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Time to see past the Steve Jobs delusion

Whatever Apple throws at its customers, they come back more evangelical than ever

It's hardly surprising there was a great deal of hype around the launch of the Apple iPhone 3G S. After all, it ushered in a brave new ingredient to the tried-and-tested iPhone recipe: the ability to cut and paste. The 'S' in 3G S apparently stands for 'speed'. Presumably that's because you can cut and paste, fast.

But if Apple made no discernible improvements to an iPhone or iPod, it would still have its army of loyal fans singing their praises, such is the blind loyalty that they feel for the Apple brand.

When it comes to Apple, buyers of its products are often more than mere customers. They are usually brand ambassadors too: talking passionately about their latest gadget or gizmo to anyone who will listen, or flooding the internet with positive blogs and comments about Apple and its products. Such is the success of Apple's marketing.

Apple's brand is so strong that it hardly needs to spend money on advertising campaigns. It invites a lot of people to a big convention centre to make its announcements, and it lets the world's press, bloggers and its own customers tell its story.

Rotten Apple?

Apple believes its products are always the best, its strategy always spot on, its rivals fools. That strategy has worked for the company in recent years, with only a few bumps in the road to give it pause for thought.

A while back it was forced to settle federal charges in the US that it broke its promise to offer customers free technical support. It was found by the Federal Trade Commission to have been charging customers $35 each time they needed help, despite having promised those customers guaranteed free access to technical support staff for as long as they owned their products. Apple declined to comment on the settlement.

Apple again showed just how much it valued the loyalty of its customers, this time iPhone early adopters, when it dropped the price of the first iPhone from $599 to $399 within weeks of it going on sale.

Those who had paid the $599 price tag were understandably livid about the fact they appeared to have paid the price of simply being first in line to buy the device. Apple eventually did a major U-turn, offering rebates to many of those customers but even then only offering a $100 credit to many, which had to be spent in an Apple Store or an Apple Online Store.

In an open letter to customers, Apple CEO Steve Jobs apologised, but found it hard to do so unconditionally. He told disgruntled early adopters they would realise if they had been "In technology for 30+ years", like him, that the "technology road is bumpy".

"This is life in the technology lane," Jobs said.

Apple has been acting in a similarly discourteous manner over faulty power adapters. It was forced to settle a class action in May 2008 which alleged that Apple had covered up wide-spread problems with MacBook and MacBookPro adapters, and thereby forced yet more disgruntled users to have to buy replacements at the full cost of between $25 and $79. A similar suit, again related to faulty power adapters, was brought in May this year in Federal Court in California and is ongoing.

It's a shame that consumers must turn to the courts for their concerns to be recognised. It makes it even more surprising that the firm's loyal followers appear to remain just as loyal despite its apparent disregard for customers who feel they have a genuine complaint.

Just last month, Apple was asked to amend its terms and conditions by the UK's Office of Fair Trading. It affects those who buy from Apple or iTunes stores or download software from the Web. Following discussions with the OFT, Apple has agreed to revise its standard conditions to ensure, for instance, that they no longer exclude liability for faulty or mis-described goods, and do not potentially allow changes to be made to products and prices after an agreement is made.

Apple, needless to say, didn't comment.

Media malaise

Such is Apple's iconic image that it appears able to turn seasoned commentators into cogs in the Apple marketing machine. The technology blogger Matt Asay's article a while back is just one example. "The Mac owns the US. Windows owns the world," read his headline, to a story about desktop computer market share statistics.

The facts? Analyst firm Gartner had said that in the second quarter of 2008 Apple had just 8.5 per cent market share in the US, compared to Dell with 31.9 per cent and HP with 25.3 per cent.

Earlier this year, the Daily Telegraph's technology correspondent Matt Warman, discussing the launch of the iPhone 3G S in an article that was fairly damning of the new version, wrote: "That's the problem with Apple - it just keeps on pretending it always knows best. It's fine while the iPod remains the world's best MP3 player, but in the age of Google and its Android operating system, all phones are becoming computers. That may be an idea Apple invented, but the collective wisdom of the millions of people who use and develop applications for Google technology means that a battle is now on."

Warman makes some good points. But to suggest that Apple invented the idea of a phone that has computing capability is a big mistake. Although there is no industry standard definition of a 'smartphone', IBM and Bellsouth launched a phone with computing abilities way back in 1994, called Simon. It featured a mobile phone, a pager, a PDA, and a fax machine. It included a calendar, address book, world clock, calculator, note pad, email, and games. It even had a touch-screen, just like the iPhone.

The Simon was followed by similar 'smartphones' from Motorola, Sony and others. Fast-forward 13 years to 2007, and Apple launched the iPhone. Smartphone inventor? About as accurate as the infamous misquote that led to the urban myth that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet.

It's inarguable that the first iPhone ushered in major advances in usability over its smartphone predecessors, in a form factor that still attracts admiring glances. As Apple's British designer Jonathan Ive said at the launch, "It's not too shabby, is it?" Pleasing design has always been one of Apple's greatest strengths.

Yet in other areas it still trails the competition. The iPhone is not designed to enable third-party applications multi-tasking, limiting users to accessing only one application at a time. Palm, Research in Motion (makers of the Blackberry) and even Windows Mobile devices have the edge here.

As the Telegraph's Matt Warman argues, the iPhone 3G S did not move the game forward dramatically. But thanks to the passion of Apple users for the Apple experience, the iPhone is unlikely to be anything other than a continued success for Apple. It's one of those inexplicable truisms of the technology industry that whatever Apple throws at its customers, they come back even more evangelical than before. Why?

It's time to rethink the Jobs delusion.

Jason Stamper is the New Statesman technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review. This is the first in a series of weekly posts for The Staggers