Friday 30 November 2012

Apple - Think Twice.

Apple - Think Different Twice.

I'm writing this because I think Apple may have changed. I have been a loyal customer for 11 years, but will think twice before every buying from them again. I hope anyone reading this will do the same.

I bought from Apple because they make (made) fantastic products that are a joy to use, and if they went wrong they would look after you. But I, like many others, have recently been on the wrong side of Apple and been left regretting swapping my cash for their shiny-new-thing.

As an illustration of the ghosting on my $4k machine, here’s a pic of my screen trying to show a plain grey screen after a photo of Phil Schiller (left), Tim Cook (centre), and Jonathan Ive (right) had been on it for 3 mins.

Phil Schiller, Tim Cook, Jonathan Ive, Ghosting

I'm not pretending my case is unique / new / particularly note-worthy. I just want to put it out there.

The short version:

I bought a retina-MBP, it had serious and annoying ghosting (a common problem). I asked apple to repair it (I have Apple care), they administered a spurious test (my opinion, see results below), said it was within their tolerances and refused. I, rather disappointed, complained at every possible level to no avail.

This is a real problem with my laptop that affects my use of the device every day. I am now having to pay myself to have the screen 'replaced' - not 'repaired' as Apple's representatives are keen to point out.

My opinion is that Apple have created a spurious test to get out of an expensive repair that affects a large number of devices. Worse, they have continued to ignore a customers genuine issue.

All this has left me disillusioned with Apple. Would I have spent $3k - including Apple Care! - with them knowing I would be this unsupported - having to spend £500 to repair replace my own faulty screen?. No.

Part of buying from Apple is knowing that you'll be looked after. I wasn't for the first time in 11 years, and I and others get the feeling that it is because Apple itself is changing.

The point of me writing this up & sharing is to encourage people to think twice before buying an Apple product - They still make amazing products, but they may not be the dependable company that their brand represents. It may no longer make sense for some people to trust that they'll be looked after by them.

The long version:

I purchased a few months ago a Retina MacBook Pro. When it arrived, I was happy and smug, as only an Apple-geek with the shiniest kit in town can be.

However, through day-to-day use I noticed strange lines appearing on the screen. First, when the unlock-screen presented itself, it seems to have a slight transparency to the desktop.

Once I noticed it, it seemed to get worse, though this might be because I knew about it & saw it more often, or because it did actually get worse. Either way I was getting less and less happy with my new shiny thing. I would work on a document, flick to working on some photos & there would be not-so-mysterious lines appear 'over' the images.

It wasn't long before I did some searches and found out that this was in fact something known as ghosting - a problem occurring with some of the retina MBPs.

I purchased the r-MBP because it was powerful enough to cope with my needs & had a fantastic screen. The screen now, was no longer fantastic. So, still smug, as I purchased apple care, I booked an appointment with a genius and prepared myself to be looked after.

I cannot remember the last time a saw a genius, not because I haven't seen one recently, but because it’s always been a pleasurable experience that falls back into the mists of past 'Apple is a great company' positive thoughts.

This time it was not. I left disillusioned with apple and an extremely unhappy customer.

I'll try to be brief on boring detail. But Apple’s decision about whether my screen was faulty hinged on a test. & despite the fact that I could repeat the issue, my laptop passed the test & no further help was offered…

Apple’s test:
(please note this is my representation of the test, not the actual test)

Apple’s test puts up a full-screen B&W grid for 3 minutes:

(whilst you try to contain your excitement)

Followed by a grey one for one minute:

…an exiting un-apple shade

Then you look for any residual patterns. If you see any residual patterns, the display is at fault. If there are none, you are.

…That my rMBP somehow passed…

When my r-MBP took the test in-store, there were no visible residual images.  I was stunned.

In my every-day use, I get ghost images all the time - it happens whenever I use the computer. Its a visual reminder that I spent thousands of pounds on a lemon!

Now Apple turns round, ‘showing’ that the problem I have doesn't exist. That, and my 15 mins is almost up, so I have to wait to discuss further, or go away and call Apple Care.

I was put in the position where I had to justify something that I knew was an issue, that Apple said wasn't. As a customer, I was far from happy. This is not a position I have ever been with Apple, and was not pleasant.

Is this really ok?

To give you an idea - I've now spent about 15 minutes writing this. I've just taken a photo of a plain grey window on my computer & you can just about read the text that I've written so far. But, according to apple's test this is not an issue, or rather 'within their tolerances'.

This is a plain grey window (+ cursor). According Apple & my retina display

Well, its not within my tolerance - or even reasonable expectation of how i'd expect a device sold on its screen to be - & I'd really like a company like Apple not to have tolerances set so disappointingly low, or to admit when they’re wrong.

My test

So I got home & did some tests on Apple’s test. What I found was quite interesting:

1. White on Black doesn't seem to generate the strongest ghosting effect - White on Dark-grey does
2. Your ability to see the ghosting depends on the shade of the grey screen you use afterwards
3. Over the course of the one minute you are meant to leave it, an extremely strong effect can almost disappear.

You might think this last point is irrelevant, but hang on, If you work on one thing, then switch to another (e.g. an image) are you then to wait one-minute until the screen catches up with you to carry on? “perfect clarity” indeed.

Anyway. I developed a quick test of my own - keeping with the same timings, but changing the following:

 1 .I use different shades of grey (<50) instead of black chequered pattern.

2. I used a darkish grey screen to view effects afterwards
3. I took photos (with the iPhone 4 I have to hand) before and after the one minute leaving period.

After 3 minutes of the test screen the results were clear:

Don’t worry, Apple says this isn’t relevant.

After 1 minute they were very faint, but still present (please ignore my silhouette):

Again, don’t worry, Apple says you don’t care

The problem with Apple’s test:

After two small tweaks, EITHER: Grey-on-white, OR, a different shaded test-screen – Apple’s test has an utterly different result.

The test is right-on-the edge of detecting my displays issue, and Apple has failed to deal with or detect the real customer issue. A customer that has by this point, spent a lot of money with Apple.

I can only imagine that this has happened either through incompetence (poor test design), or by Apple constructing a deliberately self-serving test to deal with an otherwise expensive repair. Either way I’d been fobbed off.

But my problem isn’t Apple’s test:

My experience as a whole was extremely negative, and I don’t remember it being like that. I remember an Apple that bent over backwards to understand its customers’ point of view and stretched itself to meet the high expectations it sets.

Having written to them about my test (a past version of this blog post), they got in contact to repeat their stance: The test was passed, it didn’t matter what I stated the issue was, or what I could demonstrate. Line in the sand. No leeway.

My view of Apple has changed. As a loyal customer of apple for almost 11 years (iMac G4) my loyalty has been shaken.

Even the Apple store, a relatively new invention of my time with Apple has changed. I’ve been in with the most absurd of problems, and been treated to nothing but patience, flexibility and generosity from Apple. This seems to have been superseded by a “Computer says no” style, where I get told that I have to call Apple myself to take things further.

Is Apple still a great company that works to provide amazing products and user experience to its customers? Or is it just my memory ghosting?

What Apple should do:

I don’t pretend to know what Apple should be doing. It’s a fantastically innovative company seeking profits in an intensely competitive environment. But at the very least it needs to do two things:

·  Change the test – it is either dishonest or just not fair to customers
·  Don’t try to fob customers off – it goes against everything Apple stood for

Thursday 12 April 2012

The vital n%: Why NESTA's vital 6% can mislead as well as inform

The vital n%: Why NESTAs 6% can mislead as well as inform

NESTA’s “The vital 6 per cent” shows that 6% of companies (in terms of growth rates) generate half of all new jobs created by business and that the majority of these companies were SMEs. This is not an easy figure to interpret.

The first, and easiest, thing to say is “wow, there really are just a small number of companies that drive job growth in the UK”. Which is fine, it’s a statement of fact there is a small number of firms generating a large number of jobs. In fact, its gets even more interesting:

In the UK, the top 1% of new firms generates 46% of all new firm jobs in the UK (WEF). Again, wow.

But as far as I can see it there is one really great use for these figures: driving home to policy makers that they have been victims of lobbying. Whilst big businesses have the resources to demonstrate their cases for job creation and contribution to UK productivity to policy makers, a significant number of UK jobs are generated by new, small and growing firms that have little or no voice at all.

What is less clear is what the figures actually mean for policy. Apart from going; “hey, that’s interesting, small businesses seem to be doing something really important” there is not much you can do with this piece of information.

That’s because this figure in isolation doesn’t tell you anything about whether the situation is any good or not. Is this concentration is a good thing? Will focusing resources on these companies (and trying to find them) really encourage growth? Without further thought, this is simply an FFO.

These figures tell you that there is high a concentration of job creation in a small number of firms. It does not tell you if it is good or bad, how you can do anything about it, or whether you want to. It is not as useful as it looks.

Here is a bit more of the picture:
·      The US’s top 1% of new firms generate 10% fewer jobs (as a proportion of new firm jobs) than the UK’s to 1%.
·      Job creation in the US is much broader and less concentrated than in the UK where it is in the hands of a smaller proportion of SMEs.
·      The US has a much more entrepreneurial economy – see the latest GEDI rankings, where the UK comes 14th and the US is number 1.

These figures give a clue about a distribution, and in which the UK’s distribution is more concentrated than the US. A different, and perhaps more accurate, interpretation would be that: There is a firm growth distributional problem in the UK. Too few of the UK’s new firms and small firms have the capability to grow significantly. This distribution has lead to job creation being concentrated in a relatively small number of successes compared to more entrepreneurial economies.

So far from being a potential starting point for policy, NESTA’s vital 6% shows that the UK has a problem: a narrow job growth base that has resulted from the UK not providing an environment that supports the broad base of companies that want, or have the potential, to grow.

Either way most of the 6% (or the 94%), are SMEs, that, because they are small and disbursed, can have less of a direct impact on policy (many voices) when compared large employers who generate fewer jobs (one strong voice).

So we should not interpret the 1% (or 6%) as – we must find these Gazelles and help them (single point of information).  This, I believe, is a misleading FFO.

Instead we should say there is something potentially wrong with the system, we have to broaden our job creation base to more than 6%.

With the credit squeeze, as fewer companies are able to generate jobs, the vital 6% may become the vital 4% - that is, if only those who are great can grow, concentration in the UK’s distribution will increase. If my interpretation is correct, the current credit squeeze will harm the firms who would benefit from support, and which could make smaller but significant contribution to job growth. A narrow base for growth is a cause for concern, and should be a call to action not a reason to celebrate the vital 6%.

** Updated for clarity, thanks to a few readers for their comments and suggestions**

Sunday 25 March 2012

Flags for Orphans - policies that are so good, they don't need justification

My policy encourages innovation and entrepreneurship. It creates jobs, and growth. It improves the quality of people’s lives and will reward hard working people.

This is what I call a flags for orphans policy (FFO): an outcome or policy label, with positive connotations, that can be applied without having to be justified.

In the Simpsons (Mr. Spritz goes to Washington), Lisa attaches an airline route amendment to a bill that US congressmen cannot possibly be seen to vote against – the Flags for Orphans bill. Other countries may have less enthusiasm for flags, but that’s by the bye. The point is that it is a universally positive policy message, which no one could possibly object to.

If someone says that a policy will encourage innovation, my instinct now is immediate disbelief. It is very easy to say, and even to put forward a reason why something encourages innovation, but the level of rigour required to demonstrate such a statement is usually absent.

For example, one can always argue that innovation in some form will result from most policies: 
  • I will increase regulation in the building industry; innovation will result to meet the new regulatory standards efficiently. - Plenty of evidence supports this.
  • I will decrease regulation in the building industry; innovation will result as the reduction in regulation leads to greater scope for innovation. - Plenty of evidence supports this too.

In other words, innovation happens, and whether more or less innovation will occur requires some avoidable intellectual effort. It can be used as an FFO.

FFO logic can be applied to a lot of non-rigorous economic thought. A brilliant example of a negative FFO is Nigel Lawson panicking about the pound in a classic Spitting Image sketch:

Another of my favourite examples is the enterprise allowance scheme (EAS, 1983), which provided funds to unemployed would-be entrepreneurs to start businesses. The scheme was a roaring success; it created hundreds of thousands of jobs with minimal investment – a cost of about £2k/year per person.

On paper, it decreased unemployment and increased entrepreneurship at a very low cost (the FFO logic). In the long run, it may have done neither as it distorted the market, giving new entrants an advantage over more productive incumbents.

Where does that get me as someone who researches innovation and entrepreneurship policy? Well, if I ever have a policy, I’m going to say that it encourages innovation and entrepreneurship – because I can, it’s easy.  I may even be able to back it up, if I’ve done the legwork.