Why Apple’s customers cripple its user experience

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.


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