It’s hard to identify the moment when a company once beloved by trendsetters becomes uncool. Sometimes the firm gets too big for its britches and starts pissing off its customers. Others times the hipsters who first embraced the products grow too long in the tooth to seem cool anymore. Lots of times innovation starts to lag as a firm shifts its focus from making cool stuff to shoveling money toward executives.
Apple’s cool factor seems to be suffering for all of these reasons and then some. So what, you say. It’s just a vibe. They still have gobs of money. Well, the problem for Apple is that its marketability has been built on the cool factor, and once you lose it, it’s not easy to get it back. Here are six unmistakable signs that Apple is on the downward slide.
1. Apple is boring. That’s not what you want to hear when you’re trying to be the cool company. And yet USA Today reports that college students are feeling unbedazzled by Apple CEO Tim Cook’s promises of amazing new gadgets at a recent conference. “Some college students are losing their enthusiasm for Apple after recent product upgrades have been underwhelming,” notes collegiate correspondent Mark Lieberman. Among the student complaints were overpricing, lack of ability to customize Apple products, and various technical challenges.
Other Apple-watchers have voiced similar beefs, pointing out that for all the iPhones, iPads and MacBooks, the whole just adds up to a big yawn. Ashraff Eassa at the Seeking Alpha blog doesn’t mince any words: “Apple’s problem today is that it's just plain boring. Yeah, it makes a lot of money, and yeah, it makes good products, but people forget that tech stocks are all about who's got the most glam.”
2. Headline headaches. One minute Tim Cook is defending tax-dodging practices that screw American taxpayers out of billions and leave us with no money to pay for decent schools that, you know, educate Apple’s workers or roads that, ahem, allow the company to ship its products around the country. The next minute Apple is on the hot seat for allegedly fixing prices on ebooks — and we’re talking emails between Steve Jobs and James Murdoch (son of Rupert) in which Jobs essentially says, hey, let’s make a deal that screws our customers!
These are not the sorts of activities many customers will find endearing. Making headlines for all the wrong reasons is not going to help Apple get its mojo back. Gangsta-style capitalism is a lot of things – cool is not one of them.
3. Going Wall Street. Apple’s customers have long hailed the company for its snazzy designs and user-friendly interface. But its ability to excel in playing Wall Street casino games was never really on the list.
These days, however, Apple is all about Wall Street. The company is sitting on a mountain of cash, but instead of doing something useful and intelligent with that money such as, I dunno, paying workers a decent salary or investing in innovative new products, Apple announced it is spending an eye-popping $60 billion on a buyback. Stock buybacks, a practice that took off in the go-go ‘80s, is a pernicious trend in which a company buys back its own shares from the marketplace and thereby reduces the number of outstanding shares. It’s a terrible way to allocate resources, and it’s mainly about making executives richer. As Eamonn Fingleton recently put it over at Forbes, “every dollar spent on a buyback is one dollar less invested in a corporation’s future.”
Economist William Lazonick, head of the Center for Industrial Competitiveness at the University of Massachusetts, has criticized buybacks because they are designed to manipulate stock prices, reward executives at the expense of other stakeholders, and are often accompanied by things like insider trading. As Lazonick explained in an AlterNet series, “Corporations For the 99%,” stock buybacks have no positive economic purpose and we should “ban large established companies from buying back their own stock, and reward them instead for investing in the retention and training of their employees.”
Doing stock buybacks, along with other practices like giving executives obscene pay packages compared to workers (Apple execs are among the highest paid in the country), are examples of what economists call the financialization of corporations –which is a major driver of economic inequality, stagnation and social unrest.
Definitely not cool.
4. The Jobsless factor. Complaints that Apple has gotten boring are usually followed by the observation that it wasn’t like that when Steve Jobs was around. Under Steve Jobs, the thinking goes, Apple was super-fresh, but now it’s gotten stale and kind of bland.
However you feel about Steve Jobs, he’s an icon of American business, and his vision is considered by many to have been an essential element in the Apple success story — the kind of vision needed to imagine new territories and untapped markets. Even 16 months after Jobs’ death, Apple executives like Chairman Art Levinson described how “weird” it was to work without the inspirational leader.
5. War on workers. When a company starts getting a reputation for greed and profit-maximization rather than product development and employee satisfaction, the cool factor tends to suffer. Screwed-over workers is not something you want people to think about when they see your logo.
As Daniel Huang of PolicyMic has observed, Apple’s main supply chain partner is none other than Foxconn Corporation, a ginormous global contract manufacturer that employs 1.2 million Chinese workers, some of whose deaths and suicides as a result of horrific working conditions started to make international news in 2010.
And Apple’s apparent disregard for the well-being of its workers is not confined to overseas suppliers. In a New York Times piece about Apple’s badly paid employees in the U.S., David Segal outlines the frustration felt by Americans who would like to feel pride working for a company whose products they have admired, but have to suffer with peanut wages, unpleasant working conditions and knowing that they will have little to show for helping to make a success of a company that enjoyed $16 billion in sales in 2011. As Segal explained:
“About 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year. They work inside the world’s fastest growing industry, for the most valuable company, run by one of the country’s most richly compensated chief executives, Tim Cook. Last year, he received stock grants, which vest over a 10-year period, that at today’s share price would be worth more than $570 million.”
Apple likes to boast that it’s a job creator, but most of the jobs it has created are in the service industry, and it seems determined to pay those workers as little as possible and make sure they can’t make a career with the company. Not cool.
6. Pissing off customers. Apple seems to have a knack lately for kicking its customers in the teeth. Remember when it replaced Google maps on the iPhone with shitty maps that gave out bad driving directions and so on? The bad vibes were so thick that Tim Cook had to write a letter of apology to customers.
That’s just the latest in a slew of actions that have raised customer hackles, from punishing early adopters of products by quickly slashing prices after a much-hyped launch, to releasing new versions so quickly with aggressive upgrade cycles that customers feel betrayed.
Apple has even managed to screw customers with actual screws – switching to a new kind of screw so that you can’t open your iPhone.
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