It's been a "best of times, worst of times" year for Apple. There's no denying the swell they're seeing from the iPhone, new iPods, and a new release of OSX. Apple stock looks pretty golden in a fragile market.
And yet, if you're paying attention, there are some cracks in the facade. One by one, people are starting to notice the little problems that other companies get crucified for.
Early examples were problems with iPhone activation, phone bills, and firmware updates. Recent examples:
- And finally, me. A few weeks ago, I lost a hard drive. I have a backup of all of my important stuff, but I didn't have a backup of this drive, because it contains stuff I can generally replicate from other sources. This drive had my iTunes music on it, which I could generally reproduce by re-ripping all of my CDs, or (I thought) just plugging my damned iPod back in to my computer. I was wrong on that last count. I plugged my iPod back in after I rebuilt my PC, and iTunes said, "I need to purge this foreign content -- everything must go!" I literally couldn't sync my iPod again until I wiped it and reloaded my music. On top of everything else, I also lost all my song rankings, so I've got to "re-train" my iPod to know the music I like most.
So what? Lots of companies have problems like this. They work through them, and the move on. Why would Apple be any different?
Apple's different because they convinced us that they're better.
In late September, Robert Scoble posted when some people's iPhones were bricked during an update. I blogged a response back then, and I left a comment explaining why people were more upset about these problems with an Apple product than they'd be with someone else's product:
But Apple?s supposed to be better than Microsoft. That?s their hook.
Let?s face it - an important part of the Apple mystique is the experience. Stuff just *works* when it?s from Apple, right? When people start to question that image, it?s a blow to the brand.
I suspect this isn't something that Scoble didn't already know, but I'll take credit for planting a seed, because he came back and hit this topic again this week (The brand promise of Apple). Here, Robert starts to look at a new facet of this dynamic: Apple users love Apple so much that they'd sooner believe they're idiots than to think that Apple's done something wrong.
If there ever was any question about the marketing prowess of Jobs, this should put that to rest. This is really good stuff. Since the very first marketing consultant crawled out of the primeval soup and began surveying dentists, this is the holy grail they've sought. It's lightning in a bottle, and it's the engine that drives Apple.
A handful of brands have achieved a measure of this success over the years. Saturn was there when they first hit the scene, and to a lesser degree, the new Beetle. When you hear about kids beating other kids to steal a pair of shoes, this elixir is at work.
When it happens, it makes people a little nuts.
And so it is with Apple. People see only good, and look past the rotten, let alone evil. When iTunes refuses to recover my music, or even my song ratings -- content that I generated on their hardware -- I'm not supposed to feel angry or alienated or betrayed. I'm supposed to subserviently ask for forgiveness on behalf of my ill-behaved PC. I had it coming for running Windows, anyway, right?
As soon as people start to question the infallibility of Jobs, Inc., the whole brand begins to look vulnerable. This is a fragile ecosystem, and it's dangerously close to meltdown.
How do you feel about Saturns today?
Don't think that I'm writing this because I hate Apple. On the contrary, I think the magic they've shown us over the last five years or so is the stuff legends are made of. Very, very few of us will ever have a chance to achieve anything like the run Apple's had recently, so I believe we've all got a lot to learn from them. Among the things we can learn, though, is how tough it is to do what they've done, and how quickly it can be lost if you're not careful.
For another great analysis on this balance, check out this article: Apple: What Could Go Wrong