Problems with the Mac promised land

Apple pitches the Mac as the anti-Windows PC that "just works." What happens when it doesn't?

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
5 min read

I've definitely learned something in recent weeks about reacting to the inevitable problems that will happen in life--how it can be possible to turn a problem into a huge opportunity, but also how a problem can become an even bigger problem overnight with neglect.

Perhaps it was inevitable for Apple this year, as the nearly unprecedented iPhone hype from this summer was followed by a surge in Mac shipments. Peeved by their experiences upgrading to Leopard, some high-profile Apple customers have taken to the Internet in recent weeks to complain, suggesting that Apple is leading them on with the brand promise of the Mac.

The launch of Leopard left some Apple customers wondering why it didn't 'just work.' Apple

It's never clear in the early going exactly how many people as a whole run into problems with Macs, since things get quickly blown out of proportion under the intense scrutiny paid to Apple. But the basic complaint seems to be: this ain't what we thought it would be. Buggy upgrades? Security issues? This is why we switched to the Mac in the first place, right?

That's the image Apple wants people of have of the Mac: the anti-Windows. The clever Mac vs. PC commercials underscore that promise, pointing out some of the early problems with Windows Vista and smugly implying that Macs are free from such frustrations.

The problem is that's simply not true. Mac owners will encounter problems during the life of the product, maybe not as many as Windows owners, but frustrating, on-hold-with-tech-support types of problems will happen. Apple sets itself up for this kind of backlash with a holier-than-Windows marketing strategy if people run into some of the very problems they are trying to escape, such as blue screens of death. But how big a problem is this?

My friend Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates, back when we were trying to figure out if Microsoft and Intel had a chance at selling Windows Media Center PCs as digital living room hubs (they didn't), used to always note that people expect and are willing to tolerate a certain amount of "funk" from a PC. Basically, people are so used to encountering problems with Windows PCs that they have sort of gotten used to it, and while it's a hassle it's just part of using a PC.

Problems with Mac customers can actually be ways of winning them over permanently to your side. Apple

But try taking away their TV. The consumer electronics industry tries to make simpler products that turn on instantly and don't require updated virus definitions or defragmenting or task management. They just work, and people aren't willing to tolerate anything less than a consumer electronics product that just works. I've put up with lots of PC issues over the years, but when the right half of my brand-new HDTV went snow white an hour into Boston College's first football game of the year, I was on the phone and livid in seconds. (Looking back, perhaps it was an omen.)

Apple has been trying to pitch the Mac as a consumer electronics device that "just works," against a Windows PC that sort of works. In general, I agree that Apple's attempt to set the bar higher and set itself apart from its Windows competitors is an excellent goal; most people would agree that competition makes for better business.

The trouble is, the Mac is still just a computer, and it's often subject to some of the same weirdness from time to time as Windows PCs. If Apple really wants to roll out its entire Mac ad campaign as a comparative exercise with the competition, it had better offer a much, much better experience; not just in terms of features and appearance, but with installation, troubleshooting, and support.

That last part is where the opportunity comes in. Back in 2005, a blogger named Jeff Jarvis started chronicling his harrowing experiences with Dell's PCs and customer service. Jarvis' goal was to cajole Dell into admitting that it had no idea of the scope of the customer service problems, which the company failed to do until it was really too late.

At the end of Jarvis' saga, he gave in to pressure from his readers and bought a Powerbook. To his credit, he realized right away that simply switching to Apple wasn't going to eliminate every computer hassle he'd ever encountered. "It feels like moving to Paris and not speaking French (though it sure is pretty there). There is as much illogic in part of the Mac world as in the Microsoft world," he wrote in 2005.

Not every new Apple customer is going to reach that conclusion. They are probably people who have had at least one or two Windows computers and many of them see the Mac as the answer to all their computer problems, even some who should probably know better.

If Apple fails to deliver that experience, those people might wonder what all the hype was about, and react as disproportionately as they did assuming Apple was the Answer. And long-time customers might feel slighted that in Apple's pursuit of new markets such as the iPod and the iPhone, they've let the fundamentals deteriorate. Although Apple's customer service scores are still the best in the industry, they did slip last year.

But any company can win customers for life if the first time they run into a problem with your product, you fix it quickly. The lesson from Dell's experience is that you can't let these customer service problems stagnate. Apple has a unique opportunity to act quickly on its customers' concerns because it controls the way its customers experience its products much more closely than any of its PC competitors.

Think about it: Dell and Hewlett-Packard do Microsoft's customer support. Best Buy and Circuit City sell HP and Acer's products. That's customer behavior information that has to pass through several different companies, and that can be difficult even if everybody has excellent working relationships.

If you're going to turn a problem into an opportunity, you have to be honest and up front with your customers about the scope of the problem, and act quickly--especially if they bought your product because you promised it was so much better than the other option. As I pointed out, Apple's customer satisfaction numbers are generally better than its competitors, but it will be interesting to see how those numbers change as the company adds new users on new products, such as the redesigned iMacs.

I have to admit, though, all this complaining about the brand promise of the Mac does make me laugh to a certain degree. Have you people ever seen a commercial before?

After a long investigation, I've also discovered that ladies won't necessarily flock to you as you walk down the street wearing Axe Body Spray, you shouldn't expect your Toyota Tacoma pickup to survive an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, and switching to Salesgenie.com might not ensure that you can bring your cute 4-year-old daughter two new puppies with all the money you're now making.