Foreign matter

When Apple Computer Inc. said that Steve Jobs would deliver a keynote address at the Apple Expo in Paris last month, many European Mac enthusiasts raised their expectations.

Some thought Jobs might introduce a version of the iTunes Music Store for members of the European Union; others hoped for a firm release date for Panther, the forthcoming update to Mac OS X.

But those attending the Sept. 16 Paris keynote got neither.

What new Mac goodies Jobs did announce ­-- a 15-inch PowerBook revamped with features to match its 12-inch and 17-inch siblings, as well as a wireless keyboard and mouse -- had been widely expected. While welcome, the European audience wanted more.

In a forum discussion at the Macworld UK Web site, several Mac users said Apple's emphasis on introducing an iTunes Store for Windows users in the United States before launching the service for Mac users in Europe was evidence that Apple does not consider them a priority.

"iPhoto has been out in the U.S. with full functionality for a good while now, but we are yet to gain the ability to order photo books here in Australia," said Ishtiaque Omar, a Mac user who lives in Canberra.

Omar said Mac users in Australia also were irked that they must pay a bit more for Apple goods and services than their U.S. counterparts while getting less: "We are essentially paying for functionality we'll never use."

George Wong, a Hong Kong Mac user, is annoyed that Apple's Hong Kong Web site is in English, not Chinese. As a .Mac subscriber, he's further dismayed at the total lack of Chinese for that service, even on Apple's China Web site.

"China has 1.3 billion in population, almost a quarter of the entire population on this planet," Wong said. "Come on, you've got to have some Chinese."

One frequent criticism concerned Apple's pricing.

"My complaint with Apple is how their dollar price always ends up as the pounds sterling price, or higher than what it offers in the USA," said Ricky M. Herbert, a member of the Yorkshire Mac User Group in Britain. "It's bad enough that we have to pay a premium for being fans of the Mac. But at times, it seems almost a bit cynical of Apple."

Another recurring source of discontent is Apple's customer service, which many international users say is worse than it is in the United States.

"Apple wins awards in the States for its repairs policy," said Andy Smith, another British Mac user. "My experiences have been appalling."

Peter Laurens, another Mac user in the United Kingdom, collected 8,600 signatures on an online petition he created in April requesting that Apple provide feature parity for its international customers. He conceded that it makes sense for Apple to concentrate on its U.S. customers, but more marketing dollars spent on Europe would pay off.

"Where else in the world will appreciate the stunning aesthetics of Apple's hardware and software than in the appearance-obsessed and rich European countries?" Laurens asked.

Not that Mac users in the United States don't complain about Apple from time to time, but the discontent among many international customers is serious.

Apple can't afford to alienate a significant number of its overseas customers, as they represent a large chunk of the company's total sales.

According to the geographical breakdown of the company's net sales in its third-quarter 10-Q filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Europe accounted for about 22 percent, or $986 million, of Apple's global sales for the nine months ending June 28. Apple Japan accounted for 12 percent, or about $527 million.

The remaining figures are murky because of how Apple divvies up its data -- "Europe" includes the Middle East and Africa; data from the Asia-Pacific region, which includes Australia, is lumped into an "Other" category along with sales of its FileMaker software subsidiary -- but its total sales outside the U.S. range between 40 percent and 50 percent.

An Apple representative declined to comment on the issue.

Of course, Apple may not intentionally set policies to antagonize its international customers. Some of it most likely is simply the consequence of doing business in many different countries, subjected to a myriad of laws and world market forces.

The iTunes Music Store issue is a good example. Apple needs to arrange separate licensing agreements to operate the iTunes Store in countries other than the United States, including neighboring Canada.

It stands to reason that Apple would be operating a worldwide Music Store for Mac users if it could. Considering the success of the Music Store in the United States -- it sold its 10 millionth song on Sept. 3, just four months after its introduction -- such a move only could benefit Apple.

Some international Mac users, however, expressed empathy for Apple.

"Apple is bending over backwards to deliver the best service they can to as many people as they can," said John Davis, a Mac user in Japan.

Davis blamed the music industry for the delay in rolling out the iTunes Music Store beyond the United States. "The iTunes restrictions are not Apple's fault so much as a very money-grubbing and stagnant music industry," he said.

Adrian Carter, a Mac user in the United Kingdom, agrees with Davis on the iTunes Store matter and even forgives Apple's higher pricing in his country.

"The pricing structure on the new range is reasonable," Carter said. "If I were to go out and buy a brand-new dual-processor G5, I would be paying roughly the same price I paid for my 266 megahertz G3 in 1997.

"Considering the computing power you are getting for the money [and the new OS], that's good math," he said.

Still, for every understanding international Mac user, there appears to be several disgruntled ones. It's an issue the company must address.

Where Apple is hamstrung by circumstance, it must do a better job of communicating with its global user base.

Moreover, Apple needs to make much more of an effort to rectify the issues it can control -- customer service and ordering prints from iPhoto via the Internet.

International users likely wouldn't begrudge the new services becoming available first in the United States, as long as Apple communicated the reason for the delay and offered some timetable for when it will become available to them.

As it is, Mac users outside the United States often don't know what to expect, all while paying higher prices for less functionality.

Should Apple continue to ignore this well of discontent, international customers might start abandoning Apple for alternatives, namely MIcrosoft Corp.'s Windows or possibly even Linux.

As a minority player on the global computer scene, Apple must do everything it can to preserve -- and to grow -- every pocket of its customer base, regardless of whether it is in Northern California, Britain or Japan.

Otherwise, Apple risks further shrinkage of its global market share below the paltry 3 percent it has now.