Monday, July 26, 2010

Has Apple gone from darling to demon?

I'm not sure what the statute is on a blog post's length, but for this one, I'll confess up front to making this a lengthy discourse on something that's troubling me: is everything OK with Apple?

Last month's launch of the iPhone 4 turned out to be a larger-than-usual seismic event in the Apple chronology. It came with foreshocks and aftershocks which continue to generate acres of newsprint - yes, that quaint old thing - examining and exfoliating Apple and its messianic CEO Steve Jobs.

Given that Apple's own epicentre, Cupertino, lies almost on top of the fault lines than run the length of California, it's ironic that the company has been the source of more tectonic activity in the consumer landscape than any other in the last 12 years or so. Few are as admired and revered amongst myriad industries as a shining example of How To Do It Right. However, the tsunami of think pieces and op-ed that has followed the iPhone 4’s arrival must have given even the most seasoned Apple PR reason to reach for the painkillers.

As with all Apple launches, the noise began long before anyone had parted cash for product: but more than normal, there was the somewhat heavy-handed hue-and-cry over the alleged 'theft' of a prototype. The hullaballoo was enriched further by murky tales surrounding the phone's Chinese manufacturer. Then, no sooner had the first handsets been snapped up by the customary snake of people outside Apple Stores than the first murmurings of disquiet emerged over the phone’s reception quality. All this led to the sound of Apple masticating on humble pie as Jobs admitted: "Of course we're human, of course we make mistakes”, followed by a giveaway of $1 rubber bumpers to fix the problem.

At the same, hastily convened press conference, a clearly flustered Jobs opined that: “We're not perfect. We know that, you know that.” The trouble is, many believe Apple IS perfect, or at least, has perfected the art of revolution to the extent that it positively mass produces game-changing products.

For the last two decades I’ve watched Apple with awe and amazement, not to mention a little pride. Like the Dylan fan who maintains he liked Bob before he went electric, I’ve seen Apple evolve from a vendor of nice but expensive professional computers for professional creatives, to the world’s largest technology company by value. When, as a journalist, I first sat before an Apple word processor 23 years ago, I had little idea that by the turn of the century I’d be buying into an Apple-shaped 'digital lifestyle'.

In buying an original iMac - my first ever personally purchased computer - I became hooked like a dime bag addict on the Apple proposition, becoming drawn into a world of seemingly endless creative possibility. It appeared to be pretty groovy in Apple's domain of digital self-expression.

That first 'Blueberry' iMac was a genuine revolution - forged by the brilliant design simplicity of a Londoner called Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs' geeky bravado. It not only laid the cornerstone of consumer technology for the following decade, but a core element of culture, too. Creative types bought up the funky blue icon in their thousands; Adland and Cool Central became peppered with its cheerful lines and near-perfect proportions. It dared to be shown off, not hidden away under a pile of blankets in the spare room.

Most importantly, it simply wasn't a computer. It was a "digital hub". And it made it OK to like technology. It brought an acceptance to technology ownership comparable with the renaissance we football fans went through in the mid-90s thanks to Nick Hornby and Britpop (Heysel and Hillsborough, you might recall, made admitting to being a football fan an acute form of social suicide). No sooner had football replaced property prices as the dinner party discussion du jour, than people were openly admitting to making iMovies without fear of a public stoning for being so uncool. Apple's digital hub had triggered a perfect, bloodless revolution.

Now, as Thomas Jefferson said, every generation needs a new revolution. Apple, clearly felt one revolution wasn't enough, however, and no sooner had it turned the letter 'i' into the prefix of the modern era, it tore up the rule book yet again with iTunes. Rarely had a software launch been delivered with such pizzazz and baby-boomer knowing. Compressing music into audio files was not new, and nor was turning a personal computer into a digital jukebox. But just as the iMac made the computer attractive and simple to own for mere mortals (rather than those with an advanced engineering PhD), iTunes made a subtle but significant difference to the idea of digital music management.

When iTunes launched in early 2001, I had just moved to Silicon Valley. I appreciated good quality hi-fi. I appreciated the difference speakers, cabling and amplifiers made to the enjoyment of music, but not, you understand, to the extremes of those heads who profess a love for the smell of vinyl in the morning. File sharing and early MP3 players like Diamond's Rio and Creative's Nomad, were, to my dinosaur mind, the preserve of the Tuesday lunchtime Science Club. I just didn't relate digital music to the musical experience I knew and loved, which began with opening a packaged disc, studiously pouring over the sleeve art and notes, and then putting needle to groove or CD to 'play'. iTunes made it more acceptable, novel and convenient and, well, fun.

Apple's next revolution came even sooner: the iPod’s launch in October 2001 was a muted affair. Coming just five weeks after 9/11, America was numb and the world still dazed. Really, you couldn't have picked a worse time to chirpily offer "1000 songs in your pocket". Naturally it generated the usual wave of excitement in the technology world, despite it being an audio product made by a computer company, and therefore not all that good. The despondency of the times, though, didn't make allowance for the Apple effect.

Got the iMac? Bought into the lifestyle? Then your experience won't feel complete without one. So I had to have one. Apple's narcotic brand appeal worked its wonders again. I had to have an iPod. Just as I had to have a Nano. And a new iMac to service them. And then another Nano with video. And a new MacBook. And an iPhone. And I will want an iPad (when it gets a video camera, note to Product Development Dept.). Oh, and don't forget all the accessories - the Bluetooth keyboards and mice, the docks and headphones, the power chargers and...finish the list yourselves.

"Cocaine," Robin Williams once brilliantly reflected, "is God's way of saying that you're making too much money." It's easy to draw the same opinion of the Apple junkie. Like coke, Apple products will give you an inflated sense of your own cool while blowing a hole the size of Lake Geneva in your bank balance. It’s also easy to regard Apple as a religion, with Steve Jobs some black turtleneck-clad Messiah. He's not.

There are those who dote on Jobs' every word, who queue for days outside San Francisco's Moscone Center to hear his keynote, and who line up through fair weather and foul to own the subject of his latest announcements. This doesn’t a religion make. Apple is just a very clever company. Driven by fanatical focus to delivering experiences from a relative handful of product lines and platforms, each conforming to a unique and singular view of what people want or aspire to owning.

Long before it became the giant it now is, Apple was frequently dismissed as an exclusive irrelevance, with their computer products struggling to break out of a market share of less than 5%. There were those who dismissed Apple, unwisely as it turned out, on the basis that it’s a PC world and get used to it. Now who’s laughing: Apple, now valued at $237 billion, has eclipsed Microsoft’s market cap and is second only to Exxon in America’s corporate league table.

Apple’s dominance of what you and I enjoy doing most – enjoying music and movies, taking pictures, surfing the net and engaging with our fellow human beings – is undeniable. And credit to them for doing so, for coming up with products so brilliant and so exciting that even opening the packaging of an iPhone or iPod is virtually an erotic experience.

There is also plenty of innovation left in the tank. Will the iPad and iBooks service do for publishing what the iPod and iTunes did to music? My view is 'yes'. Most major record companies were taking the Canute approach to online music until the iTunes model convinced them otherwise. The publishing industry has been doing the same. It all sounds very familiar…

So why should I worry that Apple might be losing it? After all, its handling of the iPhone 4 issue was a fiasco, but hardly a PR disaster, or “a BP” as it’s now known.

If anything, it’s added a degree of humanity to the company. Apple certainly isn’t losing its business, and despite his grumpy press conference on July 16, Steve Jobs certainly won’t be losing that much sleep. What lets Apple's reputation down is things like the secrecy around Jobs’ health issues. The PR diffusion may have maintained share price stability, but it struck a discordant note in Apple’s otherwise resplendent shine.

Apple is still, though, exceeding expectations. In the second quarter of 2010 it earned $3.25 billion profit from almost $16 billion in sales. It sold 8.4 million iPhones in the year to June, a 61% increase on the previous 12 months. And despite the ‘Attennagate' furore, it still sold well over two million iPhone 4s in its first month on the market. The iPad – Apple’s latest revolution - has already sold over 3.3 million pieces in its first three months on sale, and continues to be on back order with a promise of "weeks" before shipping to eager owners.

Such numbers are the making of sniping, envy and suspicion – just look what happened to Microsoft. And while my glasses may appear to have a rosey tint, one has to acknowledge that Apple's products simply ARE good. Its consumer loyalty has been justifiably earned by coming up with stuff that works better and looks better than anyone else's.

Recent events may suggest a blemish on the shine, and it may only be a matter of time before Apple's cocky swagger is knocked asunder by an issue more damaging than how to hold a phone. But for now, all the time it continues to create desirable consumer experiences like the iPhone and the iPad, Apple can still do no wrong.

As Jobs himself commented: "I look at this whole 'Antennagate' thing and say 'wow'. Apple's been around for 34 years. Haven't we earned the credibiity and trust from some of the press to give us a little bit of the benefit of the doubt?". He’s got a point.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Class Act

If there is any one company in Europe which creates more heat and steam than The Flying Scotsman at full pelt, it is Ryanair. Indeed, the Mamba-strength venom reserved for this airline seems to have been eclipsed recently only by that for BP.

So today Ryanair's reputation took another punch up the bracket when the airline's searingly obnoxious CEO Michael O'Leary apologised "unreservedly" to easyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou for running ads depicting him as Pinocchio.

Ryanair compounded its attack on easyJet by fibbing about the British rival's timekeeping. When Sir Stelios protested, Ryanair ran more ads, suggesting the issue be settled by a bout of sumo wrestling and, classily, branding Stelios a "chicken."

Whether or not this was personally instigated, or personally executed by O'Leary is not known. What is known is that O'Leary consistently challenges the notion of corporate reputation management. Indeed, he has turned 'anti-reputation' into an art form - even prompting a book, Plane Speaking: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael O'Leary, to compile his indifference towards reputation.

All this flies in the face of modern corporate wisdom, especially the belief, expressed by American industrialist Warren Buffet that: "It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it." Think of what has happened this year to Toyota and BP.

Ryanair, of course, cannot be compared to Toyota or BP: the only disaster, or perceived disaster, Ryanair can own up to is that their jumped-up CEO revels in controversy and, into the bargain, gets the attention he so obviously craves. And the business: in the year to June, Ryanair increased its profits by 204%, coining in an eye-popping Eur 319 million (even without charging a quid for an in-flight pee).

Back on the ground, Ryanair polarises opinion: it has plenty of detractors - indeed a huge community of websites, blogs and Twitter campaigns has emerged to vent about the airline. But for all those who consider them price-gouging crooks, there are those who are pretty pleased with an airline that will ship them from A-to-B on the cheap.

Well I say A-to-B, but B is rarely where you actually need to be: if you fly Ryanair to Brussels you actually land at Charleroi, which is closer to Paris than the Belgian capital. Eindhoven in the Netherlands is even positioned by Ryanair as convenient for Amsterdam. Trust me, it isn't. Which means that "Europe's Greenest airline", as Ryanair likes to call itself, really isn't. You still need a car or a bus to reach further away destinations or departure points. The difference is, it's your car and your carbon emissions, not the airline's, all of which looks good for the corporate sustainability rating of the airline.

It's true you get what you pay for with Ryanair. What's also true is that if you don't like them you know what you can do. And I'm sure Michael O'Leary has one or two suggestions...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Orange Appeal

Having lived outside of Britain for the last 11 years, I regularly get asked what I think has changed in my home country while I’ve been away. Apart from the proliferation of conversations in Polish, Russian and Korean, the biggest difference is that the country is now bright yellow.

Britain is so bright yellow now, it positively hums with fluorescence. This isn’t because of a jaundice pandemic, as far as I know, but the result of a Health & Safety culture that makes it virtually impossible to step into the open air without putting on a ‘high-visibility’ jacket first.

Nothing and no one is immune: what started out as a safety vest for road workers extends now to anyone who might be put in harm’s way by, well, anything. Bus drivers, cyclists, postal workers, factory employees, cleaners, gardeners, architects, ambulance crews, builders, miscellaneous council employees, railway workers, film crews, anyone at an airport, horse riders, policemen – even police horses – are all required to wear them, lest they come to harm going about their daily business.

The Dutch, of course, suffer from a related strain of this condition, in that they are required, by law, to wear bright orange at moments of national importance. Come April 30th - Koninginnedag (the former Dutch queen’s birthday) - the nation’s torsos and homesteads are adorned in orange to accompany the consumption of ocean-scale quantities of Heineken. Presumably this is to cushion the impact of the retinal damage caused by wearing such a vibrant hue.

For international football tournaments the custom is applied with even greater gusto. For the last few weeks, the Netherlands has been ablaze with orange. It has been worn with a ubiquity not seen since Chairman Mao declared green to be 'in' for the autumn collection of 1949. Everyone – and I mean everyone (or at least almost everyone) - has been wearing it in support of the national team’s progression through the World Cup.

Even the ever-present risk of the Dutch team imploding mid-way through the tournament doesn’t dampen any fervour for wearing the colour with pride. Ironically, during the 2008 European championships in Austria and Switzerland, the Swiss national railway ordered its workers to switch from orange reflective vests to yellow after clearly confused Dutch fans followed trackside engineers on to tracks like inebriated rats walking behind the Pied Piper.

You clearly have to hand it to the Dutch for their passion in following the Oranje, even if the Dutch themselves express a bashful anxiety when asked about the prospects of their team in the competition itself. Long before the first Jabulani had been kicked in anger on June 11, those in the know had been talking up the Netherlands as dark horses for the World Cup.

Many Dutch failed to give more than sporting chance to their heroes reaching the quarter-finals, let alone the final itself. But they did: Bert van Marwijk’s strategy of discipline and organisation mixed with some expressive wide football from the likes of Arjen “Wobbly” Robben, Robin van Persie, Dirk Kuyt and player-du jour Wesley Sneijder got them to only their third World Cup Final.

True, throughout the tournament the Nederlands Elftaal didn't play with any notable flair, but they deserved to reach their chance in the final. Up until Howard Webb blew his whistle to get the game under way, they'd played six and won six, scored 12 and conceded five. They had just gotten on with the job. They had won by the right margins and beat the teams they were supposed to beat. Capice, Fabio?

Furthermore, in Sneijder, the Dutch had a player who, fresh from winning Italian league and cup and Champions League medals, looked like a polished gem. Even Arjen Robben managed to stay on his feet for most of his matches, and to his credit, stayed upright in the final while under pressure from Puyol. Normally Robben runs an ever-present risk of buckling like a new-born springbok when faced with gusts of wind, comments about his receding hairline or goalkeepers looking at him ‘funny’. But not this time.

Sadly, though, despite their creditable progression through to the showpiece finale, and despite the fervent support back home, van Marwijk's side blew their opportunity to erase still-lingering bitterness about 1974 and 1978 with such negative tactics. For all the orange that poured through Amsterdam's streets like a glorious torrent of nationhood, it was a shame the team such fervency backed played in such a dull, stifling manner. At nine minutes into extra time it could have been nine minutes into the first half.

Did Spain deserve to win? Maybe. For too long they've been the team that never did, poor shadows at international level of one of the best leagues in world football. Their underlying class finally shone through at the right time, even if the Spanish played their part in ensuring we had to endure the dullest World Cup Final in living memory.

In the end... Well, in the end, we got a result, and nothing more. It was an anti-climax that did little justice to the home support. The pundits had predicted an exciting final. Even that bloody octopus shook a tentacle at the prospect of seeing something good. We didn't, but as the last can of Grolsch gets drained, and a dejected nation cycles home, they can take some credit for the way they get behind their national team. Even if it is a gesture as simple as putting on an orange T-shirt. Hup, Holland, Hup!!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Are we stuffed?

For my third blog post I had been preparing a lengthy polemic on life as a sudden parent (don't worry, family, no nasty surprises to come). That will have to wait. Today I was introduced to a compelling sustainability initiative - The Story of Stuff Project - which I had to give voice to.

Founded two years ago by Californian environmental author Annie Leonard, the project set out to draw attention to a runaway hit web movie The Story of Stuff, in which Leonard - much like Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth - presents a video treatise on the consequences of our (and especially America's) love of consumerism.

Now I would hardly consider myself to be an environmental evangelist - with my carbon footprint I'd be planting trees from now until forever before I could atone for my consumption.

I also work for a large corporation which runs factories that make stuff, distributes stuff, and trousers the proceeds from selling it. I drive a car, shop at supermarkets using my car, and consume electricity via the rainforestload to power all the things that make modern life fun. Including the computer I'm writing this on.

Where Leonard's film and subsequent awareness project really scores is in its intelligent and well thought-through examination of just how sustainability projects really only scrape the surface of the efforts that are really required to rescue the planet from irreversible exhaustion of its natural resources. From the extraction of raw materials through to the disposal of finished goods, The Story of Stuff spans the entire consumption chain with admirable depth, presenting some alarming facts about the human consequences of mass consumerism amongst the very nations that can least afford them.

We may all be good Earth citizens in separating our paper and our plastics into separate waste bins but, says Leonard in the movie, "it doesn't get to the core of the problem": for every bin we leave for the dustmen every two weeks, 70 bins of waste would have been generated 'upstream' just to make the stuff that one dustbin outside our house contains. Something seems out of balance.

Since Leonard and chums launched the project, additional components have been added, including a new animated film on 'cap and trade' - the energy-trading solution devised by Enron of all people. Most recently the project has launched The Story of Bottled Water, a equally rich examination of our love - and mine - of drinking earth's next resource to go to war over from a bottle ("Bottled water costs about 2000 times more than tap water. Can you imagine paying 2000 times the price of anything else? How about a $10,000 sandwich?").

Anyway, I'll let you make up your own mind: watch the video below and check out the link on this page to see the whole Story of Stuff project, its downloads and other resources. Just don't throw them away.