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  • Apple Walks the Tightrope

    July 30th, 2008

    A now-deceased comedy performer once used the catch phrase, “If it isn’t one thing, it’s another” as part of a classic TV routine. And clearly that applies to Apple Inc. these days.

    Indeed, it’s not easy being a star, although many of you have no doubt aspired to that status. For one thing, bottom feeders, jealous people and lots of others will have it in for you. You become a ripe subject of incessant gossip. One misstep, and you’re yesterday’s news.

    With Apple’s recent trials and tribulations, it seems very much like theater. First, they ran out of stock of the first-generation iPhone weeks before the new model was scheduled to be released. Now I don’t know if they planned it this way, just to make sure that they didn’t have any leftovers in the stock rooms that had to be sold at closeout prices, or it was just one of those things.

    But considering how carefully they keep tabs on inventory, that simply doesn’t pass the logic test. They would have known months in advance if they were about to run out of stock, and could have adjusted production accordingly. I suppose it’s possible they encountered manufacturing difficulties with their new model, or they wanted to start as early as possible to satisfy the initial clamor for the iPhone 3G. Then again, that didn’t work so well now did it?

    Or perhaps, as I first suggested, that’s precisely how Apple’s marketing people planned it all along. Make you salivate for the second generation iPhone, and there would be long lines waiting outside Apple’s stores and those of independent resellers to get theirs. Sending lots of disappointed people home because stores ran out of stock also made for good headlines.

    What doesn’t sound so good, however, is when things break. I continue to complain about the MobileMe fiasco because it put Apple in the worst possible light. For so long, those Mac versus PC commercials have portrayed Apple products as being easy to use and relatively foolproof, while Windows is a constant source of irritation.

    With MobileMe, Apple’s customers simply wanted reliable email service and the ability to sync their stuff in a timely fashion. They don’t want to have contacts and messages disappear from their iPhones, or suffer extended outages where the prospects for full recovery may be questionable.

    Now there are a few published reports that claim Apple has finally restored those missing messages to all affected customers, but the MobileMe status blogs speak of restoring “historical” messages and not the recent ones that were identified as lost. Now perhaps the Apple blogger misspoke — or perhaps not. Regardless, the folks who did suffer from lost messages will no doubt chime in soon with their own war stories, if there are any.

    When it comes to the App Store, Apple proudly boasts of 25 million downloads in the first week. They don’t, however, talk about the delays in getting application updates posted. A number shipped with crashing bugs or other defects, and it would be nice to have the updates available as quickly as possible. However, Apple has to review each and every product they distribute. While I can understand their concerns and their desire to keep unsavory content off the App Store, legitimate software publishers ought to be treated better.

    Another problem is Apple’s NDA, which evidently didn’t expire when the new iPhone software was released and the App Store opened for business. That means, for example, that developers are not only barred from talking with other publishers, but in holding proper external beta testing programs. Even though iPhone apps tend to be simple affairs, with basic features and few options, certainly hardworking developers ought to have full control of their own intellectual property.

    On the other hand, Matt Mullenweg and his crew at WordPress have made their iPhone app open source, and, so far at least, Apple hasn’t complained. But give them time.

    Now while you might think some of these issues were unfortunate side-effects of the rush to get lots of products and services out real quickly, Apple’s stuff has been infected with a number of early-release bugs in recent years. When the first Intel-based note-books came out, for example, there were battery failures and complaints they ran too hot. The bad batteries were readily replaced, and the cooling fans began to run more efficiently as the result of firmware updates, but calling them laptops was still a stretch. That is, unless you just want to keep your legs warm in the winter.

    My 2008 edition MacBook Pro runs a whole lot cooler than the original version, but a lot of that is probably due to the use of Intel’s new Penryn chips, which are are also more power efficient. Running the fans twice as fast didn’t hurt either.

    Apple’s Time Machine worked pretty well out of the starting gate, with Leopard’s release, but the Time Capsule router and network backup device had some serious early teething pains. Now mine works just fine, but I didn’t acquire one until after a couple of downloadable updates were released.

    I haven’t had a lick of trouble with my Mac Pro, but I was always concerned about danger of leaks from the liquid cooling system on its predecessor, a Power Mac G5 Quad. No, I didn’t have any such issues, nor did the computer’s new owner, but there have been some troubling reports. You can well understand why Apple was delighted to ditch the ultra-hot running G5 and move on to Intel’s processors. Yes, the Pentium 4 was notorious for running hot, but that was yesterday.

    Meantime, Apple’s reputation for smooth-running, reliable products and services has been tarnished. Yes, they can live it down, and they are certainly doing better than some of the competition. But too many failures will not help their bottom line, particularly if a lot of potential Windows switchers decide that things aren’t really so much better on the other side of the tracks.



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    4 Responses to “Apple Walks the Tightrope”

    1. Al says:

      Re the iPhone software NDA,

      What if Apple is trying to hide the fact that the iPhone Apps are somehow scaleable to a larger screened product that is already in the pipeline? Wouldn’t keeping the NDA enforced make sense in that case?

    2. adam says:

      Re: Laptops

      Gene,
      Apple has not referred to any of their portable computers as “laptops” since at least 2002, and with very good reason. They call them notebooks, or portables but I can clearly remember in 2002 when my first G3 iBook was delivered, it contained a warning in the (sparse) documentation that basically said, fast chips get hot so always put this on a hard surface and never on your lap.

      In the 2+years I spent manning the Genius Bar from mid 2005 to late 2007 there was literally nowhere that Apple listed any device as being a laptop.

      You are, of course, correct that some of these products ran hotter than Apple would have liked and that firmware updates were put out to resolve that. A very few of them ran much too hot, in fact. But IMHO chastising Apple for calling them laptops is inappropriate as Apple has not been doing so for quite some time. Even running properly, no modern notebook (again IMHO) should ever be placed on your lap, and absolutely never on your skin.

      As for the general suggestions that rev 1 Apple products seem to suffer from problems, yes you are right about that. Although Apple will not always admit to these faults, my experience is that they will make them right as soon as possible. I do wonder, though, if they are doing enough testing of production models as opposed to prototypes. This also makes me wonder if the production facilities are really following the plans Apple gives them very well. Perhaps new facilities should be sought out.

      I waited 6 months to buy my rev 1 Macbook. As a Mac Genius I was able to assess what was right with the product, what was wrong, what repairs I could expect, and what the “pain in the @$$ quotient” would be. I’m glad that I did, but I am sorry that I had to.

      Cheers!

    3. Steve P says:

      Adam sort of raises an issue I’ve often wondered about.
      When there ARE flaws – the QC issues – like small cracks etc. etc. etc. – whose responsibility is it?
      Since not all the products in the run suffer from these issues, can we say Apple’s ‘design’ was at fault? Or is it the manufacturer’s QC that is at issue?
      Should Apple be holding its manufacturers to a higher standard of QC and inserting financial penalties in their contracts if a high (er) level of quality performance is not met?

      Or, for example, should Apple have been aware that certain processes with certain materials could be expected to have issues and therefore should not have specified them for the product?

      Just curious.

    4. adam says:

      Adam sort of raises an issue I’ve often wondered about.
      When there ARE flaws – the QC issues – like small cracks etc. etc. etc. – whose responsibility is it?
      Since not all the products in the run suffer from these issues, can we say Apple’s ‘design’ was at fault? Or is it the manufacturer’s QC that is at issue?
      Should Apple be holding its manufacturers to a higher standard of QC and inserting financial penalties in their contracts if a high (er) level of quality performance is not met?

      Or, for example, should Apple have been aware that certain processes with certain materials could be expected to have issues and therefore should not have specified them for the product?

      Just curious.

      Good questions. Ultimately for the end user, Apple is responsible for making it all right (note I didn’t say alright). If the fault is ultimately caused by a contractor doing the actual assembly, then Apple can go back to that contractor for its own recompense according to whatever stipulations are in the contract. As an example, a few years ago VW stopped using a major production facility for its Golf and Jetta lines (Brazil or Mexico I think) because of the amount of problems that the cars from that plant had. VW tried to get the production issues solved, and when they weren’t VW built a new plant elsewhere.

      Having said that, Apple’s designs do tend to be cutting edge (if not bleeding edge) and it may just be that building some products correctly to those specs takes time and unforeseen production issues may arise. Still, it makes you wonder a little bit.

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