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The company that felt hostage
Does Apple Computer really understand its users?

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Recent events, that had our site's reader bulletin boards as stage and weapon with which to clobber a misbehaving branch of a big Apple retailer, have caused the local Apple subsidiary (Apple Espańa) to grow angry with our user community. I was surprised at some of the evident misunderstanding of the users’ motivations that this showed, and thus have been comparing notes with other people who run this kind of initiatives. I found something that I didn’t like.

This article may make things worse, as our local Apple managers already feel hurt or even attacked. But the problem is they’re bound to continue feeling so, if they don’t finally get to understand the motives and reasoning of those strange creatures that buy and use their product. So they may resent me writing about this, and would prefer that I didn’t. But the fact is that I don’t care. It’s good for them.

The greatest asset, the greatest drag

We are routinely treated to diverse versions of the phrase that “Apple’s loyal users are its greatest asset”. We ourselves believe that it is uncompromising customer loyalty and word-spreading that has kept the company alive and selling thorough the Dark Years (and does so even now outside of the US market and Apple’s few other “key” countries) frequently despite itself.

Nowadays, and after several about-turns, the company has a serious and useful Macintosh User Group program policy that works well in most countries and tries to help the organization of local support groups and online communities, and also to help the members of them to get the most out of their Macs. It is also meant to channel Apple users’ troubles and suggestions to Apple’s managers.

But outside this haven of cooperation, Mac users' active attitude seems increasingly to get in the way of Apple managers. They react with distaste to “fanatical” expressions like user lobbying of companies, and even frequently look askance to user group meetings and online user forums where they are routinely criticised. They regard user interest in their own commercial activity as intrusive, dismissing every comment, suggestion or criticism as coming from people who are “not objective” and who “anyway don’t know so much”. They find that users’ promotion of Apple distorts the message they want to get across to the world. They have come as far as saying that enthusiast’s attitude deters sales and partnerships.

And we better not comment on their attitude to rumor sites. If they could enact a law against them, I don’t doubt they would.

To put it in a nutshell, Mac enthusiasts are increasingly felt as a drag on the company.

The idol and the salarymen

This arises from a serious understanding problem. While most people who work at Apple are themselves Mac enthusiasts, a serious number of its personnel in many areas and subsidiaries are simply employees. Good, committed workers with indubitable loads of talent and drive.

Those people, as every other worker, have a perception of the company that is strange to outsiders. It is “their” company, they make it, they drive it, it is what they say it is. They’re the salarymen, the employees who know. That strange slab of their customers who insist in thinking they have some title to telling them what they should do, or to setting up misguided crusades in their favour, are just impossible to understand.

In fact, these people’s interpretation of the enthusiasts’ motives are so frequently misguided that it’d be surprising worse things do not happen… if it weren’t for the internal enthusiasts’ influence.

In many respects, Apple just wants to be a normal computer company going about its commercial ways in a usual fashion. Many of its employees would feel much more comfortable that way.

I hope it will never be.

That special relationship

So, to make them understand exactly why the meddling enthusiasts’ standing in their way are not going to vanish forever any time soon, and to help them develop a constructive engagement with them instead of railing at “amateur marketing”, “irresponsible press” and so on, I’d like to point a few reasons that affect the Mac users of my acquaintance (no all of them apply to everyone, of course)… and I’d like other users to give their point of view too.

In no particular order:

- Apple is our responsibility. We, as Mac users, have endorsed its technology too many times and even managed to turn buying decisions towards Macs. We have put ourselves as guarantors of those product’s quality and performance, and we have done so towards friends, family and associates.

- It’s our thrill and we paid for it. We have bought (most literally) into the Mac platform because it’s leading-edge, efficient, different and even exciting. We expect Apple to keep thrilling us with something we can be proud of owning.

- They’re waving our flag, and that’s why we joined them. Apple’s has knowingly used a certain set of values as banner, and using their appeal as a commercial tool. We bought diversity, freedom of choice, innovation and style. We want it.

- It’s our investment, and a risky one at that. We bought Macs to do something practical with them, to get something out of them, and we want to be able to do it in at least as good a way as with other options. We know we took some risks when we chose Apple (especially some years back) and that’s another motive to watch our investment carefully. That risk is mainly derived from Apple’s capacity to sustain and increase market share. So we watch how Apple does it.

- The Mac community is our community, not Apple’s. Being a Mac user is part (however slim) of how we define ourselves, and that is not only due to the above reasons but also to the relationships we establish with other users (again, this might be more important in more Apple-starved countries than in the US) at online forums and mailing lists, or our cities’ user groups. That support is fundamental for being able to learn and profit from our Macs and, since it is given disinterestedly, has a habit of making us proud and thankful. Apple users help themselves, without Apple guidance or approval. That can spill out of technical support matters into other sorts of difficulty… like a bank’s not allowing Mac users to connect online.

- We’re simply proud of the Mac platform. We like it, we’re proud of our choice, we boast about it. We can be a bit obnoxious to non-Mac users but hey, did you ever meet someone who had just bought his first Ferrari?

Bound to be best

We’re faithful to the Mac platform, but we’re very serious about it. Apple doesn’t own it: whatever some of its employees may think, it is simply the biggest player. Apple needs to be better, faster, newer all the time to keep its aura glowing, to keep users happy and off its hair.

The Mac enthusiasts know this, and feel that they’re doing something good by spurring the brilliant people at Apple and other companies, who actually get the product out, to give the best and keep us surprised.

And because we (and them) succeed, Apple is great.

Afterword

Those reasons were given by normal, sane, law-abiding people who use Macs at work or at home and own more Apple-branded dollars' worth of equipment than it's worth to mention. They like Apple, and will defend it in public as much as skin it alive in private. They run user's initiatives for practical purposes. That's about all they have in common.

Apple needs to revise the way in which it interacts with user groups, and take a definitely more active role. It’s wasting potential that gets used in unconstructive ways.

But, if it is to do so successfully and to continue appealing to its core user market (not education, not science, not the home, not the multimedia industry, but the current user base), it had better take the time to understand us.

Got any comments? You can share them here or send them to me privately here.

Miguel Cornejo, editor



 

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