View from the Classroom

The Required New Year's Column: Avoiding Complacency

- December 28, 1999

A year ago at this time, I found myself doing one of the "required" columns that seem to emanate from all columnists around this time. It's just sort of expected in the Mac community that a columnist will have something to say about each MacWorld Expo, an end-of-the-year review, a "look ahead" column for the new year, and a piece on each major hardware and/or system release from Apple.

The piece I did last year was for the MacTimes News Network. MacTimes had surged to prominence in the latter part of 1998 with an infusion of new writers added to the already content-rich site. Now, just twelve months later, >MacTimes is up for sale and the site is inactive. A year ago, Apple Computer appeared to be undeniably coming out of the woods, but was still a niche market player. Apple's stock had climbed from a low of around $13 per share to nearly $40. After topping out at $118 per share a month ago, Apple stock now hangs around the $100 mark, an indication that at least investors think Apple is going to be around for awhile. While sales of Apple products are currently close to an all time high, there are lingering problems that Apple should address to insure their continued success. A lot can happen in just one short year.

In a turn that about knocked me over, I talked last summer to a number of folks who still think Apple is on its way out. Then, in October, when my wife, Annie, and I gave my newlywed son an iMac, his lovely bride brought us back to reality by saying, "What's an iMac?" I guess I'd fooled myself with the success of the iMac and G3s into thinking most folks knew Apple was back, if only as a minor player. But the volume of people who still believe Apple is dead or dying is incredible.

One of those people is my wife's boss. At their company Christmas party, he asked me about the iMac. He wanted to know if there were any issues that should dissuade him from getting one for his son for Christmas. He had previously told Annie that he thought his son had some real talent in graphics, and that he wanted to help those skills develop. This is the same guy who ridicules Apple and Macs, but when he hired a graphic artist didn't even blink when she required a Mac as a condition of employment!

Unfortunately, the last minute iMac shoppers in our area usually would have a two-hour drive to the nearest Apple Authorized Reseller who had any Macintoshes in stock. In a stroke of luck while finishing my Christmas shopping, I found that our local Sam's Wholesale Club had several 333 MHz iMacs for sale. (They haven't carried Apple products since the old Performa days.) When I passed along the info that grape and tangerine models were still there, Anne's boss replied, "Grape and tangerine!"

This push and pull of folks who don't know anything about Apple, or who think Apple is still down and out, mixed with Apple's resurgence, give me pause to consider just how much can happen in a year. While Apple is riding high on the continuing success of the iMac series, there are possible pitfalls awaiting them. Many of these pitfalls which could reduce Apple to its previous "beleaguered" status are continuing uncorrected problems of the past. Foremost among these problems are production and distribution.

Apple still has a problem with getting hot products to market in sufficient volume to supply demand. The lack of products being iBookavailable when they should has been chronicled repeatedly on the web, but Apple still seems unable to correct this issue and certainly misses many impulse buyers. A single case in point is the iBook. When I walk through the computer department at our local Sears, I usually end up talking computers with Ryan, the excellent sales rep who sold me my son's iMac. He complains that they can't even get a floor model of the iBook for display. This particular Sears store carries no iMacs in stock by design. When someone wants an iMac or iBook, Ryan has to offer to order it. Of course, he has ample stock of various other brands of PCs, so the prospective Macintosh buyer in Terre Haute, Indiana, can't even see a floor model of the iBook - and has to wait a few days if they want to buy an iMac. Interestingly, whenever I go through that department, there invariably is someone at the floor model iMac, while few stop to fiddle with the various PC's on display.

Apple has a continuing problem with image and customer service. The great G4 debacle of 1999 is unique in my memory of computer sales. Canceling orders for a product, and then offering to reinstate those orders for a lesser product at a higher price, is beyond belief. But Apple did it, and their subsequent retraction and apologies can't erase the memory of their attempted rip-off of loyal customers. That single action gave Mac users an unparalleled look into the true corporate heart and soul of Apple Computer. It wasn't and isn't a pretty sight. Those who received order cancellation notices will remember this one.

The great G4 rip-off attempt came right on the heels of the G4 block, which was apparently introduced into the Blue and White G3 on purpose. Whatever the purpose of that block, the appearance of Apple's actions was that it was trying to force previous customers to purchase new G4s by blocking the upgrade path to third-party G4 upgrades for Blue and White G3 owners. While it's only my opinion (remember, this is an opinion column), I think that without the pressure from PowerLogix and Newer Technology breaking down the G4 block, Apple would have remained totally mum on the issue and and left its Blue and White buyers without any upgrade options to the G4. I suspect Blue and White owners will remember this act for quite awhile.

I probably came by some of these harsh views of Apple Computer from my own incredibly negative experiences with their customer service department. If it were just me, I might be able to easily dismiss my concerns about Apple's poor customer service as just a fluke, but emails from readers say the problem is far more widespread. While there are positive emails as well, the read I get tells me Apple may need to look at the results other computer companies have achieved through poor customer service. Packard Bell is one that immediately comes to mind.

Sadly, despite Steve Jobs "fireside chat" with educators that promised so much just a year ago, Apple has apparently written off the education market to the PC crowd. While Apple disputes the diminishing ed marketshare numbers, they also have done little to nothing to preserve their remaining, but quickly eroding education base.

Finally, Apple has to overcome its intransigence factor. Anyone who has used the new Apple keyboard or mouse for any length of time has to be seriously considering a useable third party keyboard and mouse. Kensington, Macally, and others should be thrilled with Apple's continuing foolishness of shipping good computers with what are now generally accepted to be real second-string keyboards and mice! There are rumors that Apple just might change the design of these items. I hope so, because when I recommend an Apple Computer product, I now have to recommend the prospective buyer consider a non-Apple branded monitor, an immediate RAM upgrade (until recently), a peripheral removable storage device to compensate for the missing floppy drive, and a replacement keyboard and mouse.

While Apple's future appears quite rosy on the surface, their recent miscues add a bit of somberness to any evaluation of their future. Apple has some persistent problems that need attention. Making enough of the right product at the right time is critical. Getting that product into highly visible retail locations is also critical. The other problems, unfortunately, go right to the heart of Apple's legendary corporate arrogance. It's a "no-brainer" that there can be no repeat of anything like the twin G4 debacles of this year. Attention to true customer service that produces customer satisfying results without hours on hold is probably totally beyond Apple's current realm of comprehension. Hyping products such as Sherlock and System 8.5 as revolutionary leave buyers wondering what to believe when they hear anything from Apple Computer.

Correcting many of the attitude problems would necessarily entail a total change at the top of Apple Computer. Lopping off the heads of those who brought Apple back from the grave doesn't seem a really bright strategy, though. So where do the answers come from? I don't know, but hope someone at Apple with the power to take corrective action is considering these things. If not, Apple's star has probably risen about as high as it's going to go.

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View From the Classroom columns copyright 1999-2000 by Steve Wood.

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