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2010 September 6 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Apple Loyalty Comes with Cost

The loyalty of the customers of Apple Inc. is legion. Much of it, though not all, is well deserved.

Apple was among the manufacturers of the first home PCs, introducing the Apple I in 1976, the more successful Apple II, with snappier color graphics, in 1977, and the revolutionary Macintosh, or “Mac,” with an easier to use graphical user interface, in 1984.

Apple’s success in part stems from its positioning as the free-spirited, creative-thinking, paradigm-busting “other guy” — not IBM, not Microsoft, and not a maker of “peecees,” the derogatory terms that some Mac aficionados use for Microsoft Windows-based PCs.

For years Mac fans have boasted how insanely great their beloved machines are, and they’ve eagerly paid higher prices, sometimes significantly higher prices, for both Mac hardware and software.

Users of Windows-based PCs, which for years have generally outsold Macs on the order of about 10 to 1, have often taken issue with what they regard as blind loyalty on the part of the loudest Mac users. The derogatory monikers given to such Mac evangelists include Mac fanboys, sometimes spelled “fanbois” in an apparent retaliation for the “peecee” misspelling.

The Mac usually enjoys stellar reviews by professional reviewers and top scores in user reliability surveys. In Consumer Reports’ just released findings, the editors gave their top ranking to the iMac for all-in-one PCs, the MacBook Pro 15-inch for large laptops, and the MacBook Pro 13-inch for small laptops, while Apple was the most reliable desktop brand in a reader survey (though only in the middle of the pack among laptop brands).

In the meantime, Apple has been gradually transforming itself from primarily a computer maker into a more diversified maker of consumer electronics. It has achieved dramatic success here, first with the iPod portable digital media player, released in 2001.

As a result of the iPod’s impact on the company’s bottom line and the planned introductions of additional products that weren’t traditional personal computers, Apple Computer Inc. changed its name to Apple Inc. in 2007. Since then Apple has brought to market the wildly successful iPhone smart phone, introduced later in 2007, and the iPad, a tablet media device introduced in April 2010, with indications that it will be successful over the long term as well.

But all is not rosy in Appleland. Apple’s financial success in part results from its exclusivity, often lawsuit-based. Apple has used its huge legal team to sue seemingly everybody and anybody who has attempted to bring out a Mac-like device. Though Apple copied the graphical user interface pioneered by Xerox PARC for the Mac and its predecessor the Lisa, Apple sued Microsoft for copying its graphical user interface.

This suit was eventually thrown out of court, but Apple has successfully used the courts to prevent consumers from having the choice of Mac-compatible computers the same way that consumers have enjoyed the greater choice and lower prices of PC-compatible computers, except for a two-year period in the mid-1990s when Apple permitted this.

Consumers face similarly limited choice with Apple’s most visible product today, its iPhone. Consumers can use only “apps” — small programs downloaded onto it — that are available at Apple’s own App Store. And they can use the iPhone in the U.S. only on AT&T’s wireless network.

A lawsuit, filed on antitrust grounds dealing with both of these situations, was granted class-action status this past July by a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

In the meantime, hackers have devised workarounds for both restrictions. “Jailbraking” means modifying an iPhone so it can use apps other than those at Apple’s site, while “unlocking” means modifying it so you can use a carrier other than AT&T.

In August the U.S. Librarian of Congress offered an opinion that these actions don’t violate the anti-circumvention portion of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The Web site JailbreakMe (www.jailbreakme.com) makes jailbreaking easy. A recent article in Macworld has more information on the pros and cons (www.macworld.com/article/153198/2010/08/jailbreak_worthwhile.html).

The latest iPhone, version 4, has also suffered antenna glitches. Users have experienced low signal strength when holding the lower left edge of the phone. Consumer Reports, as a result, gave the product a “not recommended” rating, while Apple minimized the extent of the problem -- a situation the media dubbed “antennagate.”

In the meantime, Apple users continue, according to all evidence, to remain loyal. Fully 72 percent of iPhone 4 users say that they are “very satisfied” with the product, according to a new survey by ChangeWave Research (www.changewaveresearch.com).

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net.

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