Apple's beginning to test the limits of their fans

Strap in, it’s another Apple post! It’s been a busy week for them so you know I had to get one in.

We had the announcements of the iPad Mini, a tablet that’s substantially more expensive than most of its rivals and inferior to many of them on features. We also got a new entry is the ludicrously overpriced segment of the MacBook line as opposed to just the normally overpriced segment and to the shock of pretty much everyone, a new full size iPad, a mere 7 months after they started pushing the iPad 3. This was all intentionally timed around the launch of Microsoft’s own Surface tablet as well as Windows 8. All that was followed up by Apple’s latest quarterly earnings which were still very rosy but had a few negative surprises. As usual, the fanboy press corps is spinning like a washing machine in a tornado to minimise the negatives as if it’s somehow their job to keep Apple elevated in the realm of public opinion. None of this is a surprise.

However, the reactions I’ve seen from many an hardcore Apple fan mostly this week but to a lesser extent in the last month as well have me very curious and wondering if the company everyone loves to love is beginning to test the limits of their fandom.

Whenever Apple has a press event or an earnings call, the most telling elements are never what they say but what they don’t say. They are masters of massaging their message and spinning without the appearance of doing so. It’s incredible and no one I’ve seen can do it like they can (though having most of the press never ask tough questions for fear of losing access certainly helps too). They will always hype up their successes and distort numbers into universal positives but they will simply avoid talking about things they can’t brag about. iAds, iCards, Siri, Apple TV sales and many more are all examples. The notable recent exception is Maps, only because it was so unbelievably terrible that they had to say something because even the press had a hard time defending them on it. Being a public company means they can’t hide sales figures though and this quarter, the shock was that while they still sold a boatload of iPads, it was noticeably lower than forecast. This was made up for and then some by iPhone sales that clobbered last year’s but there’s a telling omission in that stat as well. They never say how many of the new iPhones being sold are to new customers and how many are just existing customers replacing old handsets. A sale is a sale either way but the latter is a worse kind of sale because it indicates that they aren’t necessarily growing the user base as much, something that could be a long term challenge as other platforms like Android and Windows Phone rapidly start catching them in the app department.

Everyone, fan or no, was stunned to see them announce the iPad 4 (or the new New iPad). There’s been much speculation as to why they would replace their flagship tablet after such a short period as they have built their empire on relatively predictable yearly product cycles.

Some are claiming that the iPad 3 was actually not fully baked when it was shipped and that it was merely a stop gap measure until they could get this one out. I don’t go for this as there have been no major reported faults with the iPad 3 and it’s biggest new feature was the Retina display which impressed everyone and still hasn’t been matched elsewhere. The only real change in the iPad 4 is a faster processor which isn’t a big draw since barely anything’s making use of the iPad 3’s processor yet anyway.

Others speculate that Apple wants to put all their iOS products on the same refresh cycle so that they can have new iPhones and new iPads both come out in the Fall and have the same guts, rather than the iPhone always leapfrogging the iPad for six months. I don’t buy this either because people don’t have unlimited money and if you release both a new iPhone and iPad at the same time, I think you’re less likely to guarantee a sale of both as opposed to staggering the releases which makes it easier for consumers to justify the additional expense.

I speculated after the reveal that there may be an unannounced tablet coming from a competitor that destroys the iPad 3 and Apple was desperate to get something slightly better out ahead of it so they don’t get killed in the high-end segment this Christmas. That’s a long shot though. While the Surface looks promising, no one thinks it’s an iPad killer and if someone had an superior device coming for Christmas, a PR push would already be in full swing. It’s possible that Tim Cook is scared of Windows 8 and it’s potential impact among the crowd who still own PCs but don’t have a tablet yet. Given how much time he spends making snide remarks about the platform, it certainly seems to be on his mind a lot.

iPad sales do seem to be in decline and while it is modest, that the year of the iPad 3 is the first year of this decline could be a bad omen for the future. Does a slightly faster upgrade fix that though? At best, it puts a finger in the dyke.

Of course, I have no real idea what their motives were in doing this. What I do know is that a lot of iPad 3 owners feel burned, many of whom are hardcore iFaithful. Now, this is technology and one can say that getting upset because something you bought got upgraded is a classic example of First World Entitlement Syndrome. The thing is, this is the culture Apple has carefully cultivated for many years now. The yearly technolust and turning technology into fashion accessories is what’s driving their growth. For whatever reason, they feel the time is right to push the boundaries harder and try to get consumers to upgrade yet again. Maybe it’s out of arrogance (which they certainly have plenty of), maybe it’s out of fear of the real competition that’s coming and the inevitable race to the bottom that will ensue, maybe it’s just an experiment that they won’t repeat . Either way, I’ve seen more than a few people who have lined up to give them money for years now questioning if they want to as often and some are even saying they’ve had enough with Apple altogether. Take this quote from the iPad Mini thread on Gamers With Jobs:
“I am a longtime Apple guy – a musician, audio producer, and have been using them almost exclusively for the past 15 years. We have 2 iPhones, an iPad 3, & an iMac in our home, and I switched my dad over to OS X a few years ago and just recently bought my mom an iPad. The last 2 or 3 years have really disillusioned me, though, and I’m no longer viewing Apple as exclusive in my home. I’m considering my next PC purchase and highly suspect it will be a PC. I’m switching to WinPhone 8 when it launches, I’m getting a Surface, and will probably move my composing rig over to Windows soon, too. Maybe I’m unique, but Apple isn’t winning me over these days.”

Notice how this isn’t a decision he just reached, he said this has been building for the last couple of years. This is not the first such sentiment I’ve read either. I’ve seen blog posts (I unfortunately lost the links to them) from decades-long Apple users who have become disillusioned with the company’s recent direction. They say product quality has gone down (in stark contrast to the public perception about Apple stuff), their software has become much less reliable and buggy and that they seem more focused on cranking out expensive, consumable consumer electronics on a yearly basis than supporting their existing customers well and keeping everything polished to a mirror shine. Some have too much investment into Apple hardware and software to be able to switch, some still consider them a lesser evil than Microsoft and a few are actually considering dipping their toes in the other ocean. I’m not talking fickle mainstream customers here, I’m talking guys who have been using Macs since they were in black and white, since long before OS X and who stuck with the company even when they were on the brink of bankruptcy. These are the people who started the iCult. And they’re considering change.

Is this the majority of Apple customers? Of course not. It’s a tiny, infinitesimal slice of the user base and even for how much money they give the company, no one would notice if they went somewhere else. The thing is, these people are the taste makers. When Apple was almost dead and released the first iPod, these were the people who convinced the mainstream to try it. These are the people who stuck with the company through thick and thin and who were the first ones to preach the genius of Steve Jobs to the world. They may not mean much monetarily now but some of them questioning their long-time loyalty is a very telling sign.

Apple have purposefully created and curated monumental, astronomical and I believe unsustainable market expectations for themselves and while they’ve managed to capitalise on them so far, cracks are beginning to show. The “old guard” may be beginning to lose faith and while that’s not the end, it could be that the bubble is about to pop. When that happens, the reaction will be massive and will likely multiply exponentially as more of the mainstream public realises that the company’s image of infallibility is just that, an image. This won’t happen overnight, it won’t even happen in a year but their fortunes can still turn quickly. The “old guard” customers are not where Apple’s making most of their money right now and they shouldn’t necessarily be focusing on them. I do however believe that what these people have to say is a sign of potential major challenges ahead. Apple’s leadership should be paying close attention to what these people are saying and taking their words to heart before their sentiment expands and begins to run away from them.

I know this post sounds very doom and gloom and I’m sure more than a few of you dismissing it as “haters gonna’ hate.” I am not a fan of Apple and have very sound, legitimate reasons for that but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I don’t want to see them fail or go away. Apple has woken up the rest of the technology industry from a stagnant slumber. They’re forcing others to think outside the box and innovate and it’s about damn time that happened. I guarantee that things like Surface and Windows 8 wouldn’t exist (or at least not in their current forms) were it not for Apple forcing the issue. I do believe Apple has gotten too big, too powerful and way too high on its own success. Their leadership is arrogant and greedy, their die hard fans are insufferable and they all need to be taken down a few pegs. Their growth needs to stabilise and they need to become one player in a vibrant, competitive market. Having one company so far out in front is not good for anyone, as Microsoft’s once near total dominance proved.

Despite Apple’s continued great successes, I believe some events in the last month or so are providing small signs of where things could be heading. The people leading Apple are much smarter than me and that they’ve managed to maintain this bubble as long as they have so far is remarkable and admirable. It can’t last forever though and if they don’t want it to burst suddenly, they need to reign themselves in a bit. Your most loyal fans are speaking Apple, you ignore them at your own peril.

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