By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 7:42 pm
Strange but true: These are either the best of times or the worst of times for Apple’s reputation–and it all depends on which developments you choose to pay attention to.
First the good news. The company’s performance in the just-released American Customer Satisfaction Index was terrific. The company scored an 85 in the study, well ahead of other computer companies such as Dell (75), HP (73), and Gateway (72). (Google, incidentally, did Apple one better, scoring an 86.)
Apple’s score represented its biggest jump ever over the previous year’s results, and the largest gulf ever between it and the rest of the PC industry. And it comes shortly after PC Magazine released the results of a reader survey that also showed Apple customers to be a more generally gruntled bunch than folks who use Windows-based PCs.
But these survey results arrive at a time when much of the news about Apple products involves them misbehaving. There’s the launch of the Mobile Me service–so glitchy that Apple says it’s still not up to the company’s own standards, and has extended three months (so far) of free service to subscribers to make amends. There’s the iPhone 3G’s ongoing issues with flaky 3G data and dropped calls, which Apple isn’t talking about much–although Steve Jobs is supposedly dashing off quick e-mails to iPhone owners saying fixes for this and other problems are in the works. Even old first generation iPod Nanos are apparently deciding to catch on fire, just to add yet another burst of news stories about problematic Apple products.
Did I mention Mike Arrington’s post over at TechCrunch today saying that Apple is “flailing badly at the edges” and recounting the woes he’s had with multiple products from the company?
It’s tempting to explain all this by declaring that the ACSI and PC Mag surveys reflect a better, more reliable Apple past, when their data was collected–and that the glitches that are currently in the news will come back to haunt Apple in future surveys that haven’t been conducted yet. Maybe so. But the good and bad of Apple is an awfully complex gumbo of facts, perceptions, and emotions. More than any other company in the business, it can manage to suffer a reputational boom and a bust, all at the same time.
A few thoughts on that gumbo:
I don’t think Apple’s current bumps represent the collapse of a company whose stuff was previously bulletproof. There have always been issues with some Apple products, just as there are with products from every tech company. For instance, I bought a MacBook the day it was launched in 2006, and then spent months blogging about the problems I had with it–problems which numerous other folks had, too. As with any computer company, if you spend too much time reading the Apple support forums (like this section on the MacBook Air at Apple.com), you might come to the conclusion that its products are nothing but trouble.
Apple sits smack under the biggest magnifying glass in the industry. Virtually every one of its products makes the news; many of them make magazine covers. Its triumphs are therefore highly public, and so are its failings. (When was the last time that any product from, say, Gateway made headlines–for reasons good or bad?) MobileMe may be so iffy that even Steve Jobs has stepped out of the reality-distortion field to declare it a disappointment, but I feel like I wasted about six months of my life trying to get AT&T’s vaguely similar XPress Mail to work on multiple phones before I gave up. Like most products, XPress Mail has the luxury of catching its flack in low-profile user forums rather than in high-profile venues like The New York Times.
The halo effect is powerful. Simply put, buying Apple products seems to make people feel good about themselves, and when a company makes you feel good about yourself, you tend to cut it some slack. An Apple fan would say that the company’s customers feel good about their purchases because their purchases are, well good; a cynic might chalk it up to the Cupertino marketing machine. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. (And the halo effect isn’t unique to Apple: For years, PC World’s reliability and service study showed that Dell benefited from a similar cushion of goodwill, though it eventually vanished.)
Early adopters are by their very nature patient, forgiving types. The iPhone 3G has been out for less than six weeks, so every owner is by definition an early adopter. And most early adopters I know are pretty generous souls, at least when a product’s virtues are as clear as the iPhone 3G’s ultimately are. Early adopters are willing to suffer a fair amount of pain to be among the first people to experience something that’s cool, providing a vital service for all the late adopters who wait until a product or technology’s kinks are all worked out. Most Apple products, of course, incorporate interesting new ideas that trickle down to the rest of the industry only after Apple has essentially beta-tested them, so I think there’s a lot of early-adopter spirit in the Apple community in general.
The last thing I want to sound like is an Apple apologist. In particular, I think it’s reasonable to worry that the focus and discipline that have served it so well during the second Steve Jobs era could dissipate as it does more and more things in more and more arenas. (In retrospect, alarms should have gone off when Apple introduced MobileMe as “Exchange for the rest of us” and began touting the iPhone as a BlackBerry beater–Apple was so very smart to voluntarily give up the corporate market in the 1990s, and among Microsoft’s biggest headaches is the impossibility of making Windows equally pleasing to consumers and business types.) An unfocused Apple that tries to make everybody happy may well end up making nobody very happy at all.
But the bottom line is this: I think that chances are good that a year from now, the news about Apple will be much as it is now–a mix of highs and lows and survey results showing happy customers and reports of bugs and glitches and defects, all at the same time. It may be contradictory, but it’s also a state of affairs that’s almost as old as Apple itself.
That’s my best guess, anyhow–I’d love to hear yours. If nothing else, please cast your vote in this T-Poll: