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The Opaque Side of Apple

Apple's tech support outside its stores needs improvement.
Apple's tech support outside its stores needs improvement. (By Jeff Chiu -- Associated Press)

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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, August 7, 2008

If your computer annoys or amazes you, and you yell at it or congratulate it, you'll be met with silence. But if you direct your feedback to the company that made it, will you have any more of a dialogue?

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Calls to tech support can enlighten or exasperate, but they shouldn't terminate a company's interaction with its customers. Over the last month, few tech firms could have received a clearer lesson in that idea than Apple.

The Cupertino, Calif., corporation provides some of the best tech support in the business -- no other major computer vendor makes it easier to sit down with a live employee and get help. But if you're not at the Genius Bar at one of its stores, Apple can be one of the least communicative companies around.

And when Apple's MobileMe online service melted down after its launch last month, subscribers might as well have been yelling at their monitors.

Apple's silence isn't a recent update to its corporate operating system; it's been keeping upcoming releases secret for years. But lately, Apple has also clammed up about current events, from chief executive Steve Jobs's health to the state of its shipping products.

Most tech firms have gone in the other direction. They post updates about their work daily and invite readers to leave comments (see, for example, Microsoft's Channel 9 site, at http://channel9.msdn.com). They ask users to suggest improvements (witness Dell's http://dellideastorm.com). They continue the conversation on popular social networks (note how firms like Comcast scan Twitter for user gripes).

Open-source developers take these practices further, publicly documenting their bugs and letting anybody download and edit the source code of their programs.

Apple does almost none of these things. It's given its users excellent tools to share their thoughts online -- podcasting in Garage Band, blogging in iWeb -- but appears uninterested in those pursuits itself. Instead, this firm confines its public statements to news releases and the occasional open letter from Jobs.

The rest of its Web site can be just as opaque. Apple's tech-support discussion forums, for example, rarely feature contributions by Apple employees, leaving customers to chat amongst themselves.

Even the release notes accompanying its software have become uselessly vague. Would you believe that the latest version of iTunes "includes fixes to improve stability and performance"? That's verbose compared with this week's iPhone 2.0.1. software upgrade, a roughly 250-megabyte download that merited two words of description: "bug fixes."

Making small talk with consumers does not guarantee great products. If anything, the last few years give convincing evidence that Apple's approach of hiring smart people and holding them to high standards of usability and elegance can beat any design-by-committee strategy.

But with MobileMe, the Mac machinery broke down. Users who could no longer check their e-mail or see calendars or contacts wanted to know what went wrong, while the luckier subscribers to this $99-a-year service had to guess if they'd be bitten by these bugs next.


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