Apple has been almost unbelievably successful as a company. At the end of 2014, it had the largest market value of any company in the world, at $647 billion, and was sitting on a pile of $178 billion in cash, enough that every few months, someone publishes an article about how the company has more cash than the U.S. government. (As of this writing, Apple’s enormous money hoard is about equal to the Treasury Department’s cash reserves give or take a billion.)
It’s little wonder that when most businesspeople think about Apple, they want to learn from its successes. Lex Friedman, a longtime Apple aficionado and writer for MacWorld, also wants to learn from the company’s failures.
“Apple does a lot of things really well. It’s clearly a very smart company, and a very successful company. But it’s run by humans, and humans all make mistakes,” Friedman says.
Friedman will appear at the Princeton Tech Meetup on Wednesday, June 17, at 6:45 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. Fee: $5. For $25, guests can join a 15-person group meeting Friedman privately at a restaurant afterwards. For more information, visit www.meetup.com/princeton-tech.
Friedman grew up in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, and was a techie from a young age. His father, an orthopedic surgeon and his mother, an office manager, made sure Friedman had access to computers growing up and he spent many happy hours tinkering with his state-of-the-art Commodore 64. They even hired a tutor from Radio Shack to help him develop his computer skills.
Rather than studying computers in college, Friedman decided to take a break from them. He majored in linguistics and cognitive science at Brandeis before moving to Los Angeles, where he briefly worked for a talent agent. He was soon immersed in computers again, and worked as a programmer at a small business website company called eBoz. In the rest of his eclectic career, Friedman has worked for Intermix, the parent company of MySpace, the Daily Plate, a diet tracking website, and Demand Media, where he worked on Lance Armstrong’s website, livestrong.com.
Friedman has also had a parallel media career, hosting a series of humor videos on Cracked.com, publishing several books, hosting the Unprofessional podcast, a talk show where he and two co-hosts discussed anything other than work. He also wrote for Macworld first as a freelancer then a columnist. He is currently head of sales for the Mid Roll podcast advertising network.
Friedman says he will use whatever platform is best for the job whether or not it’s made by Apple. He has an iPhone and a Mac computer, but uses a Roku rather than an Apple TV, for example. He says there is much to be learned not only from Apple’s missteps, but the way they recovered from them.
Wrong Direction. Perhaps Apple’s most epic failure recently was the launch of Apple Maps on the iPhone 5 in 2012. The company’s in-house mapping utility replaced the beloved Google Maps app by default, and was riddled with errors such as having an incorrect address to DC’s Dulles Airport. If a user followed the directions to the airport slavishly, they could be, as CNN said, “arrested and possibly run over by a 747.”
Apple’s initial response to the hated product only made things worse. CEO Tim Cook said the program would incorporate user data and would gradually get better over time as people kept using it. Which, Friedman said, “is not a great answer.”
As the backlash continued, Friedman said Apple eventually responded more appropriately. Cook admitted the program was flawed, and suggested use alternative mapping apps such as Google Maps, Bing, and Mapquest. “Obviously, not every business owner can say, hey, use my competition,” Friedman says. “But in the end, I think it was a solid right answer. They have also dramatically improved Maps in the years since. The initial response was terrible. ‘Just keep using it and it will get better.’ That’s basically saying keep suffering and do this live beta test for us, and thanks to all of you getting lost and complaining, things will get better over time. That’s not ideal.”
The Switch.A second mistake Friedman points to is really only a mistake in the eye of the beholder. On the original iPad tablet, there was a switch on the side that was used to lock the orientation of the screen. Normally, the screen would rotate based on the orientation of the device relative to the user, but with the switch engaged, it would not. The purpose was so that users who were lying in bed or using the iPad in other odd positions wouldn’t find the screen turning sideways by accident.
Friedman was a frequent user of the switch and was annoyed when in the next operating system update, Apple made the switch function as a mute button instead. The designers of the operating system said they had been asked to add a preference that would allow users to turn the button back into an orientation lock, but decided not to.
“I published an op-ed saying that was stupid,” Friedman says. “I wanted an orientation lock. I use it all the time. Changing the hardware button is weird.” Enough people agreed with Friedman that Apple did add a preference allowing users to get the orientation lock switch back if they wanted. “From my perspective, they had made a mistake and were relenting,” Friedman says.
But it turns out the company’s real mistake was in communication. Behind the scenes, Apple had improved the algorithm that controlled when the screen switched, so that the problem the switch was intended to solve — unintended orientation changes — effectively no longer existed. But they hadn’t publicized that.
After all his advocacy, “I never used the orientation lock,” Friedman admits. “I realized that Apple had made a mistake in saying, ‘Okay, we are going to take away this feature.’ They said they were going to get rid of some functionality. I complained and many others complained.”
Friedman says Apple needed to realize that people would object to change, even if it turned out to be for the best. “The added preference was like training wheels,” he says. “The customer isn’t always right, but the customer thinks he’s right all the time. Even though it’s a matter of taste, it’s OK to give a little sometimes.”
Sidebar. In 2012 Apple’s iTunes 11 update got rid of a sidebar where users were used to finding features. “Regular users were confused about how to use it,” Friedman says. Apple had removed a feature that customers had come to rely on to navigate the software. There was an option to restore the sidebar but it was hard to find.
Once again, “training wheels” would have helped users adapt to the rearranged interface, Friedman says.
“In some ways it’s silly to talk about Apple making mistakes because it’s such a successful company,” Friedman says. “My thesis is that there are humans running the company, and humans are capable of making mistakes. I think everybody makes mistakes, but the way that we handle them is always educational.”