APPLE STUMBLES ON THE CURVE

As mentioned in previous posts ("Other Sectors Following The Curve?"), a few contributors have used The Curve to look at the the consumer electronics market. That makes sense if you think of the various low-end vs. high-end, cheap vs. premium, electronic products that you can choose between when making purchase decisions: inexpensive digital cameras (vs. high-end Nikon and Canon consumer SLR's), earbuds (vs. Bose headphones), generic laptops (vs. MacBooks) and, as already mentioned, cheap cell phones (vs. iPhones, BlackBerry's and other PDA's).

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Apple, of course, mostly hangs out around the high-end of the curve (the far-right): premium products at premium prices. And what makes Apple products truly premium? Apple's overlooked secret is that it's not just the hardware and the software inside their devices. It's also the service that surrounds them.

If you own an Apple product, you know that whenever you have a problem you can get on the phone and talk to someone at Apple support who actually knows about their products, and your problems.

Think about that statement and it's two parts: (1) Apple service folks know their products (we'll get into that in a second) and (2) Apple service folks know your problems. First, let's talk about that last part:

The political statement of the last 100 years that most resonates with Americans today is not, "The only thing we have to fear...". Nor is it "Ask not what your country...". Nor is it one of my family's favorites: "I did not have sex with that woman...". Nope. The political statement that most resonates with Americans today is: "I feel your pain." That's what we want to hear!

And Apple, like Bill Clinton, feels your pain.

Think about their commercials:

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Yeah, they're funny. But interestingly their message isn't, "Look how much fun you can have with an Apple!" or "Look at the creative stuff you can make with a Mac." They tried selling with that message years ago, and it couldn't even get them 4% market share.

Since 2006 their message has been:

"Man, we know that using a computer is a hair-hurting, murderous bitch of an ordeal, full of stuff that makes no sense to you or anyone else. But don't worry! We feel your pain.
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"We feel the fire raging between your ears AND we can put it out." And they say it with a smile. And they do put it out. And they heal your pain with product (hardware and software) and service. Real service. Go into any Apple store, or call their support number, and they will work with you till your problem is solved.

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REAL GENIUS?

It's a strategy that's got a bit of genius to it — without requiring real geniuses to execute it.

Because even though they call them "Geniuses" at the Apple stores, you hardly have to be a genius to work there. You can't be an idiot, but you don't have to have gone to MIT or Cal Tech or Princeton.

That's because the amount of stuff you need to know isn't enormous — because Apple's product line isn't enormous!

Look around the store: a ton of the stuff is third-party product, about which the sales staff's knowledge is hardly encyclopedic.  Apple's held to a fairly limited number of product lines, and many of the products in those lines share a great deal of functionality (and key strokes!); consequently, as soon as their customers learn how to use one Apple product, the easier it is for them to learn another.  Same thing with Apple software: many of their programs share similarities in their approaches to managing media — iTunes, iWeb, iPhoto, all of them share similarities in look and feel, user-interface, and even if they don't share the same, exact functionalities, well, then they share metaphorical functionalities (and key strokes!).  And that's what makes learning on a Mac so much easier than learning Windows based products.

With no disrespect to any of the great folks working at the Apple stores: you don't have to be a bloody "Genius" to learn that limited an amount of stuff — especially when you're surrounded by co-workers who are learning the same limited amount of stuff. Still, because Apple employees actually know their products, well, that makes them seem like geniuses.

But if you ask me, a real genius would be the poor bastard working at Best Buy or Circuit City who actually knew what he was selling.

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Real genius is someone who still knows how to help you even when they're confronted by a dizzying display of dozens of different products by dozens of different manufacturers, none of which works like the others—even if they do the same task!—and all of which are iterative and, therefore, constantly changing and being rolled out on schedules that have nothing to do with one another.

And — this time with no disrespect to any of the great folks working at those electronics chains — more often than not, Circuit City isn't exactly hiring geniuses.

They don't feel your pain.

They are your pain.

Which is what makes Apple's latest stumble so strange.

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APPLE'S STUMBLE:  MOBILE ME  (or "BLANK ME!" — where "Blank" isn't "Mobile")

Apple, the company whose secret sauce contains an overdose of service, recently released along with their new iPhone a whole new line of web-based applications called "MobileMe." And, as demoed smashingly by Steve Jobs and team, it's the cool kids' equivalent of an iPhone with a blackberry and exchange server. Only better.

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Except it's not better. Since the day they've rolled it out, it hasn't worked.

Apple doesn't feel your pain with MobileMe.

Apple is your pain.

And when was the last time that happened?

And what's amazing is that they haven't just stumbled over product. They've stumbled big-time over service.

Heck, today's tech consumers understand that new products have problems (even when the word "Beta" isn't slapped on them like some short-hand legal disclaimer). But customers don't understand why no one at Apple support or in the stores or on their MobileMe chat seems to really know what's wrong with their product. And worse, Apple isn't acknowledging that they've got a problem. (The support people on the phone, actually, will vent their frustrations to you — if you coax them nicely — but Cupertino's corporate communication certainly isn't owning up to the problem.)

And it's been over two weeks since the fire in the head first began.

(And, strangely, the press has given them a free pass, so far.)

But trust me, it will be interesting to watch what happens over the next few weeks: A premium product that isn't working, without premium service? (Sort of like owning a Jaguar sports car in the 1980s.)

That's Apple's rare bad experience at the high-end of The Curve.

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