What I would have told the BBC about the Apple iPhone antenna, if they'd actually wanted to hear it

I got an email this morning from BBC World Service radio, asking if I'd like to participate in a debate to "discuss whether the Apple bandwagon is grinding to a halt" in the wake of the iPhone antenna problem. I said sure, and they asked a couple of questions about my views.

Unfortunately, when they saw my reply, they decided that my opinions were too similar to those of Computerworld columnist Mitch Wagner (link), who was also appearing on the program. It wouldn't lead to a good debate. They were very polite about it, and there are no hard feelings on my part.

(By the way, Mitch pointed out the most interesting line I've seen so far on the antenna issue -- Microsoft COO Kevin Turner compared the iPhone 4 to Windows Vista. "It looks like the iPhone 4 might be their Vista, and I'm okay with that." (link) That single sentence summarizes so much of what's wrong with Microsoft today: grasping at straws, in denial, not focused on what they must do to win, and a tin ear to what their comments sound like in public. The scariest thing is, I think they might actually believe the stuff they say.)

Anyway, back to Apple. I thought it would be good to share my thoughts that were too boring for the BBC. If they'd put me on the air, it would have gone something like this:

Q. On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is this for Apple?

A. About a 1.5, with 1 being utterly meaningless in the long term. Unless there is some huge, hidden problem that Apple still isn't telling us about, the story is now over.

Q. One newspaper headline here goes 'Apple has lost its touch.' Is that fair?

A. It goes beyond unfair, it's utterly ludicrous. Apple just shipped the iPad, a major new category device, and it's selling far better than most people (including me) expected. For comparison, the Apple Macintosh, which we all cite as a huge success today, sold about 70,000 units in its first hundred days of availability (link). The iPad sold 70,000 units in the first four hours (link).

Most companies would kill to lose their touch that way.

If you want to look at a company that has lost its touch, check out BP. Or Toyota. Or Dell, which allegedly shipped twelve million computers that it knew were destined to fail (link). But even that sort of huge mistake isn't usually enough to kill a company. Remember when Intel knowingly shipped millions of Pentium processors that couldn't do math properly (link)? No, you don't remember? I rest my case.

If you want to know what Apple would look like if it lost its way, go back in time and look at the company in about 1997.

But Apple today? They made a mistake, and they handled it poorly. Hopefully they've learned from it. Giving everyone a free case is a reasonable solution. The cost of the cases is less than the cost of the accumulated bad PR (not to mention the cost of the class action lawsuits, which were the next step).

The average customer pays almost no attention to this sort of inside-the-beltway news. A company has to screw up repeatedly over a long period of time, or do something flagrant like killing people, in order to really damage its image. As long as there isn't any other big problem hidden in Apple's products, I think this story will be forgotten in a few months.

That's not to say everything is going great for Apple...
-Google Android is gaining momentum.
-Many mobile developers would love to have a better alternative to the App Store.
-Various governments might decide its walled garden approach to computing violates the law.
-At some point, I still believe the web is going to make proprietary platforms like Apple's less relevant.
-Apple is getting so big that I wonder how long it can continue to grow at the same rate.

And maybe most importantly, Apple is gradually learning that the rules of behavior for a successful industry leader are different than the rules for a scrappy upstart. Aggressiveness that's cute in a five-year-old kid will get a 25-year-old football player arrested.

Compounding Apple's challenge, its very effective marketing and design has set a higher standard for its products than the one applied to most other companies. Apple needs to learn that standing in the spotlight shows off your scars as well as your beauty marks.

One step in that process if for Apple to be humbler and more open. I think that's a lesson they started to learn this week.

(PS: I listened to BBC World's coverage of the iPhone this evening (link). One report called the antenna "the biggest PR disaster in Apple's history," which shows that BBC reporters have very short memories. As for what Mitch said, yeah it would have been a boring debate.)


Michael Roberts said...

My guess is that not only BBC but all of the media wants to make big deal out of nothing. Like they are all sensation hungry. You are absolutely right with your points.

Matt said...

... did you notice all those big headlines last week saying that the NHTSA has said that there’s nothing wrong with Toyota’s electronics and software for speed control, and that “driver error” was responsible for many of the uncontrolled speed crashes that prompted the recall? Thought not, because there weren’t any. It’s a much better bandwagon to get on to pillory the company (especially if you can throw a bit of xenophobia and protectionism into the mix as well), than it is to calmly report the facts in an unsensational way...

I’m sure Apple screwed up. I’m equally sure that there are some reception problems that are endemic to all mobile phones (and no, Nokia does NOT design them all out), and that signal strength issues may be much more visible on one operators network than another’s. But I don’t think the facts, or even Steve’s “in your face” rebuttal (responding in kind, if you ask me), justify the level of hysteria in the media...

best regards,

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comments.

Matt, on the Nokia issue I think you're right. They are actually pretty careful about the hardware design of their phones; I've always been impressed by the fit and finish on most of their devices (not so much the industrial design). But they're disingenuous when they say that they never compromise antenna performance -- if that were literally true, all Nokia phones would still have external antennas.

CEO said...

I totally agree. This was a mistake, and has passed. People will not remember. I have read about how this is the end of iPhone -- foolish. Apple will continue to do fine.


EricE said...

"-Many mobile developers would love to have a better alternative to the App Store."

Only ones who like to whine about "control", or are unable to compete. There are thousands of developers who are making money and thousands more entering the App store on a routine basis.

That there are "many" developers that would love to have a "better alternative" is not telling. What is telling is how many developers who are successful and have a demonstrated track record of success who are finding the App store stifling.

Besides, isn't hoping for "something better" kind of a nebulous "motherhood and apple pie" sentiment anyway? Who would hope for "something worse" anyway?!?

"-Various governments might decide its walled garden approach to computing violates the law."

I would be interesting in seeing even in the European nanny-state what argument one would argue for that :p

"-At some point, I still believe the web is going to make proprietary platforms like Apple's less relevant."

Ha! This was pitched from the Mosaic days - ain't gonna happen. As cool as web browsers are, they are still basically the modern equivalent of a VT100 terminal. Not that there is anything wrong with that - there are plenty of applications, even today for a VT100 terminal that make sense, and there are plenty of applications that would be better served by moving back to a VT100 terminal.

But the fact that there is such heavy reliance on Java, Flash, Air, etc. Are very telling. And who is there pushing standards support to eliminate the need for Java, Flash, Air, etc? Apple! To assume that Apple is concerned about the Web is preposterous. That's what make these inane walled-garden comments so ridiculous.

People are quick to forget that the original iPhone walked away from all it's competitors - as a *complete* newcomer only with the web. iOS Apps didn't come until later.

Apple is still an active (if not the primary) contributor to WebKit, and actively promotes it through Safari on iOS, Mac OSX and Windows. If Apple were so obsessed about control, why would they do that? It doesn't make sense.

And as Judge Judy says, if it doesn't make sense it probably isn't true. The truth is, Apple is no more concerned about a walled garden than it is about web apps. Apple is concerned about delivering the best products with the best user experience possible to their customers. In fact, if it means replacing a successful Apple product with a newer Apple product, they do it.

That is why they succeed and will continue to succeed (as long as they continue executing as they have for the last decade). Points such as the ones you raised really miss the essence of Apple's success. The iOS isn't about developers, carriers, distributors - it's about the end users. So a few developers grumble - boo hoo! Don't let the door hit you. There is a huge pent up demand for appliance computers with a curated minimum set of standards. That's the iOS. For those who value molesting their hardware and software above all else you can choose other than Apple. Pretty simple (and no need for speculation about government regulation).