Has Apple Bitten Off More Than It Can Chew?

Apple has staked its reputation on tight control of a few carefully designed, faultlessly executed products.

Now, as Apple expands its reach from computers into music, video, consumer electronics and phones, it's getting harder and harder for the company to make sure all of its products "just work," as its marketing slogan goes. Its growing army of customers is getting more difficult to satisfy, and they're finding a host of new problems, ranging from tapeless camcorder issues to buggy iPhones.

"Apple has always seen that their benefit is being a closed environment, but they've now put themselves in the position where a lot more people want to look at them, and those people are coming from domains where they're more used to openness, flexibility and more open systems," said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. "That's the crisis they're going to have to face this coming year: Am I going to continue being closed and controlled or am I going to open myself up?"

The list of customers Apple needs to keep happy is ever-growing: iPhone users, iTunes shoppers, iPod owners, MobileMe subscribers and Mac users. And the items all add up to one question: Has Apple bitten off more than it can chew?

The company's towering list of recent problems (collected from reader e-mails, forums and media reports) spell out deterioration of the general Apple user experience:

  • MobileMe e-mail outage, web-app issues and inadvertent credit-card charges
  • Compatibility issues with tapeless camcorders
  • Problems staying on the 3-G network with iPhone 3G
  • A buggy iPhone 2.0 release
  • OS X Leopard bugs
  • Mac Pro sleep issues
  • Poor MacBook Air battery life

    And on top of that, enraged Apple customers are uniting in Apple support forums -- particularly in the MobileMe and iPhone 3G threads. Some of the country's most famous tech columnists are displeased with Apple's recent behavior, too. A quick Google search of "Apple + it just works" bring up mockeries of the slogan in top results with headlines reading, "It just works indeed," and, "Will MobileMe 'just work' for the rest of us?"

    Such remarks indicate an erosion in the pride that has often been associated with being an Apple customer. And they spell trouble for a company that has long tried to distinguish itself from the buggy complexity of its chief competitor: Microsoft.

    One reason more Apple customers are complaining is simply that there are more Apple customers than ever before. And, while an angry minority may be particularly vocal, the majority of the company's customers continue to be happy with its products.

    That's why some, like Crunchgear writer John Biggs, have called Apple's success a curse. As Apple has grown to absorb as much as 20 percent of the U.S. computer market, its customers are getting more diverse and harder to satisfy.

    "Apple, it seems, now has to deal with the average Joe and the average Joe is considerably more cranky than some turtle-necked fanboys in their loft in SoHo," Biggs wrote.

    And yet, Apple hasn't changed any of its ways. The corporation continues to operate behind closed doors. When Apple makes mistakes, such as the MobileMe e-mail debacle, the company puts up a vague status message -- while 20,000 users are left without e-mail access for a week. To make matters worse, Apple downplays the problem as affecting a meager "1%" of users.

    And Apple ignores the media, too. Ordinarily, Steve Jobs only speaks to a small group of journalists. The company wants to keep a lid on upcoming products, which is understandable, but even when journalists inquire about other matters, Apple can be famously unresponsive. Apple didn't return Pogue's phone calls regarding the MobileMe matter, nor did the company return Wired.com's.

    "Unfortunately, they are dropping the ball, not communicating, and adding to the problem by increasing the frustration of their users via their unwillingness to shoot straight with us," MobileMe user Joe Holley wrote in the support forums. He mentioned that the lack of mail access may have robbed him of a potential job opportunity.

    Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray, said he's been in general very pleased as an Apple customer. However, he noted a recent change: In the past when he called Apple's customer service, he didn't have to wait at all; nowadays, he has to wait several minutes. He added that the Genius Bars at Apple stores are becoming increasingly crowded.

    These might appear to be trivial issues, but combined with the aforementioned list of user problems, they suggest that Apple isn't keeping up with its rapid growth.

    If the company doesn't address these problems quickly, it could wind up looking more and more like its Windows-based competitors.

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