Monday, July 19, 2010

Consumer Reports: Is Its Nose Out of Joint?

Consumer Reports still can't recommend the iPhone 4 even after Apple fixed it by giving away free bumpers that solve the antenna problem.

Wait a sec. Roll the tape back. Suppose Apple had learned of the issue ahead of time and played it differently. Suppose they had said on launch day,

With the iPhone 4, there's two ways to make a call. For those of you who like to grip it in your left hand, which may cover up the antenna and in exceptionally rare cases lead to dropped calls, the iPhone 4 comes with an outer shell so reception quality remains the absolute highest standard. But if you like the slim sleek feel of the iPhone by itself, just slip it out of the case, hold it so the antenna isn't blocked, and go for it. We call this naked calling. The choice of using the case is left entirely up to you. The offer of the free shell is good until the end of September, when we may introduce some additional changes.
How would CR have reacted? First, it would have dutifully confirmed that the case can improve reception, perhaps noting that, without the shell, the antenna is exposed in a way it isn't on other phones, but that this permits it to be the sleekest phone ever. Then they would have recommended the phone.

What's different between this scenario and what happened is that Apple wasn't aware of the problem ahead of time and issued the case as a fix. What's the same is what matters: the functionality. The phone works with the cover, regardless of whether it had been issued by design or issued later to address a design flaw. Many products are released with tiny flaws or big ones that then get patched and work perfectly.

But for CR, it's the spin that matters. As they stated, 
Consumer Reports believes Apple's offer of free cases is a good first step. However, Apple has indicated that this is not a long-term solution, it has guaranteed the offer only through September 30th, and has not extended it unequivocally to customers who bought cases from third-party vendors. We look forward to a long-term fix from Apple. As things currently stand, the iPhone 4 is still not one of our Recommended models.
So even though everyone ends up with a phone that beats previous iPhones in terms of reception (and every other feature), CR says it can't recommend it. Why?

This has developed into  a shooting match between Apple and CR and no longer has anything to do with consumer satisfaction, functionality, or whether the iPhone 4 is best in its class. CR first said there was no problem. Then it found this one, had to backpedal and said it couldn't recommend, igniting the media firestorm. Apple fixed it by handing out free bumpers.

During the July 16 press conference Jobs reminded the audience of CR's double take saying that the iPhone was rated #1 by CR and getting the highest customer satisfaction rating of any smart phone ever.  He also made the problem look small: about one half of one percent of customers were calling to complain, and the average number of additional dropped calls was less than 1 per 100.

By extension, CR looked petty, an image reinforced by Apple's playing "The iPhone Antenna Song" by Jonathan Mann at the opening of the press conference, even before announcing a fix. As he sings it,  "The media loves a failure in a string of successes, the facts won't ever matter if they can make their bigger messes..." The song made the argument that it's just no big deal--"if you don't like it, take it back," ending, "But you won't." CR wasn't mentioned in the song, but everyone listening was aware of its central role in making a big deal of it.

Now, CR says it still can't recommend the iPhone 4 because even though the fix "alleviates the issue" (in CR's words), there's no guarantee of free bumpers past Sept 30. But no product CR recommends is guaranteed never to change in the future. New designs of any product can affect the quality of future production, sometimes adversely.

CR is being disingenuous. It's clear what Apple meant by its Sept. 30 deadline: we might have a better solution by then so we aren't promising free cases forever. Apple has implemented the standard and important customer relations practice of being clear about limitations. This actually prevents customer dissatisfaction. If Apple hadn't given a cut off date (which they can extend if needed), some customers would have been angered when the free cases were cut off, saying "you never told us you were going to stop."

CR usually understands the importance of good customer relations. But here, CR has turned this positive act of clarity on its head. In nailing a date, Apple did not mean, and nothing in their customer service history would suggest they meant, "We're solving this problem for a few months and then stiffing new customers starting in October." But by explicitly citing the September 30th date as a reason not to recommend, CR is making a fatuous claim that this possibility is worth worrying about.

We can guess why: CR feels hurt about being accused of overkill. I think initially they were absolutely right to alert consumers to the results of their test, absolutely right to withhold recommendation before the Apple press conference and fix. As to overkill, how could CR know how many customers it affected? It's role is to identify problems first; an assessment of pervasiveness can come later or not at all, and it should feel no embarrassment in not understanding the scope of this issue just days after the product was released.

But, feeling the need to reply to Jobs's convincing argument that it had been blown out of proportion, CR is saying this is still a big deal, by way of withholding recommendation on what everyone knows is the standard-setting device. 

Of course, its true that Apple might stiff its customers in the future. That's a theoretical possibility with any company: the potential for ripping people off always exists. If that hypothetical is enough to nix a CR recommendation, then, by this logic, it should not recommend any product in any category ever, even if it works perfectly at the time of review.

CR says it also can't recommend because Apple didn't guarantee a refund on 3rd party cases. But CR didn't acknowledge that the number of these is small because Apple didn't release specs to the manufacturers ahead of time. Even if Apple's stance is parsimonious, it has nothing to do with whether purchasing an iPhone today will result high satisfaction. Consumer demand remains far in excess of supply. Shoppers are telling Apple (and CR) they know the phone will work great, the fix is perfect, and they trust Apple will treat them well if they buy after the September expiration of the free case offer.  

CR could get back in step with consumers and realize it had no way of knowing how many consumers would suffer the problem (which isn't CR's role to figure out in any case), act more maturely by ignoring any sense that Jobs was belittling them, and declare the matter resolved.

Consumers need CR to get over its hard feelings and get back to the invaluable work of answering the simple question it has focused on for the last 3/4 of a century: What is the quality of the product that I can buy today?