Blind arrogance

Apple repeatedly insults its own consumers, so why should we care if the company lives or dies?

By Chris Scott

Published December 19, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

It's one of the most basic tenets in business: A company's future growth and long-term success are inextricably tied to the way it treats its customers.

It's also long been part of the Apple mythos that the company has a special relationship with the people who buy its products. Consumers tolerate their Windows-running PCs, but they love their Macs. Right?

Not quite. They might lavish affection on those Macs, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they adore Apple. The truth, actually, should be quite the opposite. If consumers really paid attention to how Apple treats them, they might think twice before drinking their next dose of candy-colored iMac plastic.

Long notorious for its less-than-stellar customer support, Apple is apparently back to its old tricks when it comes to introducing new technology without regard for what makes sense to the consumer. It's one thing to dump older, underpowered versions of the revolutionary iMac before introducing faster models at better prices. It's quite another to introduce a proprietary interface between a new line of monitors and the newest top-of-the-line computers, thereby shutting out thousands of new customers.

Take, for example, the way Apple chose to launch its Apple display connector. This device links the latest line of Apple's flat-panel displays to the G4 PowerMac models introduced at Macworld in July. That line of computers includes a single-processor G4 tower, the sleek, elegant G4 cube and two dual-processor G4s aimed at professional designers and those who cherish Macs for their graphics capabilities.

As a magazine editor and long-term user of Windows-based PCs, I have encountered Macs only peripherally in a variety of publishing houses. And for years I had been put off by the high prices of Apple machines -- even as I came to appreciate the recent line for its general ease of use and respect the Mac's place as the industry standard for the graphic arts industry.

So I was pleased to see a deal on a new single-processor PowerMac G4 in a mail-order catalog. Built in March, the unit came with a 400 MHz processor, a 20 GB hard drive, a Zip drive and 256 MB of RAM. With a DVD-ROM player and a price of less than $2,000, this machine was, I thought, a smart buy.

After the G4 arrived, I decided to buy one of the 15-inch Apple Studio Display monitors I had seen at a local computer supply store. What I didn't realize (until after forking over $999 plus tax) was that there was no way to use this new monitor with my "old" G4. My computer had only a 15-pin VGA outlet (a first for Apple, I found out later) and a digital video interface outlet (another proprietary connector used with these machines), neither of which was compatible with the new monitor.

After spending 26 minutes on hold for an Apple customer service representative, I was informed that no adapter was available to address the situation. I would need to buy one of the newer G4s (at a price of $2,700 for one with all the bells and whistles my "old" G4 had) to use the monitor.

"Do you mean to tell me that Apple has redesigned its connectors on the new monitors so they can only be used with the newer, more expensive computers?" I asked incredulously. "I'm afraid that's what I'm saying, Mr. Scott," the rep replied.

I asked to speak to a supervisor to lodge a formal complaint and was forwarded to a superior in the customer service department. After explaining my situation again -- how I was now stuck with a $3,000 doorstop -- I was told that my predicament was actually my fault.

"Well, sir, the information on the new connector was released in the summer and the specifications for the flat-panel monitors were on the Apple Web site," she explained, a hint of disdain in her voice.

I pointed out that since I had not been carrying my portable Internet device while I waited in line at the store, I had been unable to check the Apple site. I asked her whether the specs were on the box. Was there a clear warning for prospective buyers, something along the lines of "Hey, dummy, you need the newer G4s to use this monitor"?

"No, it's not on the box," she admitted with some resignation. When I asked her for my options, she suggested I contact the catalog company that sold me the G4 to see if it would take it back. Then she offered another option: I could spend an additional $2,700 for one of the newer models.

This time, it took me about 15 minutes to reach the technical help desk, where a friendly male voice calmly explained that the monitor "would never work with this particular machine" because it lacked a part on the logic board that helps power the display. Adding a video board wouldn't help, unless, of course, it was designed to power the machine -- and Apple didn't have such a device or know whether one would ever be available.

In other words, "Tough luck, pal."

Apparently, when Apple decides to introduce something new, developers are not overly concerned with the various foibles that may pop up later and cause problems for consumers.

Take, for example, the uproar caused by the G4 cube this summer.

Formally introduced at Macworld New York in July, the elegant CPU made a justifiably huge splash among Mac fans, Apple skeptics and the media. Its 8-inch silver core encased in clear plastic fits neatly on a desktop. Add in the Apple Studio Display and the standard Harman-Kardon baseball-size speakers and you've got a setup that prompted drools from the assembled masses at the Jacob Javits Center. Who cared that the G4 cube couldn't be expanded to accommodate other accessory cards, or that peripherals like a USB zip drive added to a Medusa-like tangle of cables plugged into the bottom of the unit?

Unfortunately, reports of operational problems with the G4 cube bubbled to the surface early on. Buyers reported cracks in the clear plastic housing after just a few weeks of use. The power button on top of the cube mysteriously activated whenever a finger passed nearby -- for instance, whenever a DVD was inserted into the toasterlike slot. This glitch turned off the machine mid-insertion, wreaking havoc with whatever programs were running.

As word spread throughout Apple newsgroups and Web sites, the company toed a careful line, admitting that there may have been problems with the casings of some G4 cubes but assuring Mac users that the problem was not endemic.

The G4 cube situation reminded me of a problem Apple faced with its G3 PowerBook notebook computers in 1998-99. Reports of random freezes, motherboard replacements, requests for signing nondisclosure agreements, dim screens and buyers shipping unstable units back and forth for months cropped up on Mac-related Web sites.

Resentment of how Apple customer service reps handle complaints is palpable on the Web -- although, to be sure, not all Mac representatives are insensitive or ineffectual. They're only following orders when they tell you they can't accept a return of your new dual-processor G4 because you've already taken it out of the box, and that you must now take the machine to a service center. Surely, in my case, the decision to go with proprietary, noncompatible connectors was made much higher up than in the customer service department -- right, Steve?

My story had a moderately happy ending, in that I was able to buy one of the "older" flat-panel displays for about $200 less than the newer model. I'm also moderately happy with the performance of the system.

But I'm having trouble recommending the technology to friends, especially if I want to keep them. What does it mean when a company seeking my business fails to address a fundamental strategic error in adopting a proprietary monitor interface and not making warnings clear?

It means the company doesn't care.

Chris Scott

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