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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Arsène Wenger: English football's first true cosmopolitan

After 20 years are these the end of days for the Arsenal manager? 

How to account for the essence of a football club? The players and managers come and go, of course, and so do the owners. The fans grow old and die. Clubs relocate to new grounds. Arsenal did so in the summer of 2006 when they moved from the intimate jewel of a stadium that was Highbury to embrace the soulless corporate gigantism of the Emirates. Clubs can even relocate to a new town or to a different part of a city, as indeed Arsenal did when they moved from south of the Thames in Woolwich to north London in 1913 (a land-grab that has never been forgiven by their fiercest rivals, Tottenham). Yet something endures through all the change, something akin to the Aristotelian notion of substance.

Before Arsène Wenger arrived in London in late September 1996, Arsenal were one of England’s most traditional clubs: stately, conservative, even staid. Three generations of the Hill-Wood family had occupied the role of chairman. In 1983, an ambitious young London businessman named David Dein invested £290,000 in the club. “It’s dead money,” said Peter Hill-Wood, an Old Etonian who had succeeded his father a year earlier. In 2007, Dein sold his stake in the club to Red & White Holdings, co-owned by the Uzbek-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov, for £75m. Not so dead after all.

In the pre-Wenger years, unfairly or otherwise, the Gunners were known as “lucky Arsenal”, a pejorative nickname that went back to the 1930s. For better or worse, they were associated with a functional style of play. Under George Graham, manager from 1986 to 1995, they were exponents of a muscular long-ball game and often won important matches 1-0. Through long decades of middling success Arsenal were respected but never loved, except by their fans, who could be passionless when compared to, say, those of Liverpool or Newcastle, or even the cockneys of West Ham.

Yet Wenger, who is 66, changed everything at Arsenal. This tall, thin, cerebral, polyglot son of an Alsatian bistro owner, who had an economics degree and was never much of a player in the French leagues, was English football’s first true cosmopolitan.

He was naturally received with suspicion by the players (who called him Le Professeur), the fans (most of whom had never heard of him) and by journalists (who were used to clubbable British managers they could banter with over a drink). Wenger was different. He was reserved and self-contained. He refused to give personal interviews, though he was candid and courteous in press conferences.

He joined from the Japanese J League side Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he went to coach after seven seasons at Monaco, and was determined to globalise the Gunners. This he swiftly did, recruiting players from all over the world but most notably, in his early years, from France and francophone Africa. I was once told a story of how, not long after joining the club, Wenger instructed his chief scout, Steve Rowley, to watch a particular player. “You’ll need to travel,” Wenger said. “Up north?” “No – to Brazil,” came the reply. A new era had begun.

Wenger was an innovator and disrupter long before such concepts became fashionable. A pioneer in using data analysis to monitor and improve performance, he ended the culture of boozing at Arsenal and introduced dietary controls and a strict fitness regime. He was idealistic but also pragmatic. Retaining Graham’s all-English back five as well as the hard-running Ray Parlour in midfield, Wenger over several seasons added French flair to the team – Nicolas Anelka (who was bought for £500,000 and sold at a £22m profit after only two seasons), Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pirès. It would be a period of glorious transformation – Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup “double” in his first full season and went through the entire 2003-2004 League season unbeaten.

The second decade of Wenger’s 20 years at Arsenal, during which the club stopped winning titles after moving to the bespoke 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium, has been more troubled. Beginning with the arrival of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003, the international plutocracy began to take over the Premier League, and clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City, much richer than Arsenal, spent their way to the top table of the European game. What were once competitive advantages for Wenger – knowledge of other leagues and markets, a worldwide scouting network, sports science – became merely routine, replicated even in the lower leagues.

Wenger has spoken of his fear of death and of his desire to lose himself in work, always work. “The only possible moment of happiness is the present,” he told L’Équipe in a recent interview. “The past gives you regrets. And the future uncertainties. Man understood this very fast and created religion.” In the same interview – perhaps his most fascinating – Wenger described himself as a facilitator who enables “others to express what they have within them”. He wants his teams to play beautifully. “My never-ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man.”

Arsène Wenger is in the last year of his contract and fans are divided over whether he should stay on. To manage a super-club such as Arsenal for 20 years is remarkable and, even if he chooses to say farewell at the end of the season, it is most unlikely that any one manager will ever again stay so long or achieve so much at such a club – indeed, at any club. We should savour his cool intelligence and subtle humour while we can. Wenger changed football in England. More than a facilitator, he was a pathfinder: he created space for all those foreign coaches who followed him and adopted his methods. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.