March 09 2011

Apple going sour?

Posted by Freddie in Debate, Design, Publishing

Who can forget Apple’s notorious ‘Get a Mac’ ad campaign? ‘PC’, dressed conservatively in a suit and tie, portrayed as uptight and boring next to a causally dressed ‘Mac’ with a laidback attitude. Having successfully convinced consumers that their products are ‘cool’, Apple have made a fortune by appealing to a demographic of young, style-conscious individuals willing to pay a premium for good design.

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But could a backlash against the popular brand be imminent? Recently, three events have occurred that threaten to cause waves throughout the cult of Apple enthusiasts:

1. The indefinite medical leave of CEO Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs is often credited with Apple’s surge in popularity after his return to the company in 1996. His supporters consider him a charismatic visionary, and the dramatic dip in the value of Apple shares after he announced his leave reveals the extent to which people believe he is key to the success of Apple.

However, the share value has somewhat recovered and recent surveys suggest most Apple customers would remain loyal in spite of the departure of Jobs. Perhaps the fact that he has left twice before and returned both times suggests he will be back. (Indeed, his personal appearance at the unveiling of the iPad 2 in San Francisco last week was a 'surprise'.) Regardless, his health has certainly caused concern among Apple’s investors.

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2. The announcement of Apple’s in-app subscription service.

The service caused controversy among publishers due to the 30% commission taken from subscriptions purchased in Apple’s App Store. Coupled with the restriction that media companies may not offer cheaper deals elsewhere, the publishing industry, who until recently hoped Apple could be their saviour, now seem to perceive them as an avaricious threat.

This is not the first time the company’s high prices and inflexible attitude have come under scrutiny. While their products are undeniably high-end and elegant, some critics are sceptical that Apple products warrant such an expensive price tag and believe consumers are simply paying for the brand. Also, many software developers have been irritated by the strict regulations that cause some apps to be blocked from the App Store.

For a long time Apple was seen as the fashionable underdog, but in the same way that bands that become ‘too popular’ are sometimes abandoned by their original advocates, there have been signs for a while now that Apple’s mainstream success could be alienating the very people it targets.

3. The revelations of poor working conditions in the factories of Apple’s Chinese suppliers.

Suicides at Foxconn, underage factory workers, and n-hexane poisoning at Wintek. Media coverage of working conditions at Apple’s Chinese manufacturers has not been favourable. This could be particularly damaging if the left-leaning, socially-aware stereotype of Apple users is to be believed (which, in all fairness, many people believe it shouldn’t). It must not be overlooked that these manufacturers also supply a range of other high-profile tech firms, but perhaps because of these preconceptions, it is Apple that has been the focus of media attention - and it may be that their reputation suffers the most.

With Microsoft embracing the modification of its Xbox Kinect by amateur software developers and Google’s ‘One Pass’ system offering publishers a cheaper and more flexible alternative to Apple’s subscription service, Apple’s rivals are welcoming the opportunity to associate themselves with openness and creativity. By continuing to use their dominant market position to exercise such a high level of control, Apple risks damaging its liberal reputation. The question is: will their transformation into corporate superpower create a backlash from their core customers, making them a victim of their own success?

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