Wednesday 9 June 2010

Some problems a future Apple (South Africa) should tackle.

Written for South African Apple Mac users and prospective buyers.

Thinkertoys is a book with many "thought experiments" one can practice to improve one's creativity. An exercise I've found particularly useful in management is "drawing a trouble tree". The idea of this exercise is simply to list all the problems one could potentially face in a situation and to identify those that should be tackled first. Ideally one would work through all the branches until the tree is just a
"trouble-free" trunk :) .

As an Apple user, I've begin to wonder whether its benefits are worth the high premium one pays for it locally. Particularly given the difficulties one faces in finding well-priced, compatible accessories and appropriate, speedy technical support. If Apple ever plans to represent itself directly in South Africa, here are the trouble-tree's branches I humbly suggest it hacks away:

1 High premiums for products that do not offer the same advantages for users from developed markets: 
  • Whether its thanks to the taxman, transport fees or a greedy local distributor, it's a lot more cost effective to order a Mac in the US and courier it to SA than to hope to find a reasonably priced Mac in your local supplier's shop.
    Once you've got your Mac, some Apple software offers limited functionality in the local context:  
  • iTunes South Africa only offers iPhone apps, so iTunes only offers value if you own an iPhone and are interested in purchasing its widgets.
  • You have to organize a foreign iTunes account if you want to buy music, videos, etc. While this results from local licensing problems, the fact that Apple does not communicate about its intentions to improve this locally is a silent PR problem. 
  • Like the Macs themselves, .Mobile Me membership is completely over-priced for the local market. The fact that the price shown to customers is in Euros simply reflects how little Apple is interested in pricing .Mac for locals. This is particularly problematic, given that the "freemium" competition from Google (and other web2.0 services) and Apple's seeming disinterest in providing a competitive "tiered" service that offers users lower prices for less use.
2 The availability of technical support for Apple products is weak.
  • Apple only offers technical support for the iPhone in South Africa. If one has a problem with any other product one can only rely on support from local resellers. 
  • If a reseller (or third party) cannot fix the product you bought for them, you effectively have to find a backyard Mac repair specialist... or pay for a new product. 
  • Effectively, this means that Apple may not deliver on its brand promise of high reliability to you, since the high premium one pays may not include a warranty and/or a maintenance agreement.
My bad experience in the branches of point 2!
The motivation for this post is my recent poor experience with a Mac laptop I bought locally online, just two years ago: in the past month, my laptop's airport network service inexplicably began either to turn itself off or simply disconnect from my home network, refusing to reconnect. Since I'm a researcher, being connected to the internet is highly important and its a big time-waster to have to power down and restart several times, just to have web access!

Since I occasionally saw error messages indicating my laptop could not see my airport card, I organized that my authorized Apple reseller replaced the card. This took two weeks, but did not fix the problem. My reseller then offered to reinstall my Operating System. Again, this did not fix the problem. The reseller's technician said that "a circuit on the motherboard has lost integrity". He suggested three options to me: 
1. Replace the motherboard for about the cost of new laptop.
2. Pay a technician to replace and/or re-solder the faulty processor chip.
3. Organize a wireless adapter.

Since I assumed that the last option would be the cheapest and simplest, I bought a Linksys wireless adapter, as recommended. Unfortunately, though, its boxes claims to be Mac compatible only extended to pre-Snow Leopard versions of the Mac OS! The reseller then organized a more recent Linksys wireless adapter. Although this one claimed to be compatible with my laptop, it did not produce readable packets when the technician tested it. The reseller is currently trialing another wireless adapter; while I hold thumbs and hope I don't have to try the 2nd option...

As a South African consumer, I blame Apple's lack of consideration of the local market for this brand failure; not its resellers. While I have enjoyed the benefits of being in Apple's walled garden (especially great product design, durability, no viruses and automatic back-up), this experience has led me to question whether I am being reasonable in only using one operating system at home. I'm now giving serious thought to a new option 4; buying a netbook running either Canonical's Ubuntu or Google's Chrome OS!

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