Apple Computer’s Social Media Deficiency

I’ve been thinking a lot about Apple Computer and its steadfast, top-down policy of avoiding online conversations. As an Apple product enthusiast who spends much of most waking hours following and evangelizing social media, the issue has been a nagging thorn in my side.

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by a Hebrew language blogger/journalist about social media. I talked about the extremely cool things being done by Dell Computer, SAP, Ford Motors and IBM, when he dropped the “a question.”

“what about Apple. they don’t do anything in social media, and they are doing just great. if social media is so important why is Apple doing so well?”

Good question. I’ll try to answer below.

Simultaneously, I’m reading Walter Isaacson’s brilliantly balanced authorized biography of Steve Jobs. this is a book, the Jobs, knowing the secret that the cancer that had attacked him was going to kill him, repeatedly urged Isaacson to write a book that would remind us of all the Apple founder’s many character flaws and inform readers of some previous unknown. It puzzles me, that Mr. Command-and-Control, would authorize and encourage such a tell-it-all biography.

Now, yesterday, my friend and namesake Shel Holtz wrote a blistering condemnation of Apple Computer, for it’s lack of transparency. I agree with almost every observation that Shel makes in his broadside. where he and I differ is that because of Apple’s refusal to join the conversation, Shel refuses to buy the company’s products.

Conversely, I swim in Apple Products. I’m currently sitting at a desk, looking at no less than six Apple products [MacbookPro, Bluetooth keyboard, mouse, iPad & iPhone 4S].  I have consistently underestimated the quality and brilliance of them. Perhaps my worst all-time call was when I called the iPad “an oversized cellphone that doesn’t allow calling and generally an ugly puppy.”

I also wrote scathingly several years back about a company arrogant enough to call its product support staff “geniuses” and a company so foolish as to rent expensive retail space and leave the square footage so dramatically sparse.

Since then, I have spent my share of time leaning over the Genius Bars of several Apple stores. I have found the quality of staff to be consistently excellent. I have never walked away without my problem being solved. in fact, it is probably the best retail support I have ever experienced.  Likewise, I have learned what Apple planned to do with all the “Zenly” open floor space–they have filled it with customers–almost all of them happy.

So how do I reconcile my argument that all businesses need to join the conversation, while simultaneously being an Apple products and support zealot.

Well, let me take a step back. Since 2005, I’ve consulted about 100 companies on some aspect of social media strategy. I’ve also written about another 300-400 companies. I’ve covered all sizes and many categories of companies and I am convinced that online conversation is becoming a universal, valuable and mandatory way of doing business and providing support solutions. It is essential for recruiting the best and brightest of people, particularly of  newest generation to enter the workplace. Social media allows companies to bring new and improved products to market faster, at lower cost and with reduced marketing expenses.

So why does Apple Computer get away with ignoring it?

Well, one of the few common threads in these hundreds of companies I’ve talked with is that each had a problem, an turned to social media as a solution or at least part of it. Apple did not. Apple has been under the thumb of one of the most brilliant command and control people of industrial history.

The brilliant part is a key. he seems to have known what we customers wanted before we did. there are few industrialists who have had this talent. one was Henry Ford. Ford, supported Adolph Hitler for many years, published America’s leading anti-semitic newspaper, hired professional thugs to bash the heads of strikers, had far more contemptuous traits than did Steve Jobs.

Yet he created the automotive industry as we know it. For better or worse, his own mind created the first mass-produced automobile for everyday people and thus changed the world. he too, did not listen to customers, abused employees and kept his cards so close to his vest that they might have been tattoos. he is famously quoted as saying that customers can have any color car they choose “so long as it is black.”

What happened next is often overlooked. a startup that would eventually be called General Motors [GM]  started producing cars in multiple colors–even two-tones. Henry Ford lived far longer than did Steve Jobs. he lived to see the decline and fall of his political views and the decline from pre-eminence of his car company.

Steve Jobs did not. he left a legacy of great products and services that will be remembered for a very long time. But sooner or later–as happens to all leaders–Apple will stumble. And when it does, it will not be in position to join the online conversation and it’s failure to be a social company will be a factor in it’s downfall–or so it seems to me.

As far as social media, Apple Computer and the choices I make. My loyalty doesn’t stay with any company. It stays with users. I will favor the company that offers the best product and the best service–until it is replaced by a new company doing a better job. My next car is likely to be a Ford, because I like their new products and and am convinced that the people who run the company today do not adhere to the founding Ford’s political views. My next computer is likely to be an Apple product–unless of course another company comes up with something better.