Why Tim Cook can’t afford to alienate Apple’s emerging-market customers

Reasons to buy an Apple iPhone are looking paper thin due to an improving Android ecosystem, better designs from Samsung, dozens of Chinese rivals among others


Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook speaks during an event in San Francisco on Wednesday. Photo: Bloomberg
Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook speaks during an event in San Francisco on Wednesday. Photo: Bloomberg

Taipei: Oh, Tim!

Tim, Tim, Tim, Tim, Tim!

What have we said about product strategy and trying not to alienate customers?

I thought you’d learned your lesson after the iPhone 5c fiasco; you know, where you released a cheap product alongside a cool product and expected emerging-market customers to buy it, but they didn’t.

You released the iPhone SE mid-cycle in March—with a comparable spec sheet yet without competition from cooler iPhones—and found that customers actually did buy it. I even wrote about it. I vouched for you, Tim. I told people that you’d learned your lesson. I thought you got it.

Now this. You’re trying to be cool by reinventing the plug for headphones. Sure, you made a few attempts at improving earphones on your own before resorting to the purchase of a hand-me-down company from some music industry dudes. But the headphone jack? Seriously?

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Yes, we all know how trendy Apple was when Steve Jobs ditched floppy drives, CD drives and Ethernet ports. But you see, those were optional accessories and redundant technologies. Neither headphones nor their 3.5 mm jack are redundant, despite the black-and-white photo you showed on stage.

I know you sent Phil Schiller out to tell us how much “courage” you folks at Cupertino have in ditching the old jack in favour of your proprietary Lightning connector, complete with some spin about better sound quality and a “vision” for how audio can be (was that pun intended?). But seriously, how is the marginally better signal quality going to matter when you consider all the background noise that comes with a set of earbuds? And how many customers, in developed or developing markets, are going to be able to hear the difference anyway?

I know you expect that this will all blow over with people accepting the change and moving on, just as they did when you switched from 30-pin connectors to Lightning. But the world has changed, consumers aren’t as forgiving—heck, many are still seething over their useless 30-pin speaker docks—and they have a lot more choices. IPhones were once the handset of choice because of your legacy content platform, a robust and unbreakable OS and the coolest designs on the planet.

None of that’s true anymore.

In case you’re confused, I put this table together so you can understand just why more and more people are not buying an iPhone:

You see, this is where I think we need to have another chat, Tim to Tim.

In developed markets, where many consumers still consider your dictatorial and proprietary approach comforting, perhaps endearing, folks may be willing to swallow the cost of that inevitable second or third pair of replacement headphones with the more-expensive Apple proprietary plugs.

Also read: How Apple iPhone 7 stacks up against Android stalwarts

But don’t expect such a ploy to endear you to consumers in developing markets, where customers can pick up a cheap pair of replacement wired headphones for less than a dollar. Sure, you’re also pushing Bluetooth headphones, which will get cheaper and cheaper. Yet even those will still be more expensive than the wired standard that’s been around a century, and they remain limited by battery life, with any cost savings most likely coming at the expense of audio quality.

And before you defend yourself by telling me that adapters are available, let me point out that the global economy of accessories, whose sole purpose is to make up for your product shortcomings—like powerbanks and screen protectors—isn’t something Apple should be proud of. After all, Ferrari didn’t build the 250 GTO so you could cover it with a sock.

At the same time, all those other reasons to buy an iPhone are looking paper thin in the light of an improving Android ecosystem, better designs from Samsung and dozens of Chinese rivals and a move away from OS-specific content delivery.

So if you want to hold onto your remaining emerging-market customers, Tim, please stop annoying them. Bloomberg

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