Opinion

Felix Salmon

Why Apple’s customers cripple its user experience

By Felix Salmon
November 23, 2011

Apple products have always cost more than the equivalent products elsewhere. It’s one of the reasons that Apple has historically had very high brand loyalty and very low market share — a classic luxury-good combination. But now that Apple has become a mass-market brand, it’s reaching millions of sensible people, who like to save money. And that, in turn, causes an interesting tension.

Back when Apple sold widgets, things were easy: you paid through the nose for your widget, and then you were happy. But now Apple makes mobile devices like iPhones and iPads, an that means it has no choice but to get into bed with the much-hated wireless companies. It tries to control the experience as best it can — but people still end up being faced with ludicrous charges like $30 a month for text messaging. And then, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that $360 plus tax per year is a ridiculous sum of money to spend on a minuscule amount of data, they decide that they’re going to try to get around those charges.

It is indeed possible to get around extortionate wireless charges. Rather than buy a 3G iPad, for instance, you can use one with only wifi, and then connect it when you’re on the go to a tethered smartphone or some kind of MiFi device. And rather than spend lots of money on text messages, you can sign up for Google Voice, and do all your texting with that number.

These money-saving techniques are perfectly rational. And they don’t cost Apple any money — just the wireless carriers. But they’re still bad for Apple, because they defeat the elegant perfection which Apple puts so much effort into getting exactly right. And what’s more, these techniques are most attractive to people who are tempted by Apple products but can only just afford them, or can’t quite afford them. As it seeks to increase its market share, Apple has to sell its products to more and more of these people, who will often be buying an Apple product for the first time. And the last thing that Apple wants is for its carefully-crafted user experience to be sullied by something as banal as an attempt to avoid text-messaging charges.

Take the iPad, for instance: I can attest from personal experience that the 3G iPad is just miles better than trying to use a wifi-only iPad with a MiFi. It downloads emails automatically, even when you don’t ask it to; you can pull it out of your bag and look up anything you like instantly; there’s no waiting around for the wireless modem to get online and generate its wifi signal; you don’t need to worry about how charged up your MiFi is, or where you left it; you get all the advantages of real GPS; etc etc. An iPad + MiFi is adequate; it’s good enough; it’s “all I need”. But the 3G iPad is why people love Apple. And it costs $300 a year over and above the cost of the iPad, which is itself $130 more than the wifi-only version. There are definitely cheaper ways of getting your iPad online. But you lose a significant amount of elegance and ease of use in the process.

As for Google Voice, you can either just install it on your phone with a new number, or you can go through the rather convoluted process of transferring your current number to Google Voice. Either way, you’re going to be using the Google Voice app a lot — an app which is slower and buggier than the phone and messaging apps built in to iOS. And — to answer Ryan O’Donnell’s question — I can’t really recommend it.

Yes, you get to check your text messages on the web, which can be useful — although it’s not that useful. But you also break a lot of things which otherwise work seamlessly in iOS. There’s no MMS, for instance. There’s no iMessage. There’s also — this is big — no texting to anybody with an international number. You can’t text from Siri. FaceTime integration goes away. You can no longer just click on a phone number to call it, if you want to call people from your Google Voice number. And the whole thing becomes generally much less reliable, because you can’t get any text messages at all unless and until you have a data connection. And as anybody with an iPhone knows, there are many, many occasions when you have cell service but data service just doesn’t work at all.

On top of that, you might well be violating your wireless carrier’s terms of service.

Now for some people — specifically people who are very comfortable with iOS, who know their way around an iPhone, and who value the ability to save money — a switch to Google Voice still makes sense. Text-messaging plans are ludicrously expensive, and I support anybody who comes up with a way of avoiding having to pay those bills. (Including, it must be said, Apple, whose iMessage platform, if it catches on, neatly circumvents existing text-messaging systems.)

But it does seem to me that so long as Apple has to deal with the hated wireless providers, people will always be voluntarily accepting a subpar user experience because they want to save on monthly charges. Apple has always hated it when its customers have a subpar user experience, but this problem isn’t going to go away: in fact, it’s only going to get worse.

And in the meantime, if you buy a wireless Apple product, it’s a good idea to be aware that the premium you’re paying for the hardware is not the end of the story. You’re going to be feeling the monthly bills for as long as you use that thing. And they’re going to add up.

Comments
39 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Seems like the suboptimal user experience due to carrier intermediation applies to Android too, who also pay ludicrous amounts of money for texting plans (as sophisticated as some android users are, the majority of them are not power users who will go through the trouble of getting a Google Voice account, even if it is better integrated on that platform than iOS).
In the end, the Apple hardware premium, where it exists at all, pales in comparison to the carrier charges than span all platforms.

Posted by br_add | Report as abusive
 

Your examples of constraints like SMS chrages only to USA.
Everyone else have no problem paying SMS charges.
Most of them are included in a $79 plan (yes! Unlimited!)

Posted by Tbunny | Report as abusive
 

On Android running Gingerbread 2.3, I can simply pull up my contacts, and those services that are available will show up.

In the case of my contacts who use Gmail, I can send them messages via Google Talk or an email. If they have a phone number, I can send a regular MMS or call them. If I have GV, I can send an MMS via GV. If there is an address, I can get directions on Maps.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive
 

it is very unfortunate that US telco subscribers are burdened with this – you won’t get these problems anywhere in Asia, where you can buy a phone without contract and buy a prepaid card on a street vendor. Somebody has to do something about those US telcos; if you compare the subpar service that they give to any telco in Asia, it would be class-action worthy.

Posted by barijoe | Report as abusive
 

These “problems” would not exist if the FCC actually represented the “public interest” as defined by “we, the people”. Unfortunately it would seem they instead represent “we, the bureaucrats” or “we, the defacto monopolies” of the primary wireless providers. lobbyists”.

Their legal advisers and “boilerplate” wording of contracts of service read as if written in collusion to specifically disenfranchise consumers. There is no “playing field”, level or not.

Consumers must sign to play or they can’t. No one is entitled to a jury anymore. It’s as simple as that.

But why can’t we know who betrayed us, at least? Why are “we, the people” without meaningful representation at the negotiating table(s)? Our taxes bought and paid for them!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

I thought this was the whole reason that WhatApp was so successful? In a way, we have the thank US carriers for having such ridiculous pricing, in the same way we should thank Apple for overpricing their shiny toys, because it drives an innovation ecosystem from which we all benefit.

Posted by BenRapp | Report as abusive
 

Felix sounds like Apple should concentrate on selling to first world markets. Here in Oz everything is cool and easy and I have a non 3g iPad and in my family iOS5 has works fine, blue texts all the way.

Posted by brisbanemfp | Report as abusive
 

Yes, I realize most publishers still use a headline writer separate from the reporter – so, that could be an appropriate excuse for a dumb headline.

But, the article is just as useless. Whining about Apple being faced with communications protocols and charges thoroughly embedded in our economy with the grace and blessings of Congress and whichever administration – achieves little. Especially when the solutions offered are at best typical of geeks talking only to other geeks.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive
 

I’m not sure of the point here. First of all, if all you’re doing is checking email and texting, why do you even need an iPad? You have a phone, that’s what it’s for. So why don’t we talk about buying a redundant device? Do you have a laptop? Then your iPad is a luxury not a necessity and, as such, you should be able to afford those extra charges. If not, stick with the iPhone and your laptop. I’m a software guy and it works perfectly for me. No need for an iPad AND and iPhone.

Yet another example of a luxury taken as an entitlement. if you have the 500 to 600 bucks to spend on an iPad, stop whining about the cost of the 3G, you can afford it. Or is this somehow acknowledging the fact that the Amazon Fire is a vastly cheaper device to own and operate for the vast number of uses and you’re worried about the value of an investment in Apple? Because I’ve been wondering about that out loud for some time now. We’ll see what the consumer really wants.

Posted by skyman123 | Report as abusive
 

All comes down the the USA being a developing nation regarding wireless services. Central Europe and Skandinavia are miles ahead. Maybe Apple will be able to use its immense brand power to subvert the wireless companies or control them. Maybe even acquire one itself.

It’s unpleasant to be a snob in the colonies.

Posted by Finster | Report as abusive
 

This seems to be a reasonable argument for Apple to buy a small wireless carrier with reasonable coverage in its keys markets. Given that the deal with AT&T seems dead, perhaps making a low-ball offer on T-Mobile might make sense.

Apple has more than enough total cash on the books to go this route, with substantial holdings in both USD and EUR. I imagine that a big company like Deutche Telekom might be interested in an opportunity to both ditch their problematic US operations and rebalance their EUR and USD holdings in the same transaction. It would also provide Apple a way to use its EUR holdings without having to repatriate them or risk holding them in the current, highly volatile, European economic situation.

Just a thought.

Posted by clm | Report as abusive
 

most people don’t know they can save $20 a month on sms

http://attsmscashcow.com

Posted by ih8tt | Report as abusive
 

Help me , for the life of me , I just cannot find the so-called elegance of Apple’s iPad/iPhone . I’ve seen them , toyed around with them , but seem to miss the so-called elegance and all- round great user experience Apple fan boys talk about. Nope , no different than the Androids. Just another of Steve Jobs phrases that took off like everything else the god, oops , I mean , the man said.

Posted by Jillxz | Report as abusive
 

Felix, it’s only the US that has this problem – in Europe most subscribers pay a fixed monthly fee for unlimited texts included in the same rate for phone service. Don’t blame Apple, blame the telcos who are still stuck in the 19th Century because it needs less investment to run out of date services which you then charge a fortune for. Does the fact that all US telcos are pretty much the same on this subject not tell you there should be an investigation to see what sort of cartel is operating here?

I pay $12 a month for my iPhone, $0.70 per minute for calls and $0.30 per text with a $12 data fee. Most months my total phone bill is less than $30 – for everything.

As for my iPad, I could get a SIM for it but I so far haven’t needed one as I tend to only use it at home or work where WiFi is easy to get. If I had an iPhone 4 or 4S I could use them as a mobile hotspot and not pay any more cash. If I do get a data chip I have to pay another $19 a month.

The US is getting ripped off here – but not by Apple. It’s the carriers, the telcos who are the rip off artists here.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive
 

Weird article with weird complains that seem to have nonthing to do with Apple.

On one specific point: I have a wifi iPad, but instead of using mifi (expensive! estra thing to carry!), i tether it to my iphone via bluetooth. Anytime I am at home or in the presence of reliable wifi, I turn bluetooth off, but at other times it’s always on and tethered. This works just as you describe the 3G iPad to work – I can pull it out, any time, and all of my email is there already, so long I am not underground (where, come to think of it, a 3G iPad wouldn’t work either).

I still find the monthly charge from AT&T absolutely abnoxios: if you are going to cap my data usage, why do you care whether I tether or not? But I swallow the $20, knowing that it’s the same $20 that I would have paid with a 3G ipad, but I did not have to cough up an additional $130 up front like some schmucks.

Posted by Y.Alekseyev | Report as abusive
 

I disagree with the guy that says the US has this problem. I think it’s Apple that has the problem. I’m a die hard Apple fan. I own a mac, I own an iPod touch. But I do not have an iPhone, because until just recently it was made available ONLY in AT&T and Verizon, who did away with their unlimited plans. I’m with Sprint, I’ve been with them for a year now, and I am happy with their service. I get everything unlimited for a fixed price. Now that they have the iPhone I will most certainly upgrade to one. So no…Europe isn’t the only place where you pay a fixed amount for texts, data, and/or phone service. Sprint does this here too! It’s just that people like to be mistreated by AT&T and Verizon. If more people would flock to Sprint, AT&T and Verizon would have no choice but to come out with an unlimited plan that can COMPETE with Sprint’s. Fyi, I have pretty good reception, it’s not Verizon, but it’s definitely miles ahead from AT&T!

Posted by nbm09 | Report as abusive
 

These aren’t differentiators of Apple’s user experience, they are differentiators of a smartphone’s user experience. The iPad’s elegance comes in the design of its GUI, and its integration with iTunes. Any other Android-style OS will provide similar online access.

Unsurprisingly, then, the connectivity is tightly linked to wireless providers, and not Apple. Perhaps an argument for Apple to start an MVNO… but it’s a very different business model and right now, Apple gets to free-ride on the general problems of the wireless industry.

Posted by worm600 | Report as abusive
 

Actually, I’d rather use email than text. Could be my advanced age. Google Voice forwarding of texts to email allows me to handle text conversations through the iPhone’s email app.

You might be right about the 3G iPad. But there are a fair number of people who live or work in locations where the 3G would simply not be worth the cost.

Posted by xyz70 | Report as abusive
 

OneoftheSheep is right, it is the fault of the carriers. They allow the carriers to force bundling of phones and service, which is extremely anti-competitive. The FCC is supposed to license the airwaves for pubic use, not give it away.

As a result, Finster is right also. Our wireless networks are no better than a developing nation.

And while Sprint does some bad things, just like almost every big company, they do offer unlimited texting as part of their $79.95 plan for the iphone. And the Sprint 4s will work outside the US on GSM networks.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive
 

My comment should have said “fault of the FCC and the carriers”.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive
 

Eh, yea, its the telecos more than apple.

However Apple is part of the problem. I’m pretty sure Apple wasn’t forced into the carrier exclusivity deals it has been doing with its US carriers. I’m pretty sure apple could have sold the iPad with a removable simm card for GSM and unlocked CDMA and told every wireless provider they were free to offer plans (you would still have to choose cdma or gsm).

Buy an iPad in the UK (or I believe most of the world other than the US) and you will have a dozen options of carriers. Your iPad will have a removable simm card so you can’t be locked in.

Buy it in the US and you choose your wireless carrier on purchase and can’t ever switch even though they aren’t subsidizing the cost of the device (like they do with phones).

Really, I think it comes down to the laughable anti-trust regulation in the US. Our regulators don’t try to set up market competition to benefit consumers, they just sometimes, feebly, try to issue slaps on the wrist to anti-competitive companies long after the fact or prevent mergers.

Posted by JeffFisher | Report as abusive
 

Oh, and is Apple getting a kickback from the telecos for its devices? Seems likely that it is given the deals struck. That would make Apple very much part of the problem.

Posted by JeffFisher | Report as abusive
 

The title of this article doesn’t match the content. You seem to be arguing that carriers, not “customers,” cripple the user experience.

Also, just to challenge the premise: Apple has been cheap for a decade, net of the value of one’s time. When one never need reboot, remove viruses, or read a manual, one saves dozens of hours a year.

Posted by zipflash | Report as abusive
 

JeffFisher, Apple was kind of forced into the exclusive deal with ATT. Verizon had turned them down, and because ATT (and VZ and Sprint) charge you for phone subsidies whether you get a subsidy or not, Apple couldn’t just sell unlocked phones, as few people would pay $500-600 for a phone and still have to pay $100/month for service. I doubt that Apple entered into the exclusive deal with ATT willingly, but because Verizon said no, they didn’t have much choice if they wanted a carrier with a giant customer base.

Google tried what you suggest – sell an unlocked phone with removable SIM (Nexus One), and only T-Mobile offered an appropriate plan. As a result, the Nexus One did not succeed in changing the business model of selling smartphones, and Google was widely criticized and ridiculed for that attempt.

We do have laughable anti-trust enforcement in the US (the regulations are there, but not enforced often enough), but yesterday there were signs that not all hope is lost, as the FCC announced it was not happy with ATT’s bid to kill off, I mean, buy their lowest cost competitor, T-Mobile. If the deal goes through, it will confirm there is no anti-trust regulation.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive
 

“Apple products have always cost more than the equivalent products elsewhere”.

The products weren’t equivalent unless your concept of equivalence would say that a Chevy Nova and a BMW were “equivalent” because they each have four wheels.

Posted by jimstead | Report as abusive
 

“Apple products have always cost more than the equivalent products elsewhere. ” This was never true even when Apple products cost more than apparently equivalent products. And it is certainly not true now, when Apple is exercising economies of scale in the laptop, phone, and pad markets. Feature-by-feature comparisons now show Apple products with lower prices than competitors, not higher. Bad article from sentence 1.

Posted by MondayNothing | Report as abusive
 

@ nbm09
You’ve got a hole in your logic. How can it not be a US specific thing when it isn’t happening anywhere else? Commenters from Asia, Australia and Europe have all said they don’t have the problem – but clearly the US does. If it was Apple’s doing, the problem would exist everywhere, but it seems to be happening in the US only. What is different about the US mobile phone sector compared to the rest of the world? The telcos. Ergo, it’s the telcos fault, QED.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive
 

@FifthDecade,

It is my understanding certain standards are different between Europe, etc. and the U.S. At one time there were different railroad track gauges (widths). There are different “standard voltages”, power cords.

The “operating standard” for most cell phones differ (i.e. your typical U.S. phone likely won’t work in Europe). Even here in the states Apple had to manufacture a CDMA iPhone before Verizon could offer one to subscribers…incompatible technologies between Verizon, AT&T and other iPhone offering providers.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive
 

wow this forum is so enlightening, I was just thinking buy an ipad and that will be the end of my (overpriced cost).
Frankly I’ve looked at all tablets and samsung really stood out, much faster caching and slightly faster than the ipad. Never did like the iphone, but do respect the over priced ipad. There are so many choices out there with much lower prices and plans it’s amazing. North american cell plans are just crazy way out of touch with Asia and Europe, the carriers here are just taking us for a big ride. I guess it’s a mafia like heaven for local carriers.

Posted by politicaljunkie | Report as abusive
 

Or you can just not buy any Apple products at all…

I seem to still get by just fine with my good ol’ laptop & cellphone combo…

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive
 

Dude you are dead wrong, your personal experience with the 3G iPad being faster is flawed, mine is a wifi and it works perfectly well. I hate to nitpick how fast are you referring to perhaps you are living in Flash (DC comic character ) where everything is super fast. Do we really need that experience. One more thing how fast is your ccfast when everything happens in seconds.
I wonder whether you know you can make free calls using the app Viper yes internationally too and available on the iPad well there is always FaceTime.
Sorry I am just a dumb user who is using his iPad wrong because it does everyhing for me the wat i want it whereas a super discerning user like you needs everything to be the best.

Posted by AdamChew | Report as abusive
 

The clarity and intelligence of skyman123′s comment is refreshing. More enjoyable than the article itself.

Posted by SpragueD | Report as abusive
 

It all comes down to Felix channelling Oscar Wilde talking about money. It’s an awkward combination.

I hope this wasn’t too ad hominem.

Posted by Finster | Report as abusive
 

So Apple is more expensive while companies are struggling to match the price of the Air and iPad. Good to know. Glad you are stuck in the past.

Posted by Dowap | Report as abusive
 

“These money-saving techniques are perfectly rational. And they don’t cost Apple any money — just the wireless carriers.”

Think it through… people do not buy Iphones… wireless carriers buy Iphones and sell them to people for $100/month.

If ATT and VZ can’t charge a high monthly fee than they can’t subsidize AAPL’s up front cost.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive
 

Must be quite a bit of gin in that soda.

Posted by HiramWalker | Report as abusive
 

Can’t help but feel that a lot of folks think there shouldn’t be any variety in the market. The suggestion that an iPad is symbolic of entitlement? Maybe ‘entitlement’ got plugged in by autocorrect, dunno. If you’re not free to pick whatever you choose….because of some weird attachment to dissing competitors, it’s your experience that’s diminished, not mine.
Also – I take issue with the first sentence. In technology, ‘you get what you pay for’ isn’t just a glib truism. My experience has been that dollar for dollar, Apple products (gadgets and software) deliver very favourably. A Zune, for example, isn’t the equivalent of a comparably spec’d iPod. That’s why it isn’t on the market anymore.
I don’t buy Apple exclusively, but there’s no question that I favour it over a lot of other technology that just doesn’t measure up, either from a design or performance perspective. In many cases, no contest.

Posted by robgilgan | Report as abusive
 

I have a “dinosaur” Blackberry 8700 with text and calling only, no browser. It works fine. There is one charge for unlimited talk and text.

Posted by CalGal | Report as abusive
 

I have a “dinosaur” Blackberry 8700 with text and calling only, no browser. It works fine. There is one charge for unlimited talk and text.

Posted by CalGal | Report as abusive
 

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