Apple’s Troubles Aren’t Over, and That Could be Good

| Hidden Dimensions

Out of perfection nothing can be made. Every process involves breaking something up.”

—Joseph Campbell

Antennagate showed that Apple can no longer have its own way with all customers. The broader product offerings, like the iPad and the iPhone, mean than scrutiny and criticism come from a wider circle of interested parties. That will change the company.

Apple has entered a new era. It’s products are widely discussed and analyzed by everyone: TV News, major news radio and Internet news sites, consumer and technical publications — you name it. As a result, there is a whole new class of observers who hadn’t been paying much attention to Apple for the last ten years, but they’re paying attention now. Never mind if they don’t “get” the company or get all the facts right.

Of course, when Apple was just selling Macs, Apple only had to deal with five percent of the computer world. Now, everyone, even Steven Colbert, has an iPad. Antennagate, independent of the technical arguments, showed that Apple is now a widely known and accepted consumer electronics company. That will have three effects.

Consumer Approach

In the past, Apple was able to cash in on the customer perception that Macs are better designed and Mac OS X is a superior (UNIX) operating system. Because of that implicit understanding by customers, a myriad of lesser sins were overlooked. It’s like dating a beautiful actress with a great body. Some, perhaps many, quirks are overlooked for the overall good.

Now that many more people are in the Apple fold, Apple can’t expect to uniformly cash in on that good will. For example, if Consumer Reports says it can’t recommend the iPhone 4, then that will be reported on by all the TV news outlets. It spirals out of control, independent of the technical arguments. Apple could, in the past, depend on its Mac customers to understand those extremely technical arguments in a the relatively closed, family ecosphere, punctuated by a Mac oriented WWDC.

Those days are gone, and how ever Apple does it, they’ll be needing a new toolbox of methods to deal with future cataclysms like antennagate. That could mean, for example, that instead of stonewalling the press when product issues come up, the company will have to learn how to work more closely with the press in order to get out in front of potential PR disasters.

Technical Approach

Antennagate could also jolt Apple into a better approach to product management. Heretofore, as I mentioned above, the charisma associated with being an Apple customer meant that one needed to overlook Apple’s tardiness or measured approach to security and product fixes. Also, when Apple had an elite, devoted customer base, the company could depend on the graciousness and good will of customers who believed in Apple 100 percent. That meant few shenanigans regarding product replacement, warranty service. Now that Apple is appealing to a broader range of customers, they can’t always depend on that generally good behavior they had in the past with devoted acolytes. Many new customers will expect Apple to bend over backwards to give them, or replace, the perfect product they were seduced into buying.

Apple will also be under a lot more scrutiny when it comes to its software, software of any kind. As the halo effect of the iPad and iPhone bring new customers into the Mac OS X fold, little inconsistencies and outright blunders will no longer be tolerated. They’ll tend to get more publicity.

An older example comes from 2003 when Apple Federal in Reston, VA was being ignored by Apple in Cupertino regarding the urgent need for a Mac OS X interface to Microsoft’s Active Directory. The Federal Sales team had to write an interface themselves because it wasn’t on the top of the priority list for a consumer driven company. Nowadays, however, Apple basks in the light of its Active Directory interface. Perhaps, when customer driven Apple sales teams present Cupertino with their Top Ten urgent lists, more attention will be paid.

A more recent example is the version of iOS that originally shipped with the iPad. In my case, just about any video I played, whether within Safari or a standalone app like Hulu, would cause my iPad to lock up. I would have to reboot it. I looked around and couldn’t find any widespread outcry about this, so it seemed that iPad users were generally happy. Yet the bug was there, and I had it, and it took until July 15 (iOS 3.2.1) for Apple to fix it and make the iPad usable, as intended. Those of us afflicted by the problem had to wait far too long, and Apple was lucky that these lockups didn’t have broader news coverage.

I think product testing and QA will benefit from antennagate. While the philosophy may have been, “Let’s get the product shipped and clean things up later,” the new approach may well be, “Let’s make sure there are zero show stoppers on release, even if features are deferred.”

Competitive Approach

Apple has maneuvered itself into a situation where, with plenty of cash, and products selling by the millions at launch, it can command a serious percentage of the Asian market for commodity computer parts, NAND Flash memory, LCD displays and other support chips.

For example, Apple is expected to become the #2 Semiconductor buyer in the world in 2011. That position by Apple is already affecting the competition — they’re having a tough time obtaining parts for their own products that would compete with Apple. An analysis of the situation has been provided by Jonny Evans who has pointed out that the iPad killers are already dead.

When companies that seek to compete with Apple find themselves out maneuvered and outwitted, both in product design and parts availability, they don’t get mad, they get even. That means that Apple can expect to become the target for nasty maneuvers, dirty tricks, even smear campaigns by some of the competition. That also means that the generally good will Apple had with its legacy Mac customers will morph into a situation where Apple seems to be always under siege. That will, of course, make the fanboys all the more incensed, but more importantly, Apple will have to adjust to the new situation with new skills. Strategic partnerships are often the way to relieve some of those tremendous pressures, and that’s something Apple hates to do.

Specific attacks by Apple on the competition, like the infamous videos of the competition’s antenna performance can expect to be countered by responses that muddy the technical waters, making it even harder for Apple to maintain its reputation as an honest broker of technical facts. Apple may have to improve it’s strategy there.

Summary

Apple’s experience with antennagate is not the last of its kind. It’s most likely the first in a series of events that will challenge Apple as the competition gangs up on them and new customers become increasingly driven by demagoguery and mass paranoia. It was nice when Apple was a comfy US$6B company that made Macs. Apple’s newfound success will, as always, mean changes. Hopefully, Apple will navigate through all this and come up with solutions that are as elegant and productive as their product solutions have been.

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Comments

geoduck

and new customers become increasingly driven by demagoguery and mass paranoia.

Which also describes the political situation in the US.

bdplatts

Remember the Megahertz wars? Apple lost that one big time!

Don’t fall into the same techno-trap, Steve. Fix the antenna and move on!

jonricmd

John, I hope someone at Apple is listening and that the see “antennagate” as an opportunity to learn & improve.

Clear skies

Nemo

While I agree with the general tenor of Mr. Martellaro’s arguments, I take issue with a few points.  It takes time to get things done right, and Apple has always been a company and culture that takes the time to do things right, when it has the time to do so.  So Apple doesn’t release hasty software fixes but releases them when they are ready; it took the time to get the facts before responding to “Antennagate”; and it does not release its products or services before it, by which I mean Steve Jobs, thinks that they are ready.  It takes strength of character to be patient and wait until thing are ready, especially when you’re taking blows, but in the long-term, it usually pays far greater benefits to do so.

Antennagate was not, I think, a problem with not responding quickly enough.  It was, as Mr. Martellaro has written, Apple waiting until it got the facts and could make accurate statements and adopt a sensible plan for dealing with what appears to have been nothing more than a PR disaster.  Sure, Apple could have released an early statement that was driven by PR and legal consideration, and in fact, Apple did provide such a statement, but it did nothing to quell the controversy and arguably made it worse.  It was only when Apple had the facts that it could make a true statement that addressed the real problem, which was perception, not reality.

Is Apple right to fight fire with fire on this attenuation of reception issue by incontrovertibly showing that the problem exists on other smartphones.  I think so.  Apple had to show the iPhone 4 was experiencing anything more than common problems with attenuation of reception when an antenna is close to human skin, and not defect.  The only way that I know of to convincingly showing that a problem is common is to show its commonness, which is exactly what Apple has done.

I think that Apple’s real problem that caused Antennagate is found in some of Mr. Martellaro’s earlier writing on differences in position and circumstances that lead to differences in perception that lead to problems.  The iPhone 4’s external antenna manifest the common problem of attenuated reception in a somewhat different way than other smartphones:  the spot that you touch is conspicuous; the original software exaggerated the problem, and nature of the attenuation, while no worse in degree, had a slightly different cause, and the problem is much improved by using a case, which may be unique to the iPhone 4, because the attenuation found on other smartphones, including the iPhone 3GS, probably can’t be much lessened by use of case.  Jobs and Bob Mansfield, with their deep understanding of technical issues and how the iPhone 4 dealt with the common problem of attenuated reception, did not understand that others—who are not familiar with attenuated reception and how smartphones in general and the iPhone 4 in particular handle that problem—that others would perceive difference as a defect, though, in fact, the iPhone 4 handles attenuated reception as well as any and better than most smartphones.  Thus, we get Jobs statement that he didn’t that the common problem of attenuation would be a big deal.  The iPhone 4 handled attenuation as well as or better than other smartphones, so it was ready to ship. 

But perception can be everything.  Apple needs to better anticipate how its innovations will be perceived, at least when the improvements that those innovations provide are not obvious and may even appear to be defects.

ctopher

Seriously? Who reads Consumer Reports? Me and My Dad and we’ve been out of the demo for a long time.

As Apple becomes more popular, the high expectations will bring it down, just like IBM and Microsoft. You can only get so big.

But I think Apple is limiting it’s size by keeping a tightly controlled set of products in a given category. They don’t cover all segments of a given market, they try and stay middle-high.

But as they create and dominate the mind share in more markets, the brand will become diluted and more people will think less of Apple. BUT, until they start making terrible products I don’t think investors will have much to worry about.

Also, I can’t say that the Active Directory had anything to do with why my teenage nieces and nephews all want Apple laptops.

I can’t say I ever knowingly USED Active Directory or missed having it back in the 60s or whenever it was that you were trying to flog Apple Computers to the Feds.

davebarnes

Seriously? Who reads Consumer Reports?

It does not matter as the CR statement got/will get plastered all over TV. And, zillions of people watch TV.

xmattingly

Apple is still very smart about not shipping something until they know they have a killer/game changing/groundbreaking/(insert favorite metaphor here) product.

How many years did they hold off until they released the iPad? Some analysts are saying that thing will gobble up the netbook market within about a year and a half.

Even so, Mr. Martellaro points to an issue w/ the iPad that doesn’t seem to have received wide commentary, and it sounds like a really ugly one to have to deal with until they got a software fix out there. In light of Apple’s massive war chest (which is plenty enough to buy many small countries), I think they would do well to hire more product testers.

wab95

John

Very nicely written and argued. I am a little disappointed in the use of the term ‘antennagate’, as ‘Watergate’ was a deliberate coverup of a crime that was subsequently ‘uncovered’. Although chic to add ‘gate’ to any controversy of notoriety, perhaps what this and Watergate share in common is public scandal and outrage.

That said, Apple appears to be a company that has withstood pressures to form partnerships and alliances when popular opinion was that the company’s end was nigh and inevitable, and chose its own unconventional path to a brilliantly successful outcome (i.e. its current status). It is predictable that it will come under siege from competitors (I have always suspected that its competition was a substantial force behind the ‘public’ outrage over the antenna issue - it was just too overblown and sustained to have been spontaneous - rather like the ‘spontaneous’ protests one sees in certain countries) as it continues along a trajectory of success. The question is, based on its historical success from going its own way, will Apple form such partnerships and alliances to stave off attacks?

I suspect not; primarily because Apple’s genius is unconventional and that of its competition largely is not, and it is not likely to compromise on its vision of the way forward. Nor should it, so long as that course continues to pay off. However, strategic alliances will become increasingly important as its ecosystem becomes increasingly complex and intricate, not only because it will require assistance (material and otherwise) from partners, but also, to the extent that this system is integrated, cross-platform and adopted as a ‘standard’ (e.g. Facetime technology), it benefits Apple and its client base.

tritium

Yes, Apple is getting wider attention in the press, but I disagree with much of your other comments. You talk as if Apple had a golden time in the past when it got a pass in the press. I remember the years when any time Apple was mentioned in the press it was always “beleaguered Apple” or “struggling computer maker Apple” or some such characterization. It has only been in the last few years where the products are getting wider distribution and the stock has soared that the Apple has been receiving better treatment in the press.

You also talk as though it was just customer “perception” that Apple products were really good and that this mysteriously garnered “perception” let them get away with quality problems and poor warranty support.

To the contrary, Apple products are very high quality and the after sales support is consistently ranked best in surveys of actual users.

The issue with the iPhone antenna does highlight the love-hate relationship Apple has with the public. Some part of the public likes Apple products and some part of the public strongly dislikes Apple and will latch on to anything they can to criticize them. There was a survey out recently which showed that the people criticizing Apple for the most part didn’t own any Apple products.

CR has had a rocky history with Apple products. It is only lately that they have come around to recommending them at all. To have CR go after Apple for the antenna issue when it can be easily demonstrated on other phones as well is not a surprise.

Apple has massive, daily contact with its customers. Millions of customers go through the Apple stores and interact with the products and the employees. Apple maintains feedback pages on its website. You can even email Steve Jobs directly if you so wish.

Apple won’t get it right every time, but it is not from lack of trying.

Ethan

I think the number one thing besides product development that Apple has to do - is deal with the media better. They’ve utilized the secrecy and big splash events for various products with strong numbers (all the way back to the MS investment when SJ returned). They constantly go after leaks and have content pulled down. The trade off is with this iron lock control towards media outlets-when they slip up the sharks will bite and it turns into a feeding frenzy.

If Apple continues to be overly controlling towards the media outlets then they should expect no good will when issues come up. Can’t have it both ways. If you want media on your side when you need to control the narrative then you better develop a respectful relationship before hand.

Their PR department needs to reevaluate how they do everything. Some of their methods will not scale to the level Apple is reaching in the industry with it’s iDevice segment. They need to think like a political campaign.

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