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Apple's looming challenge: customers

Apple may be getting what it deserves: customers. That's not necessarily a good thing.

The problem with success is that it breeds customers, if you're a vendor. With customers come questions and concerns. Invariably, having lots of customers, including non-techie customers, means that the polish on a company can be smudged.

Such may be Apple's fate as it grows at a torrid pace, adding a range of Microsoft customers that bring with them lowest-common denominator questions and technical support issues.

By broadening its share of the computer market and diving into whole new businesses, the company has become a case study in the challenges of taking a cherished brand with a devoted (some would say cult) following into the mainstream. "The customer base is now more diverse, including students and mainstream consumers, and it's harder to satisfy as a whole," says Lopo L. Rego, a marketing professor at the University of Iowa who studies the impact of customer satisfaction on financial performance.

Apple still tops all of the big measures of computer-customer service. But there are signs that it is vulnerable to the service struggles of other big companies. A widely watched study of customer satisfaction, released in August by the University of Michigan, showed Apple slipping 4 points from last year's score, to 79 on a 100-point scale. That still leads the industry, but it's the company's first decline since 2001.

Can "the cult of Mac" survive when the cult becomes a massive, mainstream tech phenomenon? Possibly, but it's a valid question as to whether it wants to. Part of the chic appeal of a Porsche, for example, is precisely the fact that relatively few people have them. Apple, the Porsche of computer manufacturers, might not quite carry the same appeal if former Hyundai (Windows) drivers drive the Mac en masse.

I've always been very patient when I've bumped into issues that required me to call Apple's support center. My calls go through to a North American support technician, one that is generally knowledgeable of the Apple products. But thinking back, I'm sure I was more forgiving of Apple's support than I would be of Microsoft's.

Part of the difficulty in writing Windows is that it needs to be backward compatible and support every possible application and use case. This has, in part, led to its bugginess and vulnerabilities. Will Apple face these same hurdles if it becomes a major desktop presence?

Does it really want this? I think the answer is a definite maybe.