In the last 10 years Apple has been the platform chosen by nearly everyone who makes a living out of his computer. The line of Apple laptops in particular has been the machine of choice of freelancers, programmers and hackers. That is not opinion: direct testimony can be found by going at tech meetups, user groups and tech conferences.
This dominance is not going to last. Apple is in decline. The bottom line is: we are all still on Apple, but we won’t be in the future. The story, the one of decline and failure, is entertaining. Let’s walk the path and start, like in any good decline story, from the highest point, the biggest party, the apex of the Apple integrated computing platform.
A 5 year long party
Apple’s biggest party lasted the few years between the switch from Motorola to Intel (2005), the release of Snow Leopard (2009) & the reduction in price and the contextual performance increase of the MacBook Air (2010). In this time Apple had a superior platform both in software and in hardware. If you were aiming for efficiency you had to have some combination of Apple hardware. Apple at the time was producing the “best windows laptops” in the market, and OS X was getting faster with each release. Yes, software upgrades were making our computers faster not slower. It was bound to end.
Decline in software
Apple’s decline starts in 2011 with the release of Lion. The company had clearly started to spread its engineers too thin between the growing mobile platform iOS and the traditional OS division in charge of developing OS X. From Lion to Mountain Lion and up to the Mavericks, Mac OS has become slower, more bloated with unnecessary functionalities.
Apple didn’t stop innovating as fullscreen apps and the auto-saving functionalities in Lion stand to demonstrate. But it also started to cut back on features that were not considered money makers, that were not integrated with the iCloud, iTunes system, that didn’t have a clear path to monetization or vertical integration.
If it’s free, you are the product being sold
The final chapter in Apple’s operating systems is called Mavericks. It’s particularly buggy, yes. But the bugs don’t worry me as much as the price. 0, nil, null, gratis, free: it worries me because this price point always tells a tale. And in this case the tale is simple: we plan to make money off of you, more money than our product is worth. Our product is not on sale any more, because you are: you are the economic variable that is being monetized. The software is free because Apple is selling you other software, selling your profile to its value chain, selling your data back to you.
Now – please don’t misinterpret – Apple is only one of the companies that behave like this, and its also the last to the “celebrations of free”: it follows Facebook, Google and precedes Microsoft on this path. But the OS that makes me and millions of developers and freelancers productive can’t have a price point that is $129 in year 2007 (Leopard), then goes to $29 in 2009 (Snow Leopard) and then from $29 becomes free.
Decline in hardware
The decline in hardware is compensated by the excellent design process that Apple has been able to establish in the last few years. If you have seen the insides of a Macbook you know what I mean. The use of the space, the integration of the components, the sturdiness of the structure and the essentiality of the design are astounding.
This approach seems to allow Apple some more time in the hardware space, where they are providing unique market features like 12 hours battery life and retina displays (although not in the same machines yet). On the other hand Apple has given up on the repairability of its devices. Take the iPad: Apple will fix software of an iPad but will not even check it if something is wrong with the hardware, they will not fix your unit, they will just substitute it.
This has given the birth to an entire industry of iFixers: smaller companies that will loose their time and look into your hardware and fix it because Apple simply doesn’t care.
Decline in the customer relationship
In a vertically integrated platform like Apple’s the hardware is the embodiment of the customer relationship.
If Apple does not care to fix your hardware, it devalues not only the device itself but also devalues the person carrying that hardware. And this brings me to the customer relationship. My iPad touchscreen misbehaves plus I had an annoying hardware problem with my MacBook Air. The computer had grown more and more deaf: something was muffling the microphone. Since I bought a 3 year warranty called AppleCare (what’s in a name!) I went to the temple of Apple (specifically the Apple Store in Berlin’s shopping strip Kurfürstendamm) to have it finally fixed.
The trust relationship was broken by the first few lines of dialogue between me and the genius. The courteous Apple repair person, hearing about my hardware problems, highlights that I could repair my Mac at the many authorized service partners because the Apple Store is swamped and it could take 2 weeks to fix my computer. He also guides me to Apple’s own site where I can find the nearest authorized service center.
So this is what happens at the temple: the priest tells you that it would be better to leave the temple. So sorry, but it can’t work this way. I took the time out a busy work day to come here to a genius appointment, if you can’t fix my Mac, why did you give me an appointment?
The experience was instructive: Apple substituted the microphone in around two weeks and did not fix the problem at all. When I realized this the Apple employee assigned to my case had to call a second guy that then called a manager while I demonstrated that no, the microphone had not been fixed.
And here comes the deus ex machina. Apple finally acknowledges that they did not fix the microphone, but they decide that this is the right time to tell me that sand and corrosion due to humidity has been found inside the case and that this is voiding my 3 year warranty and they “don’t know if they can repair it under warranty” and that they need to speak to Cupertino about it.
The boss of the Genius listens and looks at me with a blank stare as I argue that if sand is inside my laptop it is not due to my use and that – no – my beloved and cherished main work tool for 3 years has not been in the vicinity and in contact with water or any other corrosive liquid.
The end of the story is very simple: a few days later Apple rings that AppleCare is not valid and that they can’t cover the costs and sends a cost estimate in the email. It’s the end. I resign to pick up my laptop unfixed. I have invested 3 visits to temple and probably should have listened to the priest the first time. Go. Somewhere. Else. He said it.
When they tell you that they don’t fix iPads, just substitute them they mean: we don’t care about your hardware.
When they tell you to go somewhere else they mean: we don’t care about you. And they did not.
When they tell you to go somewhere else they are saying: this product is for you to buy, not to use continuously. Here we don’t sell the lifetime of the product but only the brief moment of enjoyment when you walk outside the store with your white box.
We don’t handle the bad part of the relationship. Don’t care to buy the extended warranty because we will find an excuse not to fix your hardware if it’s too old.
The last chance
After sending this post to Apple, I was contacted by their Executive Relations. This started a conversation about the issues that has accompanied me over the holiday season. For sure Apple has clearly stated how sorry they are about what happened. They also made some steps towards solving my issues: they discovered the probable cause of my iPad malfunction (it’s hardware, nothing to be done).
On the other hand they did not recover the only thing that was still salvageable: the relationship. Why? Because they did not propose any solution: they were courteous, polite, kind, apologetic, but ultimately ineffective.
At some point of this story I stopped behaving like a customer and started acting more like a researcher. In this new role I have also submitted my new contact at Apple to a test. Since I don’t believe in their warranty plan anymore, would they refund it for me. Long story short: no. Since my computer was bought through Apple Financial Services they can’t help me.
So this is really, truly… the end!
The apex of Apple, their golden age as a productivity platform is long gone. Apple’s hardware is still ahead of the market, but lacking the vertical integration with the Mac OS software this hardware is at risk of becoming the best “linux laptop” in just a few years from now and after that to become irrelevant as the Intel ultrabook platform and software vendors like Samsung and Toshiba come of age (again).
The path is towards oblivion. Now it’s the right time to remember how nice it was: I convinced my friends to buy a Mac and it was easy to maintain them. It was easy to help friends choose: White Macbooks for the feminine, airs for the travelers, Macbook pro’s for the power users. New versions of Mac OS brought excitement and anticipation. All this is a thing of the past now.
My iPad is broken, I will try my best to find an alternative tablet. Last month I have bought an Apple laptop. And it’s my last.
The (alternative) way forward for Apple
Apple could learn from their many recent errors and how they are all centered around the customer relationship: from the recent iWork apology to my small case, the company needs to invest in their human relationships in a different way. Their staff looks stressed and behaves mechanically, they look out of touch. There seems to be a cultural problem, and it would not surprise me if this cultural problem lead to management and personnel problems. But I’m not an insider and this not for me to say.
What I can say is that I know what values are missing and have some skills when it comes to how to bring them into companies. It’s my job. Apple can ring me up anytime.
Beyond the nostalgia
It’s a brave new world and I’m enthusiastic. Let’s go back to choosing hardware from different vendors. Let’s go back to opening up our devices. Let’s fix them, let’s restart from the hardware we already have by installing new and better and more modern software. Let’s reject the integrated systems if the vendor does not support them.
I will stay with the Apple platform until my current computer works, but I know that my next computer, tablet and phone will not to be part of the vertical integration of the Apple brand. My next work tools and devices will be free, open source, open, flexible. As a device they will be less polished but way more modern, they will provide greater freedoms, and greater enjoyment. I don’t think that we will miss the ease of use of an ecosystem that is growing more and more closed. I was okay with making the trade-off before, when it had clearly superior hardware integrated with superior software. We are ready to go back into the open, since Apple is not the superior platform anymore.
Now they have put themselves aside and opened up a world that to my eyes is very beautiful.
I need to get a new tablet and don’t even know where to start. I have no idea what my next computer will look like. And this is a great thing.
Fantastic post Matteo. Really encapsulates many of my recent experiences with Apple. I’ve shared very similar situations than you, incidentally mine was having to replace a failed hard drive. As with you, I ended up taking significant time out of my busy working day to attend one of four visits to the so-called ‘genius bar’, every single time for me to wait sometimes as much as 40 minutes, and then sit with an Apple employee for some 5-10 minutes while they told me, over and over again, essentially to ‘take it elsewhere’ amongst other, incorrect information.
It gets even worse, when my most local store in the UK now is the Manchester Arndale store that is quite literally impossible to get an appointment at as every time you check, the next 2 weeks is booked solid. Due to travel commitments, means that it is essentially impossible for me to EVER visit there. This doesn’t matter so much though as they have been utterly useless every time I have visited before…
You’re entirely correct on the warranty issue too. I remember friends fondly recalling how incredible AppleCare was some 8 years ago when I moved over from PC. They told me that they had everything fixed super fast if covered, all they did was drop it off to a helpful advisor at a store and they would call them when everything was fixed. Nowadays it feels as though I should have my lawyer with me when I question whether anything is covered by the warranty, as quicker than you can think otherwise, they will be showing you some small-print identifying that due to article III XV of the AppleCare agreement, this is not covered. I understand this in many cases, I mean – if I spill yoghurt in my keyboard, I’m clearly having a bad day at the office and I would expect to pay for repairs (or for my insurance to cover it). If, however, something everyday and common occurs like a hard drive failing, my microphone breaking, or my trackpad not working properly, then I expect it fixed. Every time I’ve heard of ANYBODY in the last 3 or so years comment on their experience with AppleCare it has always been negative.
I’ve gone on enough about my TERRIBLE experiences with the Apple Stores, the very basic inability to diagnose simple technical faults from the Genius’s on the Genius Bar, or worse still to actually provide ANY alternative other than “you’ll need a new one”.
It’s a difficult position that Apple are in. Sure, they’ve broken boundaries they pushed innovation to the absolute limit over the last 10 or so years (referring specifically the period that they broke into the ‘mainstream’). However, somewhat ironically it’s failure by their own design.
– They no longer drive innovation – much of the latest changes/updates have been widely criticised as money-making moves, iPads/iPods/iPhones are outdated yearly, with no considerable radical changes (who wanted a fingerprint reader anyway?). – They no longer care for your computer/iPad/iPhone etc – they’re replaceable (at your own cost).
– They no longer care for YOU (their service is wasteful and ineffective).
Ultimately, I don’t see any real value in being a Apple customer now. What do I serve to benefit from being an Apple customer in 2014? I, sadly, can’t answer that question anymore…