hardball is not always smart, and the online media make a fine example of good willed folks who felt betrayed - at one moment or another - by the company they embraced.

Small business and developers

Small businesses may not find as much as they want at Apple.com. When I look at what Apple tells small businesses with its dedicated section, I have the impression that many questions remain unanswered. On the other hand, with its seemingly comprehensive resource links for developers, I think that Apple does a good job at helping those who itch to write code for the Mac. I could be wrong, though, since I am not a small business owner or a developer.

Advertising

A couple of years ago, I noticed quite a few Apple banners and promotions online, outside of Mac centric media. In the last year or so, it seems, from my own experience, to have declined quite a bit. The same applies to many Mac related Web sites. I used to see more Apple advertising on the Web, and to view Apple as more aggressive. Even in e-mail! I used to receive an Apple eNews newsletter and press releases in my In box... not anymore! Am I missing out, or did Apple suddenly get shy?

Conclusion

If I had to rate Apple's Internet strategy with the Thumbs Up system we use at The Mac Observer, I would give it 4 thumbs up. Apple enjoys many strongholds, but has a few weaknesses, especially with some of its publics. I do not pretend to know all the ins and outs of Apple's online approach since Apple insiders have to know more than I do, but from an outsider's position, I find Apple's Net presence decent in general.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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