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How many times must Apple shoot itself in the foot?

Apple loyalists have always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the company, but lately it seems there's been a lot more hate than love.

Recently we've seen users irate over a software update "bricking" their hacked iPhones. Early buyers of iPhones said they felt betrayed and cheated when Apple dropped the price of the device $200 just 10 weeks after many of them stood in line hours to be among the first to own one. Many iPhone owners are unhappy they have to pay Apple twice to use a song from the iTunes Store as a ringtone. They resent being locked in to using AT&T as their cellular service provider. Many have criticized Apple for not allowing third-party software to run on the iPhone. And they fume over the inability to change the device's battery themselves.

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That's just the iPhone issues. The iTunes-iPod ecosystem has long been criticized as "locking" in customers because the DRM-encoded songs play only on iPods and computers running iTunes software. Class action lawsuits over a wide assortment of alleged Apple transgressions – from all of iPhone issues above to dissatisfaction with laptop screen quality – are filed almost daily.

What happened to the company that induces swooning from both the media and consumers alike? Why so much negativity all of the sudden? What has become of Apple's reputation as the most consumer-friendly tech company?

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To some degree, it's the "squeaky wheel" syndrome. Not all Apple customers are disgruntled, but a significant number are and they have been very loudly -- and publicly -- making their feelings known.

But Apple's reputation for arrogance, particularly in dealing with customer complaints, appears to have caught up to it lately. Some of the problems are difficult for Apple to control; for example, the iPhone lock-in with AT&T has more to do with how the cellular industry operates than any desire on Apple's part to prevent iPhone owners from using other carriers.

Yet as many of these mini-crises have unfolded over the past several months, even the staunchest Apple loyalists must feel that the company could have done more to mitigate or avoid them. Why can't the iPhone (and iPods) have a user-replaceable battery? Why is Apple so adamant in preventing third-party apps from running on the iPhone? (Although recent speculation theorizes that because the iPhone runs Mac OS X 10.5, Apple is waiting until after Leopard's official release to open the iPhone up to developers. Fingers crossed.)

Apple does get points for addressing the iPhone price drop controversy quickly with the $100 coupon, though even that failed to satisfy everyone. But in other areas, it seems to turns a deaf ear, often telling customers that their problem isn't real and even deleting threads discussing controversial complaints from the company's online forums. For Apple, it's about trying to control perceptions of the company, but stonewalling and censorship don't score PR points.

Yet another sticky PR issue lurks around the corner with the impending release of Mac OS X Leopard. Just yesterday I had a colleague in the Sun newsroom express his anger to me over Apple's lack of a upgrade discount policy for people like him who bought one of the new iMac models introduced in August. Historically, Apple has offered a discount on a new version of OS X only to customers who buy a Mac after an official release date has been announced. (As of today, no date has been announced, though the rumor sites suspect we'll see Leopard go on sale Friday, Oct. 26.)

While this has been Apple's policy on OS upgrades for recent Mac buyers for a long time, I can see where people new to the Mac platform would be annoyed, particularly since Leopard was originally slated for a spring release. Were it not for the delay, those new iMacs would have had Leopard pre-installed.

Microsoft, when faced with a similar problem last October – Vista's release, at one point promised for the fall, was delayed until January – offered buyers of Windows PCs a coupon to upgrade to Vista later. The least Apple could do is extend its $19.95 OS upgrade policy back further than the announce date. Do I hear 90 days? 60? Even 30 days would be an improvement.

On top of that, the until-now free Boot Camp software that allows Windows to boot on an Intel-based Mac will expire with the release of Leopard. The only way to get a working copy will be to buy Leopard for its expected $129.95 selling price. Expect another wave of complaints about Apple's greed from both long-time Mac users and recently converted "switchers." Why would Apple not continue to make Boot Camp a free download even after it's included in OS X? Is the extra money worth alienating even more customers?

Apple's stellar image as a "hip" company that makes cool products and prides itself on high levels of customer satisfaction is just as vital an asset as its superbly engineered hardware and software. The greatest threat to Apple right now is not its competitors, but its own stubborn, customer-maddening policies. What's frustrating is that in most cases, Apple could easily rectify matters. More sensitivity to customer concerns and less paternalism would go a long way.

By and large, most Apple loyalists have not yet lost their faith in the company. But from what I'm reading every day on the Web, that faith is wavering.

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