The iTunes Advantage: Not What You Think

Apple’s enormously successful iPod/iPhone/iPad line have something in common with their iPod ancestors: you can’t even get started without a computer and iTunes.

This is given Apple a huge advantage, one that Apple’s competitors have failed to do anything about. And that advantage has nothing to do with songs, videos, apps or podcasts.

No, the real advantage of iTunes is that it ensures every iDevice user, first generation Nano to Verizon iPhone 4 to iPad, is an Apple customer.

I’ve owned an iPhone 3G and 3GS, both on AT&T (I moved onto a Droid X on Verizon). My daughter has a second generation iPod Touch (She moved on to an HTC Incredible).

It is hard to explain how much I loath iTunes-the-application. Slow, ugly, missing key config options (you try allowing gapless analysis on a 80gig music store residing on a network share on a slow network. Can’t turn it off, though). The idea that podcasts get downloaded to your computer, and then later synced to your phone? Prehistoric. The notion that I would connect my phone to my computer more frequently than once a month is nuts.

Some of my gripes are no doubt exacerbated by running iTunes on Windows. Apple may have $50 billion in cash reserves, but they’ve apparently never used it to hire some savvy Windows programmers, to judge by the pauses, crashes, and runaway CPU usage that iTunes on Windows is known for.

But dammit, having customers plug the phone (tablet, whatever) into iTunes at least every couple of weeks has an almost transcendent effect on the customer experience: you are reminded that you are Apple’s customer. When I had an iPhone I was an AT&T customer but I was only barely aware of AT&T, crappy call quality notwithstanding. Apple, Apple I was aware of. They cared about me.

Now, they might not care much. Certainly they do not care about me and my network drive full of personally ripped MP3’s, as I fall outside their common usage scenario. But still, when I plug the phone in, it syncs, and I get notified of new stuff. Like new firmware. New apps. Sometimes just messages. If I have a problem, I can plug it in and restore. It backs stuff up (takes hours, but it works). If I have a huge problem, iTunes is a reminder that there is a store nearby that will help me. Apple is out there, and they are more than vaguely interested in my user experience.

Contrast this with Android. In the Android world, there is no “phone-home” app. Now, avoiding iTunes for podcasts/audio/video is wonderful, but it bothers me that I am no one’s customer.

Who should be my overlord?

Let’s meet the candidates:

Verizon: We Are The Network
My phone is on Verizon’s network; but they don’t really care about me. And really, I don’t pay them for a user experience. I pay them for a pipe. For a phone call experience. There is no reason for them to care about how much I like my phone, they need to care about how much I like my phone calls. And they are great at this. So, no, I don’t really want to be Verizon’s customer any more than I am. Verizon gets a pass.

Google: Accidental Customers R Us
What about Google? Google authors Android, after all, and Google has the single largest impact on my day-to-day phone experience. It would make sense for Google to want me to be their customer. Right?

Well, Google doesn’t really ever have paying customers in the main. They make their money from advertising. That’s an experience where the customer doesn’t really participate in a seller/buyer style transaction. Google sells services to not-consumer customers. Have you ever tried to get someone from Google on the phone regarding Gmail? Good luck with that. Email functions as a “Great Wall of Google” when it comes to dealing with Google.

Further, in order to get Android on handsets on mobile networks, Google had to cede some of this ground to the handset manufacturers and network providers. I assume that is why handset owners like me don’t get updates from Google. Such a deal was probably worth it to get Android off the ground (and we could talk about Google’s attempt to market the Nexus directly) but…

Where Apple wins customers with smart design and glorious customer service, Google seems to want to attract users by dint of pure technical prowess. So for the foreseeable future, unless you are willing to by a Nexus series phone (on an inferior network), you are only accidentally a Google customer.

Motorola, HTC, Samsung et al: A Failure to Imagine?
Recall, I own a Motorola Droid X. My daughter an HTC Incredible. Neither of us gets our firmware updates from the manufacturer. I get mine from Verizon (someday). My daughter’s phone is not under contract, and I suspect I will need to root it to upgrade her firmware eventually.

It is not actually clear to me that either Motorola or HTC is aware we own these phones.

Why is Motorola so uninterested in having me as a customer? Why do they allow Verizon to sit between us like an uninterested crossing guard? Does Motorola have something personal against me? Maybe they dislike me for my Yankee fandom? Stranger things have happened.

By staying out of the customer relationship, Motorola ensures I have no particular reason to choose a Motorola phone next time. If the specs are better, I’ll buy HTC, or Samsung, or whatever. Almost four years after Apple rewrote the handset/network provider rules, all the other handset manufacturers are still happy to let Verizon/Sprint/AT&T/T-Mobile commoditize their products. Bizarre.

This prevents them from charging a premium for good products and prevents them from engendering any consumer loyalty. I bought the Droid X because it had the specs I wanted. I’ve had it for nine months now, and I have never had contact with Motorola. Even my warranty exchange was handled by Verizon. Why?

Don’t businesses generally want customers?

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4 Comments on “The iTunes Advantage: Not What You Think”

  1. […] and iTunes. This is given Apple a huge advantage, one that Apple’s competitors have… [full post] designbygravity Design By Gravity economicssoftwaretechandroid 0 0 […]

  2. Steve Says:

    Before the iPhone, the network providers dictated the hardware features. The manufacturers got used to playing a passive role. I doubt they have the insight to turn that around. Their dealings with all those icky customers is limited to providing a tiny hardware manual, and that’s the way they like it.

  3. Josh Says:

    Interesting that you picked out your phone on hardware specs and not design. Typical for an Android user. Granted, if AT&T wasn’t working for you 9 months ago, there wasn’t much of a choice for you. Apple is all about the user experience. Android isn’t.

    • designbygravity Says:

      To some degree that is true, but for me, the “rounded buttons and perfect gradients” user experience was completely crushed by no more iTunes, Verizon’s Network, bigger screen, Swype, tethering, easy multitasking, etc. I picked the Android phone on specs from among the Android phones, yes, but I picked Android very deliberately.

      The user experience is not as polished as the iPhone, but it is more than sufficient. For example, my 11 year old daughter has both an iPod Touch and an HTC Incredible (no phone contract). She asked for the HTC for Christmas after using my Droid X because she liked it better than the Touch. So don’t think the Android experience is actually *bad* in any way.

      Plus, there was a certain loveliness in installing and accessing an entirely new App Store on my phone (Amazon’s App Store). That will never happen on the iPhone.

      I await Amazon’s Android tablet.

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