Sunday, July 21, 2013

Serving Your Customers

In the last few days, I've read at least two internet commenters citing the Apple maps "fiasco" as evidence that Apple does not care about its customers. When Apple released iOS 6, it replaced the Google-powered map app with one of its own. The new app was widely criticized for having inaccurate or sparse data, especially when it came to points of interest. Apple is accused of pushing an inferior app at the expense of its users for selfish business reasons (to either attack Google or collect more map data for itself).

Businesses are always going to make decisions that benefit themselves, and Apple is no exception. It is clear that mapping and location services are going to play increasingly vital roles on mobile devices, and Apple doesn't like to have to depend on a single source for key components, especially not a rival like Google or Samsung. But using the maps fiasco as evidence that Apple does not care about its customers is a bit ridiculous since its customers ultimately benefited from that decision.

The Google-powered map app was crippled because Google would not allow Apple to add more features to the app, such as turn-by-turn navigation, as long as Apple would not hand over more user data and give Google deeper hooks into the app. We could argue if users would have benefited from Apple bending and giving more user data to Google or not, but there is no argument that the map situation on iOS 5 sucked. Less than three months after iOS 6 was released, Google had a far superior map app on the App Store that iOS users could download for free. How is that not a win for users?

You could make a stronger case that Apple does not care with the perennial lack of a mini-tower in its line up or the release of Final Cut Pro X. Depending on who is asking for it, the mini-tower is either a headless iMac, an expandable Mac mini, or a smaller and much cheaper Mac Pro. People have been clamoring for this mini-tower for so long now that the concept has its own name, the xMac. Final Cut Pro X is Apple's latest version of Final Cut Pro, a non-linear video editing program used by many professionals. Final Cut Pro X was written entirely from scratch with significant architectural improvements. But because it was a complete re-write, it shipped with lots of missing features. Apple promised to add some of those missing features later, but others, especially those related to older formats or working with tape, were gone forever. Pros were understandably miffed.

I personally believe that Final Cut Pro X and the lack of an xMac have less to do with Apple not caring, and more to do with Apple's belief that it knows better than its customers and its reluctance to spread itself too thin across too many products. Some people thought that Final Cut Pro X was Apple's attempt to position its pro software at prosumers (a larger market) at the expense of professionals (a smaller market), but that doesn't seem to be the case now that Logic Pro X has been released. The underlying architecture for Logic Pro had already been rewritten, so Logic Pro X simply added more powerful features without taking anything away. This despite constant internet chatter that Apple was set to kill Logic Pro altogether.

It's interesting to contrast Apple's behavior with the behavior of two of its largest rivals: Google and Microsoft. The sense that I get from Google is that they want to serve their customers by building cool stuff. (I'm going to sidestep the whole argument that Google's real customers are advertisers and that we and our data are the product.) Unfortunately, there are some basic things that customers want that Google doesn't consider very cool. So far, Google has spent very little effort trying to expand its music, video, and app stores to other countries. Negotiating with big content is not very fun and it doesn't earn you much geek cred. Buying hardware through the Play Store is also a terrible experience. You would think that Google, with its expertise in servers and internet infrastructure, could set up a decent internet store front, but the launch of the Nexus 7 and various Nexus phones have been complete disasters. Their store front isn't even linked to the store's inventory! This is clearly a lack of caring and effort rather than engineering talent or resources.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is in the unenviable position of trying to prevent itself from being disrupted. When it conceived of and released the Surface, I'm sure that they wanted to build a great product for their customers. But Horace Dediu of Asymco makes a compelling case that another motivation behind the Surface is Microsoft's desire to protect its profits. Dediu estimates that Microsoft earns about $120 per user for Windows and Office licenses. In the shift to mobile, it isn't enough for Microsoft to win customers and grow market share, it has to earn the same profit per user as its desktop business model does or its stock will be punished. This is a tough sell when customers and OEMs are used to mobile operating systems and software being very cheap, if not free. One solution is to earn that $120 per user from device sales. If Surface isn't allowed to stand on its own and must do double duty as a way for Microsoft to extract its licensing fees for Windows and Office from users, then it will never be designed to serve its customers as well as it could.

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