Apple Always Finds a Way to Annoy Customers

November 20th, 2008

You love them, you hate them. The products are great, but some of the marketing and product initiatives are inscrutable. Even though Apple is supposedly doing surprisingly well during this holiday season, despite the economic downturn that may have not bottomed out, I’m sure they’ve also done plenty to upset customers in one way or another.

Take the recent report about Apple’s highly-touted DisplayPort digital monitor hookup scheme on the new note-books. The advantages are clear, because it merges both digital audio and video into a single tiny hookup, just like the HDMI ports you find on your high definition flat panel TV.

DisplayPort is based on an industry standard that, alas, also mandates severe copy protection methods, known as DisplayPort Content Protection (DPCP), and it’s come back to bite some new owners of these hot-selling note-books. It is, by the way, essentially the same as the HDCP measures used for HDMI.

While Apple’s new 24-inch LED Cinema Display, which is evidently starting to ship, also incorporates a DisplayPort, most displays and projectors don’t. Apple offers a VGA and DVI adapter at extra cost, and when you hook up a display by one of these “unprotected” methods, you cannot watch video content that’s encrypted with this copy protection technique. That includes Blu-ray DVDs, but also, apparently, many of the movies that you buy from iTunes.

Now I haven’t been able to confirm the published reports about this problem that have appeared at CNET, The Register and elsewhere. It does, however, pass the logic test, since we’re talking about an industry standard connection protocol here, not something Apple cooked up to incense Mac users, as they’ve done in the past with various proprietary ports.

It also means that Apple can’t do anything about it. HD content is licensed from the movie studios, and they set the rules. Industry-approved connection technologies also have their own set of requirements that Apple isn’t able to circumvent. It doesn’t seem to be a secret plot to get everyone to buy displays equipped with DisplayPort or HDMI, although you’ll have to consider those options if you want to view any of this HD content on an external display connected to one of the new note-books. Now it may be that there will be unofficial methods to crack this scheme — as there always are — but that’s not something that I would be able to discuss knowledgeably.

I’d also expect to see the next iMac incorporate the very same port, although most owners probably never hook up external monitors. For the Mac Pro, I don’t see a change. The Mac mini is anyone’s guess.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Apple has pulled what some might consider a stunt to get you to rush out to buy adapters or new peripherals. In 1998, when we were all comfortable using ADB input devices, LocalTalk printers, NuBus expansion cards and SCSI drives and scanners, Apple delivered the iMac. It sported Ethernet and USB — period! Now Ethernet had already become common on Macs, but USB was an alien visitor from PC-land.

Well, it didn’t take long for companies to make adapters and products with the right ports, and USB ended up being quite versatile, because you were able to group your printers, scanners, input devices and hard drives on the very same peripheral chain with a cheap hub or two. The arrival of USB 2.0 made hard drives near as fast as regular FireWire 400. Indeed, Apple has now ditched FireWire on its MacBook, so you can see what a decade has meant.

The next USB standard, 3.0, is said to be 10 times faster, but it’ll take a couple of more years for new Macs and peripherals to embrace that technology. So maybe adopting USB wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Certainly, going all-USB on the iPod (and then the iPhone) has made it easier for PC users to acquire them, since few Windows boxes have FireWire. It also meant that Apple could save a small sum on each connection port, and that’s not a bad thing when they try to keep production costs down.

When it comes to the mass adoption of glossy screens on Apple’s note-books, that seems to be a more debatable issue. Well, maybe the raw materials are more environmentally safe, which can certainly help for a company that aspires to be thought of as “green.” But it can also cause havoc.

I know of one person, for example, who cannot tolerate glossy, because of the reflections you see in different lighting situations. It’s terribly distracting, and and I can see where third-party matte filters are going to become ubiquitous. It’s also questionable whether the glossy screen can be color calibrated as easily or accurately as matte, but the jury is out on that score.

Then again, if you want to rant about what Apple does or does not do, I bet you can come up with a long list of issues both big and small.

At the same time, you wonder why Apple would do things that don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, at least at the time they remove a feature or switch technologies. In the long run, most of this stuff, despite the hassles they create, tend to work out, so should we cut Apple some slack?

No, I’m not that charitable. And you, gentle reader?

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20 Responses to “Apple Always Finds a Way to Annoy Customers”

  1. hmurchison says:

    Apple “turning on” HDCP isn’t a surprise. I’ve heard countless Mac fans belabor the “missing” Blu-ray drives yet Blu-ray isn’t going to happen until HDCP is working. There should be people rejoicing about this because Apple once again is leading the way into the future. HDCP is a necessary evil. Movies and TV productions cost in the millions the produce which is a significant increase from delivering a music CD. The theft of movies or TV content is far more financially deleterious than the theft of a song IMO. If you had leveraged yourself to the hilt getting a production made and distributed it would be devastating to watch your hard work get traded around. I don’t advocate people steal any content but I do realize the much more dire circumstances of the motion picture industry to preserve their profits.

  2. Andrew says:

    And for those who do mind, get a previous-gen MacBook Pro or a current iMac or Mac Pro and go to town with HD content and old-fashioned DVI. At least for now.

  3. AC says:

    I agree, Apple is really starting to irritate me and I’ve been a big fan. Last time I visited an Apple store it seemed to be filled with toys. I think the company is turning into consumer toyland. I want to see the damn headless iMac and an upgraded Mac Mini. Some serious computing and forget laptops.

  4. Andrew says:

    Forget laptops? Not a smart move for a company that sells 3 laptops for ever 2 desktops, with the ratio on the rise. Sorry AC, laptops are the future and the desktop’s days are numbered.

    Don’t get me wrong, as a guy whose owned an Apple desktop since 1990 and a current Mac Pro owner, I don’t want to see desktops go away, but the fact is that as laptops get more and more capable, the need for desktops will only go down.

  5. AC says:

    I don’t mean forget selling laptops, of course. But put some better effort into desktops. You spend two or three or four times as much on a laptop for the same capability. You know that, don’t you? And my 23″ display is at least three times more effective and pleasant to use than a laptop screen (yeah, yeah, I can hook it to a laptop–but oh, it won’t play everything then, as the article says).

    You know you can’t buy an Apple laptop with the power of your MacPro and I would expect desktops always to be able to outstrip mobiles on a price/performance ratio. Except they won’t develop them. I’ve had laptops and an iPod touch, and frankly the portability does not outweigh the power and convenience of my desktop machine with my two monitors and full keyboard and good mouse. I don’t like working cramped. I suspect the current trend in laptops is very much marketing driven.

    I like my desktop setup and I don’t need to take my computing everywhere I go, and neither do that many other people, I suspect. Except laptops are currently making money for Apple. It’s an example of driving a trend that serves them and not necessarily the customer. Cheaper desktop machines with higher performance. That’s what I want.

    P.S., By the way, if Apple won’t do it, I’m eventually going to build my own hackintosh or go, ack, to Windows.

  6. Kaleberg says:

    The good news is that DVD sales are down. The industry may be able to strangle BluRay and HDCP the way they strangled DAT. Apple is doing the right thing requiring an additional $100 to watch high definition video. Most people can’t tell the difference. It’s not as if high definition improves the plotting, acting or dialog. Why should they pay for an industry DRM conceit? If this prevents the sale of a few BluRay disks or high definition video downloads, great. The disk or download might only cost a few bucks at the store, but the first view costs $100 more. That’s clever marketing! Steve Jobs is a genius. There is no reason Apple customers should be subsidizing a seriously flawed system.

    The studios are already whinging about DVD sales. It’s music to my ears.

    My problems with desktops are two-fold. One is the bad viewing angle. You have to look up to see the screen which is ergonomically exhausting. Yes, I know that ergonomic experts swear that this is the right way to read books and do other visually intensive work. How many people do you know who hold up books to read them? How many detail workers have jigs to hold their work high above their workbench? The truth is that the upright position is great for distance viewing at low intensity, but for close in work, you want to be looking downward. Ask any optician how often he or she sells a set of “flipped” bifocals.

    The second problem is finding a place to put a desktop. My laptop works anywhere I can sit down. I have lots of chairs in my house, but a desktop requires a desk or table. I’m not sacrificing my dining room table. I eat there. That means adding a room to my house so I have space for a desk or work table. So, I could save a few hundred dollars on computing power, but I’d have to spend tens of thousands on a remodel. Maybe Steve Jobs is onto something?

  7. AdamC says:

    Frankly I don’t think you have been following up on the development of the CPU in a macbook, your desktop set up may be fast but you will be surprise at how much faster the new macbooks are.
    BTW what do you do with your current mac desktop set up – graphic designing, photography or just plain web surfing.
    BTW I am using a mac mini core duo 1.66ghz – not the faster core 2 duo and it is pretty good at handling most of my work in graphic designing and movie editing using Final Cut Express. I believe when the new mac mini comes out it will blow your desktop set away.
    BTW are you really a mac user or just a someone out to blow some hot air.

  8. Louis Wheeler says:

    Annoyance is the flip side of innovation. People don’t like to change; they hate having to buy new peripherals every six to seven years because the ports have changed on the new computers they buy. Also, people will get upset when the next great OS upgrade won’t work on their five year old computer. Why does this happen? It’s because Apple keeps obsolescing Legacy hardware. But, what if they didn’t? What if they followed Microsoft’s plan before Vista?

    Microsoft intentionally allowed a very long tail of Legacy hardware and software. They do this because they want to hang onto every bit of market share. The consequence is that many business offices will continue to use old computers with obsolete OS’s for special purposes. My bank uses six year old Dell’s as front ends to the mainframe downstairs. It works, so why change it?

    Apple can’t do that. The only way it can gain market share is to innovate. That is, they must offer new capabilities. This means that they must get rid of old capabilities. They must try to move the market in a particular direction as they did with USB on the iMac.

    AC, I’m with you on the headless iMac. Part of this is that Apple needs to go after new niches. There seems to be a market hole which Apple is not filling.

    A Mac Mini tower with very fast CPU’s and GPU’s would make a fine gaming machine. It would have the same footprint as the Mini, but three times as tall so you could insert new cards. It need, no longer, be made with laptop components, so the price could drop as performance increases. It could be similarly priced to the Macbook without detracting from laptop sales. It would under powered compared to the Mac Pro, so it shouldn’t cannibalize its sales. If you revved it up to the same speed as the Mac Pro, then it would almost be the same price. Will Apple do that? Don’t know.

  9. AC says:

    Hey, AdamC, I don’t mean to sound terribly hot-airish. Currently, from Apple, I have a dual G5 PowerMac and two B&W G3 PowerMacs (that were basically given to me). I know the G5 is not as fast as an upgraded mini will be, or even current laptops, but it’s plenty fast for me. What I really enjoy is tinkering with the hardware. Every part that is capable of being swapped out on my machines has been swapped out with every configuration I can think of–hard drives, RAM, graphics cards, PCI cards, even CPU on the B&Ws. I’ve used these machines for photography, music composition and recording, as a hi-definition Tivo, music servers for an audiophile stereo, etc., and so on.

    I’ve also had a couple laptops (Toshiba) and an iPod Touch in the last few years. I have discovered that I don’t like to work cramped, as I said, and the larger monitors make everything easier and more pleasant. So, I know everyone does not share my interests, I’m just saying what I like. I get very envious reading tech reports of new CPUs, motherboards, etc., and would love to build my own computer, but OS X is just so damn good and I don’t like Windows one bit.

    It sure would be fun if Apple could throw a bone to this kind of enthusiast market.

  10. Adam says:

    You are a niche market. Even most home-builders don’t reconfigure once the machine is built. Note I said most. I also would like to see a headless iMac, but frankly it’s not a big profit item. Apple is doing well and I don’t see why they’d change. I used to work for Apple and as much as we want something, Apple really does do a huge amount of market research and usually they produce based on that research. They are the most profitable computer maker out there right now so the motivation to cater to you and me just is not likely there.

    Steve meant it 10 years ago when he said that for Apple to win Windows doesn’t have to lose. (Well he mostly meant it). What I mean by that is that Apple doesn’t want to be the “every-possible-computer company” they want to be the profitable computer company. As they work into new markets, the recent inroads to the enterprise market come to mind, this may change but I don’t see it changing soon. Pity.

    My advise (it’s worth exactly what you pay for it) is if you are that big of a hobbiest, build a hackintosh! You’ll have a lot of fun, and I for one will look forward to hearing about it. If what you say is true, then any headless iMac you would buy will become rebuilt anyway, so I say go for it!

    Adam (BTW not AdamC although that happens to be my middle initial – just to be clear)

  11. AC says:

    Yeah, you’re probably right, Adam. Even a headless iMac won’t satisfy my tinkerer’s lust at this point. We shall see.

  12. mikew says:

    Cut Apple some slack? No. I’ve used macs since 89 and I’m a big fan. However, I’m constantly surprised at how Apple can survive (thrive?) in spite of it’s self. I can speak directly to the Firewire macbook debacle. I was ready to buy the day they came out – but no firewire made me cancel my purchase. I’m supposed to dump my 2 month old DV camcorder and FW hard drives? I can only hope that it may come back in a later rev, but I doubt it.

    The second is price – I’m having an increasingly difficult time to espouse the mac advantages compared to a compaq laptop with 15″ screen 2gb ram 160 gb hd and dvd burner for $399.00. I could buy 3 of those for the price of 1 macbook or 5 for the cost of a 15 MBP.

    I know there’s a lot of possible switchers out there but price keeps them away.

  13. John says:

    It’s probably not so much that they want to annoy people as you can’t please everyone with one model. That is the clear problem. Apple has decided to produce a bare minimum of models. When you do that you have to accept that some customers will be displeased.

    In Windows world with probably hundreds of manufacturers and probably thousands of models you are bound to find something close to your taste.

    Want a 19 inch laptop? You can get it but not from Apple.
    Want a matte display? You can get it but not from Apple.
    Want a 13 inch laptop with Firewire? You can get it but not from Apple (new model).

    Why this is so only Steve knows. Apple could have made their hardware more inclusive but chose not to. I understand the advantage of having fewer options, but would it be so painful to offer a few more choices?

  14. Andrew says:

    Not painful, but definitely expensive.

  15. Andrew says:

    Price isn’t everything. Quality costs money, but can pay off over a long and useful life. I just retired my G4 Power Mac after 9 years of use. It still works great, and with its upgrades actually runs Leopard quite well.

    That MacBook, with its aluminum case should be even better than the older aluminum or plastic models. I still use a 5-year-old 12″ PowerBook that looks and feels as good as new. My MacBook Pro, the older 2.4GHz model, should also last that long with proper care.

    The $400 Compaq, however, even with light use will self-destruct as the warranty comes to a close. There are PCs out there with the same quality as a Mac, like a Lenovo ThinkPad or Panasonic ToughBook (business), but those machines cost the same as a Mac as well. You most definitely get what you pay for.

  16. Buying a computer has two prices. One at the checkout counter and another over the lifetime of your purchase. The second price is not only measured in dollars, but also in time and frustration. Frankly, I’d rather pay the higher amount at the till.

  17. javaholic says:

    I agree with John’s comments above. Apple’s simple ‘one size fits all’ product matrix worked well when Steve was restructuring the company 10 years ago, but a lot has changed in that time. The computer and the associated peripherals has become a much more central part of our lives, and as Apple broadens its user base its now evident many users have different requirements personally and professionally. Of course Apple can’t cater to everyone’s single needs, but offering more flexibility with some of the product design – like the glossy screens or the firewire issue – is something they should be taking into consideration. Right now, the most flexible part of Apples product line is the iPod Nano’s choice of colours.

  18. hmurchison says:

    I agree with Javaholic. Apple no longer has a simplified “quadrant” of products. I don’t think that’s a good strategy for the company anyways. It was great when Apple needed to cust wasteful spending on poor selling products but today Apple has to be savvy. I grow a little weary of the constant boasting about “innovation” Apple is good at design but I see innovative computer products everwhere.

    There is certainly a big hole in Apple’s lineup. There are prosumer wannabe people like myself who want a mini Mac Pro. I’d like to run Final Cut Studio and Logic Studio. I’d like to have a 3 headed LCD system with 20″ monitors on an articulating arm. I want PCI-Express graphic expansion and at least one more slot so that my system can grow and leverage OpenGL/OpenCL or eSATA/Fibre Channel technologies.

    Today Apple is afraid to innovate where it counts. Matching the needs of the prosumer (without forcing them to overbuy) versus matching the needs of consumers. I think the iMac should come with consumer laden features. Apple should consider TV tuner options or other home friendly technologies to integrate thereby creating seperation between the consumer and prosumer categories.

    Apple has eyepopping revenue/profits but they also have people tired of All-in-one computers with laptop parts sufficing for the high end non Mac Pro line. They are tired of the limitations of such design (no eSata or the ability to add it, no multi monitor setups.

    Sometimes your needs are covered by an iMac and sometimes they are not. I think if Apple wants to hit the next step they have to innovate their computers in such a way that it makes total sense to stick with Apple. Right now I know that if Apple decoupled their computers from their monitors they could probably kiss %30 of their monitor revenue goodbye.

  19. Ryan says:

    I for one would like it if Apple would change its perception that 15 inches = Pros but 13 Inches = consumer. II’m pretty sure there are a lot of pros (field photographers/on set video editors etc) like myself who travels a lot and need the small form factor of the 13 inch Macbook for lighter weight travel. Unfortunately the consumer grade screen (glossy, low contrast and color shifts terribly even when viewed slightly off angle) and lack of firewire is not suitable for professional use.

  20. NorthAZJoe says:

    This is a great discussion, I am a photographer and I tried the laptop (2 of them!) thing for a while and you know I hated it. I can’t stand tiny keyboards, sluggish system response and limited expandability. Mind you now, I am a “creative professional” in a sense, but I cannot afford a MacPro, it’s just too expensive for a family man like me. Windows has been and never will be a realistic option for me, I tried that too – I lost a couple of jobs due to Windows and its shenanigans.

    The possibility for “switching” back in the other direction isn’t comforting just because I can’t afford the configuration I need for my budget reality. Seriously, I have $1,167.85 (took me two years!) saved for a new Mac, that doesn’t buy much in the current price/selection framework. Sure, I could buy used or refurbished, but even then my money won’t go far and a warranty? Ha – I should keep dreaming. My last brand new Mac was a Mac Classic. It’s been used machines ever since.

    Apple needs to break out of the current lockstep and give us some options, I would like a mini tower of some sort, a slot or two, firewire and some options. I don’t want or care for a laptop and a 24″ iMac or MacPro are both an unjustifiable expense for the foreseeable future. A 20″ iMac with its 6 bit screen is NOT an option either.

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