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

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.