Commentary: Underwhelming AirPods Pro? Here’s why Apple users remain incredibly loyal
Much has been said about Apple’s unexciting progress with the AirPods Pro and the iPhone 11. So why are Apple fanboys and girls still so devoted? IMD Business School’s Howard Yu recounts one experience.
SINGAPORE: We all know the story of Apple, and how so many of us have become an integral part of this tale.
Apple Inc is a 43-year-old company that is at least one generation older than Amazon, Netflix, Alibaba, Tencent, and Facebook – all of which are 25 years old or younger.
It was founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in a garage in Los Altos, California, on Crist Drive.
Some 40 years later, it is headquartered at One Apple Park Way in Cupertino at the US$5 billion “spaceship,” a four-story circular complex that houses 12,000 employees and spans 2.8 million square feet.
Topped with 805,000 square feet of solar arrays on its roof, the circular ring is made entirely of curved glass without the annoying green hue.
Last summer, when I visited the Apple campus, the lush canopy of 9,000 native and drought-resistant trees embraced the ring’s inner courtyard, which itself is wider than St Peter’s Square in Rome.
The orchard, meadow, and pond were laced with trails where I walked and chatted with an Apple employee.
And in my mind, that spaceship, that “mothership” of the Apple empire, is the last “insanely great” product from Cupertino.
In many ways, it is exactly that.
IS APPLE LOSING ITS SHINE?
By the law of large numbers, Apple has found it hard to sustain the same growth rate for its iPhone in 2019. It saw phenomenal growth in 2014, when the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were released and became the best-selling iPhone models of all time, with more than 220 million units sold worldwide.
Their successors, in comparison, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, have sold less than 80 million units to date.
It’s hard to know how many iPhone Xs and X Maxes are being sold today; Apple hasn’t disclosed sales volumes since the fourth quarter of last year, but data from research firm Kantar Worldpanel indicates that people are waiting longer before upgrading.
That’s because people don’t actually need to pay over US$999 for features like facial ID, wireless headphones, 12-megapixel cameras, telephoto lenses, wide-angle lenses, and super wide-angle lenses, which were extolled for iPhone 11 Pro, to get through their daily routines.
My own daily routines are no more than texting and calling, checking my email and the weather, scrolling through social media, and listening to music on Spotify.
So, the leaps in smartphone innovation no longer feel as necessary and big as they used to.
WHY FANBOYS AND GIRLS REMAIN FANS
But I would be wrong to prophesise an imminent exodus of iPhone users away from Apple’s orbit.
If anything, Apple has now been presented with an enormous opportunity to move away from being a one-device company to a lifestyle conglomerate, slowly but steadily, with Apple Watch soon to outsell the entire Swiss watch industry.
Slowly but steadily, AirPods are becoming the best-selling wireless headphones. Apple is not doing so with its “magic innovation dust” – it is simply good at delivering the mundane.
Apple’s retail stores, for instance, with their airy interiors, winding staircases, and sharp-framed modern furniture, are known as meccas for its fan base. Apple employees also display a fair dose of real empathy.
One employee reportedly saw a woman in tears, obviously upset at having dropped her phone in the water earlier.
It wasn’t that her phone couldn’t be replaced under warranty; it was that she had lost the last voice message from her son, who had died in a car accident.
His final words, “I love you, Mom,” now desperately called out to be saved.
What the employee working at the genius bar did next was truly ingenious.
He carefully took out the motherboard, transplanted it into another phone and retrieved the voicemail. He then saved it as an audio file to avoid losing it in the future.
Imagine the level of customer loyalty this single employee was able to generate.
WHAT LOYALTY LOOKS LIKE
I’ve had my own share of tech rescues at the Apple store too.
Last September, when I flew from Switzerland to Singapore for a board meeting, my Mac book pro crashed during my flight at the moment I was about to finalise the presentation deck.
But I knew there was a new Apple Store that just opened at Changi Airport. I found myself sitting down with a brand new Mac with all the needed file transferred over two hours later.
“Just return it before you fly out from Singapore this weekend,” said the Apple employee.
“Yes, since your school will repair your old machine by the time you get back home, you just need to return this new Mac before you leave Singapore. No charge and no questions asked. You will get the full refund on your credit card.”
It took me a moment to realise Apple had essentially loaned me a new Mac in a foreign country for free just because my own wasn’t working.
Apple’s laptop may be more expensive than a Lenovo ThinkPad or a Microsoft Surface Pro. But there is no way I would ditch the Mac after.
IT’S GOT YOUR BACK
So when Apple’s credit card was announced, commentators noticed, in addition to the card’s “subtle off-white colouring” and “tasteful thickness”, the Apple logo emblazoned in all its minimalist glory.
The card promised breakthrough features such as no fees of any kind and artificial software that would actively encourage users to avoid debt, providing recommendations to pay it off quickly.
None of these features could compare to the excitement when the first iPad was launched. But then again, people know whatever Apple offers always works. It’s got your back.
With Apple Card, Apple TV+, Apple News+, Apple Music, and the iPhone upgrade program, where customers pay a fixed monthly fee in order to get a new iPhone every year, CEO Tim Cook is turning Apple into a lifestyle company based on recurring subscriptions rather than selling devices alone.
While I myself have been an Apple skeptic ever since Steve Jobs left, the company’s stock has only gone up since 2012.
Breakthrough ideas are perhaps overrated. Getting the details right is hard work.
Howard Yu is the author of LEAP: How to Thrive in a World Where Everything Can Be Copied, LEGO professor of management and innovation at the IMD Business School in Switzerland and Singapore, and director of IMD’s signature Advanced Management Programme.