CategoryBusiness

Apple’s Gamble

I’m neither a Wall Street analyst nor a MBA-types who knows much about running successful companies. So the following arguments about Apple can be taken with a grain of salt or you can stop reading now to avoid thinking how much more stupid I can get.

Everyone was surprised (not in a good way) when Apple announced a new ‘cheaper’ version of its flagship product, the iPhone and called it the iPhone 5C. Some had hoped the ‘C’ stood for cheap but perhaps Apple meant it as color. It is priced at $99 for its base model under a two-year contract or for $549 unsubsidized. People had expected it to be much lower; some even posited that it would be as much as an iPod Touch ~$250-300. For months leading up to the keynote, rumors floated around first on the product specs starting with the existence of a plastic (actually polycarbonate) around a steel-reinforced frame. If you see the video of its manufacturing, it is pretty cool. But it is still a plastic iPhone even though Jonny Ive calls it ‘unapologetically plastic’. After the existence of the plastic iPhone were almost confirmed prior to the keynote, the rumor blogs moved on to why was Apple doing it? And this is where the wheels come off.

iPhone 5c Colors

Tech blogs are great at reviewing technical specifications and analyzing OS features but in judging and predicting business strategy especially for Apple, it doesn’t have even a modicum of success. Not just Apple, the tech pundits have no clue why Amazon enjoys unprecedented trust from its investors in spite of zero profits. But then if everyone could tell what made a successful business, we all would’ve had successful businesses. So after the plastic iPhone was near-confirmed, people rumored that perhaps Apple was targeting China and India where most smartphones are sold unsubsidized and need to be cheap. Based on my anecdotal evidence when I was visiting India and spent 10 minutes in a cell phone shop, the first thing new customers (almost 10 people) mentioned was their budget and asked to see what phones were available in that budget.

So Apple targeting these huge growing market almost seemed obvious. Of course, known for their secrecy, Apple said nothing. This supposed foray into India and China was based on the assumption that Apple needed to expand marketshare after Samsung was handily beating them. Apple still said nothing. If it needs to expand marketshare, Apple needs to sell a cheaper iPhone because that’s what most customers in India and China will buy. Apple still said nothing. The near-confirmed iPhone 5C will be the cheaper iPhone and price points ranging from $200 to $350 were being floated in spite of having no knowledge or understanding of the manufacturing cost, supply chain management, and ability to maintain high profit margins. So now the stage was set – Apple was going to announce a plastic iPhone 5C costing somewhere between $200-$350 aimed at China and India to expand marketshare. All this time, Apple still hadn’t even hinted at anything being discussed furiously online.

The disappointment and fall in stock price was almost as unexpected as the continued high price of the iPhone 5C. Even I was disappointed.

You may argue that Apple’s secrecy that had served so well in the past is now biting them in the ass and setting unrealistic expectations that they repeatedly fail to meet. But was Apple really aiming for India or China to expand their marketshare? Does it really need to?

Sameer Singh makes the case that it was never aimed at emerging markets[1]:

The iPhone 5C effectively replaces the iPhone 5 as Apple’s new “mid-range” device and retains the same subsidized/unsubsidized pricing structure of $99/$549. The most obvious question to ask is why Apple felt the need to replace the iPhone 5 with the 5C when they’re practically the same device, at the same price.

I believe the answer is related to the level of cannibalization caused by the iPad Mini. Apple was spooked when it saw a “new”, “good enough” product sharply eat into sales of their flagship tablet. As a result, Apple attempted to minimize the pricing gap between the two “new” iPhones and attempted to differentiate them based on casing and color. Therefore, I don’t believe the iPhone 5C is targeted at emerging markets at all, but is an attempt to defend the iPhone’s margins & ASP in subsidized markets.

Apple furiously guards its margins that generates tremendous amount of profit to the tune of $500+ per iPhone sold. It is also its luxury and premium brand status that still makes it special. Contrary to popular opinion, it was never the most popular smartphone. It was always Nokia and Blackberry and then when those declined, Android-powered Samsung phones took over. As crass as it may sound, perhaps Apple is not interested in diminishing its brand value by flooding the market and joining the ranks of cheap smartphones. As in any product category (clothing, cars, etc.), there is a luxury segment and brands in those segments do exceedingly well.Something that 37signals argued several years ago:

If you try to please everyone, you won’t please anyone. When we built Basecamp we focused our marketing on design firms. By narrowing our market this way, we made it more likely to attract passionate customers who, in turn, would evan gelize the product. Know who your app is really intended for and focus on pleasing them.

Perhaps Apple is better off with not having a large marketshare and tons of more customers for cheaper iPhones. More customers means more infrastructure in handling their needs and keeping them happy. You attract a certain segment of the market whose first criteria is not product quality but price then you’re never going to keep them happy. So why should Apple take a hit on its profit margins to attract more customers who are more likely to be unhappy? When Apple was silent on all this speculation of expanding into emerging markets, it perhaps was not. If you think about it from that sense, the iPhone 5C pricing is right where Apple’s prices usually are. The iPhone 5 is discontinued and its innards are put in a new plastic shell and sold for $100 less than its premier product, the iPhone 5S.

Now Apple may choose to do a complete about-turn and in fact, trade profits for marketshare next year. After all, this year’s iPhones 5C will be a year old and can be sold for cheap. But considering the iPhone 4 still sells for $420 in China, I’ll be surprised. Then again, as I mentioned, I’m no business guru.

From a personal perspective, why should you be worry about a company expanding its marketshare just because you bought a phone from them? As long as you can buy it for a reasonable price in your country, why should it matter to you if they sell a cheaper one in India or China? Most people making prognostications aren’t even Apple stockholders. I own shares in a mutual fund in which 3% are Apple stocks. Given the amount I’ve invested in the mutual fund, I’m sure I own less than 10%…of a single Apple share. I couldn’t care less what its stock price is as long as the iPhone I buy every two years serves me good. I care about the customer service they provide me and not how many customers they will gain in India. In fact, I don’t want them to serve more customers than they can reasonably handle. I’ll gift an iPad to my parents so we can FaceTime once a week but otherwise, even your family in India not owning an iPhone is no biggie.

Why anyone gets into serious Apple-Android debates is beyond me. I like to tweet out a few zingers on Twitter but you should know better than to take me seriously on there. You buy the phone you like the best and might better your life. At most, you can influence your immediate family because it may make things easier to share (Shared Photostream, FaceTime, etc.) but apart from that, it shouldn’t matter if a hundred million more people in a faraway country also use the same phone as you do. If your phone is discontinued or the company shuts down due to bad business decisions (like not selling for customers in India or China), you can always buy a phone from its erstwhile competitor. It’s not like your investment of less than 10% of a single share in the market capitalization of the said company will ruin your life. It will be sad to see a design-conscious company decline (and it isn’t really any time soon) but there will always be others.

Footnotes:
  1. strange term now after the economies have stopped growing as rapidly []

Unpaid internships – is it exploitation?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit organization, LeanIn.org is seeking an unpaid intern. That set off a shit storm in the tech world that suddenly realized that unpaid internships exist. Of course, the fact that this was Sandberg who recently penned a book on empowerment urging women to ‘lean in’ to achieve their goals. The nonprofit claims to be “offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals.” So it is perhaps the optics more than actually the issue of an unpaid internship.

Personally, I believe there should be no such thing as an unpaid internship because everyone needs to pay rent and eat. Offering an unpaid internship in exchange for ‘building experience and opening up opportunities for the future’ only results in attracting people who have supplementary income or have rich parents. You never attract the best talent and often are discriminating against the lesser-advantaged who deserve equal opportunity at upward mobility. If you can’t afford interns, then brew your own coffee and pick up your own mail and don’t hire interns. That said, is Sandberg’s nonprofit really doing something that’s not done elsewhere?

I got into a minor spat with couple of Apple journalists because he used the word ‘bitch’ to describe Sandberg. The usual reasons were cited that she is a rich woman and can afford to pay her interns so she should. I agree but the fact that her organization is choosing not to will cripple their mission by not attracting the best talent or perhaps there are simply more people out there willing to work for free. I could turn the argument around and say that Apple should perhaps pay their Chinese labor more because they make gazillions of dollars in profit. But I know how the free market works and perhaps by our standards, those people are lowly paid but perhaps for them, that job is far superior to the alternative. Businesses routinely exploit this lack of alternatives and it is routinely defended by Apple bloggers. And they are argumentatively right. So why single out Sandberg? Perhaps it is the optics or contradictory to her nonprofit’s mission. In that case, it can be said without the use of the word ‘bitch’.

Anyway, I did not make these arguments on Twitter with those journalists/bloggers because you never get into arguments on Twitter. Especially if you want to remain sane.

From Fast Company: When to ‘lean in’ for an unpaid internship and when not to.

Cash-on-Delivery and India

I have been away from India for more than 12 years now and have totally missed experiencing the rapid economic growth that has been dominating Western media. Although I have seen bits and pieces of the evidence for this growth like rising incomes matched with rising prices, proliferation of malls and cell phones, etc., I have never been a part of this growth. However, one thing that has always baffled me is the behavior of online retail. While Amazon has had great success in the U.S., only recently have we seen the rise of Flipkart in India. Portals like Rediff and IndiaTimes often doubled up as shopping sites and I shopped on there a few times to have stuff sent to Indian addresses, the experience was so horrible that I haven’t tried it in the past 6-7 years. So why hasn’t online commerce taken off as rapidly as it did in the West?

One of the most widely believed facts about the Indian e-commerce story is that Flipkart.com’s 2010 decision to start offering “Cash on Delivery” (COD)—a payment option that allows buyers to pay for goods at the time of receipt—catalysed the entire sector and set the stage for fantastic growth rates thereafter.

Source: Forbes India Magazine .

This article in Forbes gave me a little idea and elaborated on something that I have never seen in the West – cash-on-delivery. This is basically how it worked even earlier before the Internet. You call your local Chinese eatery with your order and thirty minutes later, a Nepali guy showed up at your door with the food and collected money from you. If you ordered enough times, you didn’t even have to pay him everytime but instead maintained a tab that you settled at the end of the month. So why in the hell of secure payment gateways and ubiquitous Internet access would you hang on to such an outdated concept? I had my preconceived notions but I asked my followers on Twitter and received the following responses:

My top two preconceived notions were lack of sufficient credit/debit cards among consumers and prolificacy of black money in form of cash. However, based on my brief interaction, the problem seems to be more systemic than individualistic – lack of trust in institutions rather than lack of infrastructure or any devious intent. People are still not comfortable sharing their credit card information with online retailers; in fact, people are still not yet reliant on using credit cards unlike the West where you are less likely to have more than $20 in cash on you at any given time. But where does this lack of trust arise from? Fear of technology? Or fear of not getting the things you ordered from a place that you can’t physically inhabit. Vikas (in the last tweet highlighted), perhaps mentions, in my opinion, one of the top reasons that drives this lack of trust. You are less or not likely to be taken care of if there is something amiss with your order. You may not have access to a dispute redressal mechanism that is effective and timely and as Nik says, you rather click on COD and wait till you get the item in hand instead of worrying incessantly about it.

Now undoubtedly, retailers like Flipkart are much better at customer service and I have heard nothing but great things about it. Add to that, the gradual entry of Amazon, known for its stellar customer service, in the Indian market will significantly increase the level of trust. However, at the same time, instilling trust in legal and judicial institutions and strengthening incentives to live up to your contractual obligations or rather in India’s case, cracking down hard on contract violations, are key to opening up the market. COD, with all its advantages, is a colossal waste of time and human resources when instead technology backed by trust would be far more efficient. Not every startup can afford to offer the COD option due to significant investment in resources that are not directly related to the product [1].

Abhishek Kumar from IndiCast writing for the Economist:

To secure repeat business, most portals offer incredibly low prices, payment by cash on delivery and, nearly always, free shipping. Consumers love it but companies are scratching around for ways to shed the operational burden. Ironically, the very things that have propelled e-commerce in India could lead to its downfall. When Mahesh Murthy, the boss of Pinstorm, a digital marketing firm, and investor in a few e-commerce companies, purchased a mobile phone online recently, he discovered two invoices in the parcel: one for 28,000 rupees ($530), which is what he paid, and another for 30,500 rupees, which is what the seller apparently paid to his supplier. Such price competition takes its toll.

People might say change is slow and gradual in India but I have seen the rapid deployment of STD/PCO booths and we all know how cellphones became ubiquitous in a short period of time. This was simply due to liberalization in the telecom sector. People talk about eliminating corruption while offering bribes to get ahead in line when instead you can achieve far more dramatic results if you beef up enforcement of contractual obligations (The question of ‘how’ I will leave to the experts). Developing trust among the consumers and the businesses while allowing for a transparent grievance addressal system will go a long way in expanding online businesses on the Internet. If India needs to call itself an IT superpower, it needs to first invest in institutions and policies that will foster such consumer-business relationship. As long as consumers are even relatively convinced that they will not be cheated, they will learn to trust businesses.

I may have oversimplified the issue without offering any concrete solutions but if any of you are aware of any progress being done on this front, please let me know.

Footnotes:
  1. Personally I know of at least one example when the founders had to shut shop only to see their idea picked up few years later by a startup in the U.S. []

Twitter API changes – will we continue to use Twitter?

Yesterday Twitter announced the much-dreaded update to its API. To perhaps, 99% of the people on Twitter, this didn’t even register, especially if it didn’t trend, and especially so, if it didn’t involve levying a charge to use Twitter. However, the geek world [1] was up in arms since it severely limited which and how third-party applications could use Twitter.

Unlike email or any open-web protocol, tweets are a proprietary medium and Twitter still is a private company funded by investors in spite of the ubiquity of tweets so no one is claiming that the changes are not permissible. Unfair, unethical, and uncalled for maybe but definitely it is within Twitter’s rights and realm of possibilities to have implemented them. In fact, such changes have been expected for a long time given how long Twitter has existed as a free service and utilized by several applications and third-party services to generate revenue when Twitter itself hasn’t figured out how to. The party was going to end sooner than later as Twitter’s investors were desperate to get a return on their investment. Twitter basically had two options — charge users for the service or cozy up to advertisers and ‘sell’ their users to promote products. No web company has started out free and gone with the first option. There are a few that offer limited service for free and charge for the full buffet of features like Flickr, etc. But Twitter’s largely casual users will instantly quit even if they charge a single dollar and no advertiser wants fewer eyeballs. So Twitter went with the latter option i.e. of creating a unified experience across all the mediums you use to access Twitter and block or limit those third-party services/apps that don’t offer that experience.

Continue reading

Footnotes:
  1. I’m not using this term in a derogatory manner. If you have an alternate word to describe the demographic, let me know []

Apple’s FoxConn Factory in China via Nightline

[via Nightline on YouTube; Original here]

Apple recently allowed ABC News’ Nightline to tour their FoxConn manufacturer to give American viewers an inside look into the working conditions. It is balanced and fair reporting and touches on several aspects unique to China. The reporter even visits the villages the young workers come from to contrast the working and living conditions there. The hunger to work long hours is palpable among the thousands who line up everyday outside the FoxConn gates and from what I saw, the conditions although arduous seem to be safer than any place in India I have seen. It can be likened to migrant workers who come from U.P and Bihar and live & work in Dharavi. There were similar reports about warehouse employees working for Amazon in potentially unhealthy conditions…in the United States!

Of course, the working conditions could be better but as long as no one is enslaved, misled or duped from their honest wages, there is not much here to complain about. As consumers, we too are similarly free to not buy products that we consider, as per our relative standards, are made in unsafe conditions.

A More Flat World

Last week, an article in the NY Times on how the U.S. lost out on iPhone work made the rounds on the Internet; so much so that it was posted on Reddit at least a dozen times with different excerpts depending on your tech ideology. Spoiler: it is not just low labor cost but also expedient labor and manufacturing due to fierce competition in Shenzen, China complemented with China’s favorable yet centralized manufacturing-oriented policies. The article is a fascinating read into the machinations of 21st century manufacturing to fulfill the instant gratification needs of the electronics consumer market.

However, the way it is written, it pits American labor class against the Chinese labor force, although unfairly in my opinion. Although there are several layers and aspects to the article, the typical reaction among the American blogosphere and young idealists at Reddit is how Apple is taking advantage of the desperate Chinese worker who is slaving away long hours to make the iPhone that you use to compose frivolous tweets. The fact that FoxConn, the primary company described in the article, also manufactures/assembles XBoxes, Kindles, Nooks, and other electronics from Samsung, Nokia, etc. is often lost in the din.

But that’s not the troubling reaction the article elicits. The primary complaint is, how China enslaves its people and forces them into working long hours for minimal pay to make goods for the Western world. People often are distressed not just by what they consider unfair labor and trade practices but also the unfair advantage China enjoys by having the ability to dictate policy from top down. While China’s autocratic rule making might be a factor, the complaint that these workers are slaves in the FoxConn behemoth is often exaggerated. The case of suicides makes the news and makes us believe that people are desperately trying to kill themselves rather than work in the factories. However, the fact that the suicide rate per capita at FoxConn is significantly less than the suicide rate at American universities but we aren’t worried that our colleges are killing us.

FoxConn has offered hundreds of thousands of Chinese people a shot at earning a livelihood which otherwise wasn’t possible in their rural hometowns. It has lifted several million people out of poverty. Of course, they live 10 to a dorm on bunk beds and work long hours but often Americans think their suburban life with a house and a backyard with two cars, kids, and a dog is the norm when in fact it is the exception. Most of the world works and lives in comparatively abject conditions. The fact that the one person in a 10-dorm room might be sending money to his village to support a whole family is often not told. I’m sure, FoxConn is not shackling the workers to the assembly line and the turnover rate is high. However deplorable conditions at FoxConn may seem compared to the luxurious working conditions from where I type this blog post, the workers have made a conscious choice and are working hard. Imagine thriving businesses within Dharavi and then look at the conditions that they live in but people there have similarly made a choice to leave their poverty behind and earn a honest living in the city. We are in no position to judge what conditions someone in a foreign country in an alien culture should live and work in.

The other argument is that Apple and other companies shouldn’t mind pricing their products a little higher if it means manufacturing them in the U.S. Unfortunately, that is not how the free market works. People optimize their benefits by seeking a balance between the price of the product and their willingness to pay that price. A few dollars here and there would mean gigantic shifts in manufacturing costs, profits, and even quality of products. The factories in China adhere to the strict quality guidelines laid down by Apple and yet are able to deliver a product that many in the U.S. can afford ($199 + $15-20 per month is a pretty sweet deal for the Internet in your pocket). Also, the U.S. has moved past the rigors of manufacturing and moved toward services that require a higher skill set (hence the tag – Designed in California. Assembled in China). By seeking to forcefully bring back the jobs from China to the U.S., you would cause a net increase in poverty in the world as millions would be laid off. Now that would be a grave injustice, economically and socially.

So before getting all pissy about doing here what they exactly doing in China for less and just as good, we are not making any progress. Obviously, there are caveats about leveling the playing field for competition but more often than not, it is not a level field at any given time. We just have to keep seeking the higher ground. That’s how the world goes around.

Update: NY Times is on a roll and really doesn’t want you to buy an iPad. However, they wait until the 11th paragraph to mention this:

Apple is not the only electronics company doing business within a troubling supply system. Bleak working conditions have been documented at factories manufacturing products for Dell, Hewlett-Packard, I.B.M., Lenovo, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Toshiba and others.

And then never mention them again.

The Next Steve Jobs Will Be A Chick

The next Steve Jobs will totally be a chick, because girls are No. 2–and No. 2 always wins in America. Apple was a No. 2 company for years, and Apple embodies a lot of what have been defined as feminine traits: an emphasis on intuitive design, intellect, a strong sense of creativity, and that striving to always make the greatest version of something. Traditionally, men are more like Microsoft, where they'll just make a fake version of what that chick made, then beat the shit out of her and try to intimidate everybody into using their product.

Louis CK is the George Carlin of our generation. Well, not in the same league yet but he has one of the most profound and biting standup routines amongst his peers. One of his acts, he elaborated on the usage of words like 'nigger' and 'faggot' and not one black or homosexual person was offended. If you haven't seen or heard him yet and if you have a taste for slightly edgy comedy, you must.

[Link to The Next Steve Jobs Will Be A Chick]

Daddy put you in the top 1%

Bad nepotism promotes people above their abilities by virtue of connections, and it erodes rather than enhances economic productivity.

But there is even a larger cost. If the rich leverage economic power to gain political power they can also skew broader public policy choices—from the tax system to the education system—to the benefit of their offspring. This will surely start eroding the belief that labour markets are fair, and that anyone can aspire to the top.

Sometimes I wonder where would I be if I had joined my dad's architectural consulting firm in Panvel. Would I be better off? Then I think to myself, probably we would've ended up killing each other first; at least now we are on amicable terms.

[Link to Daddy put you in the top 1%]

Roller Coaster of a Day

Seen anything more erratic?

I’m no expert on the stock market but any casual observer will also conclude that today was a one heck of a crazy roller coaster day on the market. After dropping nearly 5% yesterday, the market opened high on the news of 117,000 jobs added last month but a 0.1 percentage point drop in unemployment rate but fears of another economic recession persisted as the markets tanked to its lowest point before rising up and falling back down before finally settling merely a tad in the green.

Can anyone even make sense of this erratic behavior anymore and as I was discussing with someone on Twitter, are we just being taken for a ride here? Like most, I have some of my savings invested in the stock market (mostly bonds and ETFs) and it is by no means a fortune but even then it gives me palpitations to see such up and down behavior with no logical rhyme or reason. Whatever gains I had made in the past year have been wiped clean. Perhaps it is time again to stuff the mattress.

Starbucks Hacks : Frugal

Now, I know as a rule frugal people don't buy Starbucks drinks. But say you're in a hurry and you need a caffeine fix, or you're a tea junkie like me and couldn't wait for your kettle to boil some water before your class/work/whatever. Or maybe your with some friends who all want to go to Starbucks (Because, say what you will about Starbucks, but if you want a place to hang out with your friends other than your house, Starbucks is much cheaper than a restaurant or bar), how can you save money?

If you and a friend are out and want a Frappuccino, ask for a Venti split into two tall cups. Iced venti cups are 24 oz. Tall are 12. Viola. Two talls would cost you about 6 bucks, a venti, 4.

I know coffee snobs hate Starbucks but no one can deny its ubiquity. It is that familiar place where you can get coffee be it an airport or a busy downtown of a new city. But it can add up quick especially for not so great coffee so hopefully these tips by a Starbucks employee should save a penny.

Although recently, I haven't frequently Starbucks much but having done so in the past, I can vouch for their relaxed ambiance [1] and friendly staff. They'll never ask you to leave even if you have been nursing that empty cup of plain coffee you bought several hours ago. Make friends with the barista. And don't feel bad for accepting a free drink once in a while because they'll throw it out anyway. And don't forget to pick up the free coffee grounds for your vegetable garden.

[Link to Starbucks Hacks : Frugal]

Footnotes:
  1. unless it is a Times Sq location []

The Typo That Brought the Stock Market to its Knees

According to multiple sources, a trader entered a “b” for billion instead of an “m” for million in a trade possibly involving Procter & Gamble, a component in the Dow. (CNBC’s Jim Cramer noted suspicious price movement in P&G stock on air during the height of the market selloff.

Sources tell CNBC the erroneous trade may have been made at Citigroup.

[Source: CNBC] Are they fucking kidding me? You mean that these financial geniuses have come up with innovative financial products that generate wealth out of thin air but can’t tell if it meant billion or million? If our simple computers can ask us, “Are You Sure?” each time I hit submit on some random shopping site, why can’t these geniuses have a “Are you sure you mean a billion because you know this is going to cause a worldwide panic and decimate lot of people’s wealth?” Although I doubt, that person would hesitate even if he see such a dialog box. On the bright side, let us be thankful that ‘t’ isn’t next to ‘m’ on the keyboard.

This isn’t even the first time the stock market has reacted in panic over a trivial matter. Some months back, oil prices spiked significantly over the news that Nigeria, one of the world’s largest oil exporting countries had a coup. Except it wasn’t Nigeria but in fact, Niger. I guess, politically correct white financial analyst aren’t even sure such a country exists.

Excellent AppleCare

I had the unfortunate opportunity of trying out AppleCare for my MacBook Pro. Few weeks ago, my laptop started making loud whirring noises as if the HDD was in hyper drive ready to take off. After dismissing it couple of times, it worsened with each passing day and my top fear was the HDD crapping out. I had already bought a year’s subscription to Carbonite. I take regular backups on the Time Machine. And I store all my important documents on Dropbox which is continually synced to the cloud and other computers. So data loss was not a concern but that was no excuse to ignore a loud whirring laptop.

On Saturday morning, I finally decide to cash in my AppleCare extended warranty that I had thoughtfully purchased when I bought my laptop. Instead of randomly calling a support number and jumping through loops, Apple encourages you to first log in to their Support section. You enter the serial number of your device which automatically detects if it is in warranty and then proceeds to ask you what the problem is. I tried the Firmware Update that Apple recommended for laptops bought in June 2009 but as soon as I ran the dmg installable file, it told me I didn’t require it. No running through the installation and then realizing it didn’t solve the problem. The next step in Apple Support is brilliant and I wonder why other tech support companies don’t do it. In addition to describing the problem in couple of lines – loud noisy hard disk (four words, thanks to Twitter). I was asked to enter my phone number and have Apple call me instead of vice versa. No waiting, listening to elevator music tearing your hair out, and cursing at on-phone ads.

I get a call from Apple in less than a minute and all I am asked is my name and confirmation number from my support request. The guy is friendly and walks me through some quick tests. He waits patiently until I remove the battery and try to ‘reset’ the laptop. The noise stops for a while so I hang up but he asks me to call them back as soon as it starts back up. The problem is back in minutes so I just log back on with my support ID and get Apple to call me again. The phone rings again in less than a minute and I narrate my tale of woe. This time, the lady doesn’t waste time trying fixes and schedules an empty box delivery [1]. Since it is the weekend, the box arrives via overnight delivery promptly on Tuesday. I pack my laptop in and take it back the same day to the FedEx Shipping Center. I receive an email notification next morning that it has reached their service center. The laptop is repaired by afternoon and shipped back in the evening. I receive the box with my repaired laptop Thursday morning at 10:39am. Simply amazing.

After hearing and experiencing horrible customer service, you are blown away by such prompt, quick, and great service. No wonder Apple has been ranked right at the top by Consumer Reports [via]. On laptops, Apple received 86 points out of 100, with Lenovo, my previous laptop coming in second at 63. Toshiba, Dell, HP/Compaq, and Acer/Gateway followed with 60, 56, 53, and 39 respectively [2]. For the desktops, Apple scored 87 while the second, Dell managed only 55. HP/Compaq and Acer/Gateway followed with 53 and 39 respectively [3].

Apple not only beats its competitors in customer service but blows them out of the water with a 23-32 point advantage. Apple users are reviled as fanboys and I have done my share of mocking but after experiencing such level of professionalism and customer service, you cannot help but be bowled over. Of course, it helps to know that Apple computers are even less likely to fail compared to PCs but when they do, help is quick. Feel free to paint me as a fanboy.

Footnotes:
  1. People who live close to an Apple Store can take it in and get it fixed quicker. Update: apparently not, see Supremus’ comment []
  2. Based on responses from owners of 3,685 laptop computers. Respondents were Consumer Reports subscribers surveyed online in January 2010. They reported on their most recent experience with contacting their computer manufacturer’s technical support since January 2009. []
  3. Want decent customer service? Don’t get an Acer. []

FourSquare for Businesses

FourSquare Business

FourSquare, the location-based check-in tool was always aimed toward businesses. The first step was to get users accustomed (or addicted) to checking in wherever they go and help them compete for points against each other by giving away emblems like Mayor badges. Now, FourSquare has made it easier for businesses to access all this rich data regarding their location.

With the new tool, businesses will be able to see a range of real-time data about Foursquare usage, including who has “checked in” to the place via Foursquare, when they arrived, the male-to-female customer ratio and which times of day are more active for certain customers. Business owners will also be able to offer instant promotions to try to engage new customers and keep current ones.

It was an obvious direction for FourSquare and I had wondered why hadn’t they implemented it sooner. This move might in fact be useful for both consumers and businesses as the latter will try to attract and keep their loyal base happy. One more advantage I see at least in another screenshot is that managers and staff are identified and listed separately. I have seen couple of my ‘friends’ check in every day (including school nights) at a bar at Northgate, College Station and have thought, wow! She definitely has a drinking problem. Until I realized, she probably works there. Of course, she is the frikkin Mayor of the bar with no chance of anyone else ousting her ever. Now unless, businesses or FourSquare matches consumers with their spending habits, they have no reason to worry about backlash. FourSquare users are willingly signing away their geo-location privacy and if they do it smartly, there is no discernible harm.

This feature is available only to 30 small businesses but FourSquare plans to expand it to more than 900 businesses soon. This might just be the social networking app that small businesses readily welcome.

Google to Cease Censoring Search Results in China

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

[Source: Official Google Blog: A new approach to China] After being subjected to a large-scale security attack on dissident’s email IDs purportedly by the Chinese government, Google has finally woken up to the fact that a despotic regime intent on curbing freedom of speech is not business-friendly. Perhaps it helps matters that Google has never been able to garner a significiant market share in China, but nevertheless the public relations impact of this decision is definitely detrimental to Chinese interests. At least now Google can revert back to their avowed slogan of Do No Evil and quit making excuses for censoring information in its search results. Subah ka bhula and all that. The news has spread quickly across the interwebs. It remains to be seen whether they end up withdrawing from China altogether.