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iPhucked: Apple advocates face an angry god

Not so Precious? Apple fanboys feel the pain.

In the world of marketing, the most valuable customer — the holy grail — is the customer who becomes an advocate for the brand. They are literally worth their weight in gold or, to be more accurate, saved marketing costs. Not only are they locked into your product(s), saving costs that might have been spent on retention programs, but they do the heavy lifting of brand building by energetically recommending your wares to their friends via face-to-face and, in an ever more connected world, online interactions. Apple has been masterful at turning legions of their customers into advocates by creating an aesthetic ecosystem that their customers move into and inhabit. Part of the appeal of that aesthetic has been its adherence to design integrity — to the point of accepting niche status in a market of commoditized digital products in order to maintain total control of quality. Purchase of an Apple product bought one admission into a walled garden. As with any exclusive club, one couldn’t enjoy every benefit available to the throngs outside the enclave. No matter — choice is, by its nature, deeply antithetical to a rigorous adherence to design. Everything was going fine until the unheard of happened: Apple products became popular…

“Repeat after me: Freedom is Slavery.”

Part of the appeal of breakout products like the iPod, iTunes and, to a lesser extent, the iPhone has been a promise of reciprocal advocacy from Apple and its guru-like leader, Steve Jobs. At the famous product launches — that resemble nothing so much as tent revival meetings — Jobs has said that tools like the iPod and iPhone empower their owners, making it easier for them to manage their music and communications needs. But implicit in that message is that exercise of that empowerment will happen within the confines of the Apple garden, using features that Jobs & Co. decide upon. The problem for Apple is that over the past few years a competing zeitgeist has developed advocating that information — and the hardware that stores and conveys it — should be “open”. According to this competing philosophy, beauty inheres in the opportunity a product offers for hacking and customization. Many customers, and among the most influential in the online world, have prior allegiance to this cause and have chafed at the limitations built into their shiny new toys — including inability to add unsanctioned applications and carrier lock-in. It all came to a head last week when Apple released an update to the iPhone firmware that turned their modified $600 phones into worthless paperweights. The severity of the public relations disaster for Apple was symbolized by an extraordinary posting on the influential tech news blog Gizmodo — wherein the editors [rescinded their previous advocacy] of the iPhone and now recommend that the product be avoided. Reading the message thread on the posting is a telling view into the nature of the problem for Apple: some of the commentors think it’s much ado about nothing since relatively few customers will want to hack their phones and, anyway, if you violate the Terms of Service you get what you deserve. These are traditional Apple customers who are happy to use their products as Apple intends. But the majority of comments are from people furious that they are asked to shell out top dollar for a product that, in its restrictions on use, seems to belong to another era.

That is the problem Apple faces as they attempt to achieve or maintain dominance in the digital media and communications arenas. They must adapt to the world in which they hope to lead and adjust their values without seeing it as a compromise. Steve Jobs, of course, has to take the lead on such a change in course and who knows if that is likely. The problem with a cult of personality, such as that at Apple, is that it can hamper reaction time for an organization if the leader is late to see the value of a change in direction.

There is an irony here — do you see it? Back in 1984, an upstart computer company made a big splash with an ad that suggested that the only adequate response to a restrictive technological culture that denied people choice was resistance and insurrection. How’s that for irony?

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