Apple has won the war. It’s time for Apple to stop doing these five things stupidly.
September 27, 2012 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
Fifteen years ago consumer technology existed to serve the geeks, and the mainstream just had to live with the resulting impracticality. It was a horrifying reality that even Apple was abiding by. Then Steve Jobs got back in the game and declared war on that mentality. He gutted Apple and started over with products which catered to the mainstream, daring consumers to figure out that they deserved better. In the end they did precisely that. The final battle of the war, in which the geeks put all they had into the last geek platform, which was nothing more than Apple’s platform stolen and geekified and rebranded, was decided last month in the courtroom.
But now that Apple has won the war Steve Jobs started, he’s not around to tell them what to do next. If he were, I imagine his message would be straightforward: “Start acting like you’ve won. Let go of the trench warfare mentality. Stop trying to do in 2012 what I was trying to do in 1997, or even in 2009.”
In that vein, here are five things Apple is doing, to put it bluntly, stupidly. Maybe they made sense during the war, maybe they didn’t, but they don’t make a lick of sense now. Figure out how to evolve in these five areas, and Apple keeps the defeated minions from ever being able to drive another wedge between Apple and the mainstream consumer:
No more exclusive deals: Steve Jobs loved to pick a partner, lock them into a long term exclusive contract, and use that contract as leverage to motivate that partner into rising up and offering products and experiences on Apple’s level. Two companies made PowerPC chips for Mac computers; he partnered exclusively with one for years (and got awful results) and then partnered exclusively with the other (and the results got worse). Four carriers sold cellphones in the United States; he inked a five year exclusive deal with AT&T and thought he could motivate it to build the best darned network out there, making everyone want to switch to it just to get the iPhone. Instead AT&T’s network got weighed down by the popularity of the iPhone, and in the end it was clear that AT&T never much cared about the quality of its network to begin with. Knock Steve all you want for these ill fated deals and others, but the reality is that Apple wasn’t in a particularly strong position at the time. Whatever leverage Apple gained by offering long term exclusivity, it was more leverage than it had when the day started.
That’s not true in 2012. Apple is the largest and most powerful company, giving it the upper hand every time it deals with another. And Apple has also repeatedly proven that it can successfully enter into any new market it seriously sets its sights on, with or without your help, so you’d better be on Apple’s side from the start, as smaller carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile learned the hard way. That means Apple no longer must give long term exclusivity to anyone, for any reason. If Apple feels it wants to go with one particular partner in a given area, that deal must be set such that Apple can bail on it at any time, for any reason. That way it’s on the partner to prove that it’s worthy, not on Apple to wait out a long term deal. Apple is just that powerful now. It needs to remember that when it sits down to the negotiating table. Steve was willing to make an unfavorable deal (Microsoft in 1997) when he felt he needed to. Apple no longer needs to.
No more dumb naming conventions: Apple’s product names are generally brilliant. iPhone? Obvious. iPad? No one was going to know what to do with a “tablet” anyway, so giving it a name which simply made clear to consumers that it was a larger version of the iPhone or iPod they’d already come to love was genius. But then you get to Apple’s naming conventions for new technologies and breakthroughs, and they’re too clever by half. Retina Display. What the hell is that? AAC. Is that a football conference? AirPort. Huh? It’s not a surprise that none of them have caught on with the public. You know what kinds of names for new technologies do catch on? 4G. HD. Stupid names aimed at the “C” students of the world get embraced by everyone. Almost no one knows what 4G means, but almost everyone believes they’re supposed to have it. So long as your goofball neighbor is talking about having 4G on his phone or HD on his television or even megapixels on his camera, you’re going to want it as well. And your goofball neighbor is never going to be throwing around terminology as elegant as Retina Display.
When people ask me what Retina Display means, I say it’s even better than HD, and they understand that. Or at least they think they do, which is what really matters. Apple wants people to embrace the new technologies in its new products for the right reasons, and that’s noble. But some consumers base their buying decisions on reasons that are shallow or even idiotic. That doesn’t mean they’re shallow and idiotic people. It means they’re insecure about not understanding what they’re buying, so they try to cover for it by chasing the same new terms everyone else is chasing. Why not use that to your advantage, Apple? People are better off buying the right product for the wrong reasons than they are buying the wrong product for the wrong reasons, so there’s no reason for Apple to feel guilty by playing the same propaganda games its competitors play. After all, if Apple had decided to call the iTunes music store format MP4 instead of AAC, I wouldn’t have had to spend the past decade answering questions from mainstream consumers who are wondering why iTunes uses “that weird Apple format” instead of MP3. People would have understood that MP4 is better than MP3, which it is, and they would have concluded that MP3 is old and obsolete, which it is. Instead of sounding like next generation breakthroughs, Apple’s advantages end up sounding like incompatible liabilities, and it’s all in the name…
Gameplan for the geek backlash: Each time Apple comes out with an amazing new product, the geeks who hate Apple on principle are going to try to create controversy in the name of scaring people out of buying Apple products. Apple can’t stop that. In fact, now that Apple has won the war and the Google-worshipping geeks are more angry than ever at the fact that the Android platform has been gutted by the courts, they’re going to try even harder to mar every Apple product launch going forward. Apple’s response to these lunatics thus far has been along the lines of “Please don’t hurt me.” They invent an imaginary iPhone antenna controversy? Here’s a free case, please make it stop.
That’s not how you deal with those you’ve defeated if they’re still nipping at your heels. Apple had to know that even if the new iPhone Maps app in iOS 6 was perfectly flawless and magically did your laundry for you while you were sleeping, the haters were going to target it from the get-go. Why? Simple. The new Maps app is no longer tied to Google Maps, which means that the Google-worshipping haters were going to hate on it full throttle. Sure enough, from day one they were writing over the top stories about how awful it was, and launching entire websites to document its every minor flaw. If you ask around among mainstream users who don’t read tech headlines, they’ll tell you that the new Maps app is a big improvement. They like it. But a recent survey by a tech publication of users (who obviously read tech headlines) revealed that iOS 6 has a weakened reputation because of the Maps app. In other words, that group thinks the Maps app is bad because they were told it was bad before they ever used it. The mid level geek headline writers who pushed that agenda are weak and increasingly pitiful, but they were the only ones speaking on the topic, so they were heard by many. Apple should have seen this coming, and spent months selling consumers on the new Maps app before it launched. There should have been ads running on television for the new Maps app while iOS 6 was still in beta, so that by the time the geeks started their coordinated smear campaign against it, it would have been too late. Consumers would have heard Apple talking up its new features, would have tried it out for themselves when it was launched, would have found those features to be as nice as advertised, and would now have a high opinion of it.
Apple has to have seen by now that the most vocal (and psychotic) of its haters won’t be turned into friends any time soon, and can neither be placated nor ignored. Once Apple finally admits that these clowns exist and decides to use its massive voice to preemptively drown them out with the truth before the smear campaigns get off the ground, smaller voices like mine won’t be left to fight such battles on Apple’s behalf after the fact.
Android does exist: Apple was smart to go after Windows directly by name in its “I’m a Mac” campaign because the Mac was the minority, and everyone had heard of Windows, and most people used Windows, and it was up to Apple to make it clear to them why they should be using something else. In the iPod era is was smart of Apple to never admit that the competition existed, because most consumers didn’t know the competition existed either. But when it comes to the iPhone, that junkyard jalopy coalition known as Android is well known and sells well. Too well. Part of the problem is that while Apple plays up what all the iPhone does right, it never says a peep about what Android does wrong. Most Android phones are made of cheap plastic and shatter if you sneeze too loudly. Android’s 4G LTE implementation is so awful that users would get less than an hour of battery life if 4G LTE were turned on, which it isn’t. Android’s giant screens are low quality crap and serve no purpose beyond being a marketing gimmick, leaving you with a device that doesn’t fit in your pocket for no reason. But the people don’t know any of that until after they’ve bought an Android phone, and even then many of them try to pretend the flaws aren’t there so they don’t have to admit they bought the wrong device. Apple then has to work ten times as hard to lure those people to the iPhone with their next purchase.
There is always some merit in not admitting your competition exists. But Android sells far too well for that option to still be on the table for Apple. If Apple begins educating the public on the real differences between iPhone and Android, not only talking up what’s right about the iPhone but also exposing the disguised yet obvious-once-pointed-out deficiencies of Android, then more consumers will buy an iPhone the first time around and Apple’s life will be a lot easier. Heck, bring back Justin Long and Hodgman and do some “I’m an iPhone” ads. Turn the Android platform into a punchline. It’s a joke already, and even the die hard geeks who spin for it know it. Only one percent of all Android devices are running the current Android system software even though it’s been out for months. Nearly half of all iPhones are running iOS 6 and it’s been out for a week. That fact alone tells you this isn’t Coke vs Pepsi. This is pouring Coke in your mouth vs pouring Coke in your ear: only one of the two options makes any sense on any level. But only Apple itself can effectively make that case. Voices like mine, and even pure consumer word of mouth, aren’t loud enough. And the crap peddlers like Samsung and Google aren’t going to go on television and admit that Android is counterfeit junk themselves.
Embrace pricing: Apple doesn’t do low end just for the sake of moving more units. I get that. I respect that. Even the $49 iPod shuffle is a novel product, or else there wouldn’t be a $49 iPod. Apple knows a personal computer can’t be done right for under a thousand dollars so it has the “seriously I’m a joke, please don’t buy me” Mac mini at $599 instead of a desirable low end Mac model, just to make sure consumers either buy a legitimate Mac like the MacBook or iMac or don’t buy a Mac at all. And even when it decides to offer below-market pricing on products like the $99 iPhone 4S or free-with-contract iPhone 4, it doesn’t talk too loudly about that fact. After all, it wants you to buy the iPhone 5. And it’s not merely about upsell. It’s that consumers are going to have a better experience on a $199 iPhone 5 than they are on a $0 iPhone 4, and are going to buy into the platform more and are thus more likely to stick around as long term customers. It’s part of Apple’s long standing trick of getting rich by giving customers amazing products they love so they’ll keep on buying more amazing Apple products. If competitors were going to steal one thing from Apple, you’d think they’d steal that proven concept rather than stealing things that are patented.
But if I had a dollar for every time I encountered someone who believes that the iPhone is more expensive than Android, I’d be typing this from my own island. Whether because the haters are spreading tactical lies, or because Apple products are simply perceived as being more expensive than the competition, the end result is that some consumers are going with Android because they mistakenly believe they can’t afford an iPhone. In that vein I can’t recall the last time I saw Apple acknowledge its pricing in any of its advertising. Sure, you don’t want to steer a consumer toward the $0 iPhone 4 if you could have sold them the $199 iPhone 5 which would be better for them and for Apple. But if a consumer is set on going with a free-with-contract smartphone one way or the other, don’t lose them altogether because you played the pricing game too close to the vest. If you’re going to have that pricing structure, don’t keep it a secret. Use it to your advantage. The iPhone lineup is priced the same as, or in some cases cheaper than, Android. Shout it from the mountaintops. Then steer customers toward the merits of the iPhone 5 over the iPhone 4 once you get them into the store.
The final advice Steve Jobs gave his successor Tim Cook was “just do what’s right.” I love what Tim has done with Apple in the year (and let’s be honest, far longer) that he’s been running the place. The products keep getting better. None of the core principles of what makes Apple products so great have been compromised. And considering how often and how quickly a founder’s hand-picked successor has historically fallen flat on his face, that’s remarkable. The uniquely tricky part for Tim Cook is that he took the reins just as Apple was finally in the late stages of winning the war that Jobs had started so long ago. If he were still around, Jobs himself might or might not have struggled to transition from the era of Apple the ever-more-dominant insurgent to the era of Apple the undisputed king of the world. But now Cook and his remaining team have to make that transition on their own, firmly staying true to Steve’s core principles while just as firmly abandoning any of Steve’s prior strategies which no longer fit the current reality.
Apple did the impossible. It took technology out of the hands of the geeks, where it had been largely floundering from the outset, and put it in the hands of the mainstream where it’s flourished and changed our lives in ways which are increasingly meaningful. Now Apple must do something even more challenging: figure out how to win new kinds of battles now that it’s won the war.