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