The iPhone 4 problems, when it comes to new phones, are hardly new to Apple or to any vendor. Yes the phones are crashing, yes the battery life of some suck (try the 4G Evo), and yes the antenna design was a really bad idea in hindsight. Companies make mistakes all products aren’t perfect most of these problems will be patched and the antenna problem has an easy work around in the form of a rubber bumper that also protects the phone. Granted Apple has the only phone you have to put a protective bumper you have to pay extra for on but then I put Clear Bra on my cars too so, at least for me, I’d likely do it anyway. So this didn’t have to be a big deal, Apple just apologizes for the problems, gives us a date for the software fixes, gives us a free rubber bumper that works, and Steve Jobs could go back to his life. I’m not sure they would have needed to do a recall. Now I’m not so sure…
Instead Apple is getting caught in lies about the antenna problem, deleting negative comments from customers in Apple forums, and is seemingly trying to wrap Steve Jobs reality distortion field around the world and doing it very poorly if twitter is any measure. But this isn’t like Apple, they typically are the leading expert at molding opinion, trivializing problems and keeping folks focused on the positive aspects of what still is a very good product comparatively. Each of the iPhones, particularly the first, has had issues that were expertly handled. This reminds me of Microsoft’s handling of Vista (more than just me apparently), something Apple made fun of, and with Kathleen Hall over at Microsoft capable of doing the same thing to Apple why would Apple even take this risk? Let’s explore that. Steve Jobs Isn’t Apple and Apple may not be Either Steve Jobs is an amazing CEO but he really isn’t Apple and the company is constantly undergoing staffing changes and vacation cycles like any other. Because most of the credit flows up to Jobs and the firm is nearly famous for not showcasing many of the people who are actually getting the job done I think we are likely seeing the result of some employee who has been doing a fantastic job keeping a lid on this stuff in the past, but likely not being given credit for their work, becoming absent. This is like watching a Super Bowl champion come back and fumble its way through the first game of the following season with a massive loss. You know something has changed and while it may be an injured player, a traded player, or a quarterback or coach whose head is no longer in the game it clearly isn’t the same team that won the series. Apple suddenly doesn’t look like the best company in 2010 and Steve Jobs is far off his game as the best CEO in the world at the moment. It is as if a switch was turned and you suddenly have Toyota, Microsoft, BP, or some other large company that thinks they are big enough to actually dictate what you believe and whose executives are so isolated they think that such a practice is actually working. Companies Change for Better or Worse The Apple of the 80s didn’t even seem related to the Apple of the 90s and the Apple of last decade went from being a joke company at the beginning to being the company telling the jokes about other firms at the end. But now the joke is on them again and it’s not all that funny. We do need to realize that companies change. I few years ago I only bought Maytag appliances and then they made some historically uncharacteristic bad decisions with premium line offerings and I wouldn’t buy another Maytag on a bet. About 20 years ago I stopped flying Continental Airlines because they were seldom on time, dirty, and gave crappy service. I flew on them last month and they were in line with the best, Virgin America with new planes, free food, and fabulous service. United has purchased Continental and most of us are afraid they will take that carrier back to the way they were when they sucked. Toyota, while building their market, was nearly unmatched in customer service and quality. A new more cost focused executive team took over and suddenly folks were crashing and Toyota was covering up problems showcasing clearly that Toyota wasn’t the same company we had come to respect. We often forget that executives are the brains of a company and when they change the company’s personality changes for better or worse. But we often don’t see the change until we have purchased a faulty product and are dealing with the fallout. Wrapping Up: The Apple we are seeing through the handling of the 4th generation iPhone is not the confident competent Apple we grew to know last decade. This company is badly fumbling the response to the iPhone 4 problems and turning what should be a relatively trivial issue into what could become, as it did with Toyota, a massive material problem for the company. This is an election year and politicians are looking for a cause and a Lemon Law for phones with Apple and AT&T as the target could be just such a cause. That aside this should serve as a reminder that companies change, and that a company we once hated like I did Continental should be revisited (at least until United destroys them) and that a company once loved, if they start behaving poorly, should be reconsidered. Loyalty is a good thing but there is no point in being stupid. If what we are seeing is the new Apple we can be pretty sure there is growing rot at the core and no one likes a rotten Apple.
Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.