You Get What You Pay For

Felix Salmon published an article yesterday on Wired’s website in which he argues that Apple customers are both cheap and willing to pay too much for a better experience. It’s a pretty shitty article, and I’m nearly certain it’s linkbait, but let’s roll in the mud and see what turds we can dig up.

Back when Apple sold widgets, things were easy: you paid through the nose for your widget, and then you were happy.

Typical Apple customers buy expensive things and are happy to do so. Keep that in mind.

But now Apple makes mobile devices like iPhones and iPads, an that means it has no choice but to get into bed with the much-hated wireless companies. It tries to control the experience as best it can — but people still end up being faced with ludicrous charges like $30 a month for text messaging.

$30 a month for text messaging is ridiculous. To be fair to AT&T, it’s only $20 a month for unlimited text messaging (it’s also $20 per month on Sprint and Verizon, too). Salmon is arguing that the price he’s being charged for a simple feature mars his experience with the phone.

It is indeed possible to get around extortionate wireless charges. Rather than buy a 3G iPad, for instance, you can use one with only WiFi, and then connect it when you’re on the go to a tethered smartphone or some kind of MiFi device.

I thought we were talking about text messaging? Way to change the subject there, Salmon.

It certainly is possible to tether a WiFi iPad to a smartphone, and it’s quite easy. But I’ll get back to that because I want to discuss this text messaging thing first.

And rather than spend lots of money on text messages, you can sign up for Google Voice, and do all your texting with that number. […] Yes, you get to check your text messages on the web, which can be useful — although it’s not that useful. But you also break a lot of things which otherwise work seamlessly in iOS. There’s no MMS, for instance.

This is a paragraph filled with drawbacks of Google Voice. The very next sentence says exactly what you, dear reader, are thinking:

There’s no iMessage.

That’s the stuff. Salmon has spent a great deal of time arguing that text messaging plans suck, and that Google Voice’s implementation of text messaging sucks, and that Google Voice doesn’t have a lot of things that are included in the default iPhone Messages, which sucks. But he fails to mention that iMessage would solve all of these problems until nearly at the end of the article, where he says:

Text-messaging plans are ludicrously expensive, and I support anybody who comes up with a way of avoiding having to pay those bills. (Including, it must be said, Apple, whose iMessage platform, if it catches on, neatly circumvents existing text-messaging systems.)

Precisely. He includes the “if it catches on” caveat, but Apple already includes a way to never pay for text messaging if you have a lot of friends with iOS devices.

But it does seem to me that so long as Apple has to deal with the hated wireless providers, people will always be voluntarily accepting a subpar user experience because they want to save on monthly charges.

The iMessage experience is effectively identical to the text messaging experience, except without the cost. I fail to see his point, unless he’s still griping about Google Voice.

Alright, onto this WiFi/3G iPad thing.

Take the iPad, for instance: I can attest from personal experience that the 3G iPad is just miles better than trying to use a wifi-only iPad with a MiFi. It downloads e-mails automatically, even when you don’t ask it to; you can pull it out of your bag and look up anything you like instantly; there’s no waiting around for the wireless modem to get online and generate its wifi signal; you don’t need to worry about how charged up your MiFi is, or where you left it; you get all the advantages of real GPS; etc etc.

So if you’re frequently outside of places where you have WiFi, a 3G iPad makes more sense. Why not buy one of those if you need your email to receive while your iPad is in your bag?

But the 3G iPad is why people love Apple. And it costs $300 a year over and above the cost of the iPad, which is itself $130 more than the WiFi-only version. There are definitely cheaper ways of getting your iPad online. But you lose a significant amount of elegance and ease of use in the process.

Granted, a 3G iPad is clearly more elegant than tethering, but it’s such a minute difference. It’s one toggle on an iPhone to turn on tethering. If your WiFi-only iPad has already connected to your iPhone, you don’t have to type in the password again, or change any other settings. It’s certainly more cumbersome than having a 3G card in the iPad, but not by much. And once again, it’s a built-in option that doesn’t require the purchase of a MiFi, if you have a smartphone that supports tethering.

Wrap it up, Felix. What’s your big point?

[T]hese techniques are most attractive to people who are tempted by Apple products but can only just afford them, or can’t quite afford them. As it seeks to increase its market share, Apple has to sell its products to more and more of these people, who will often be buying an Apple product for the first time. And the last thing that Apple wants is for its carefully-crafted user experience to be sullied by something as banal as an attempt to avoid text-messaging charges.

So the real problem isn’t poor financial planning, but that Apple and wireless carriers can’t accommodate for these users? I want to be very clear that I’m not setting up some sort of class rivalry — in fact, that’s what Salmon has done throughout his article. But it should be noted that buying an expensive phone with an expensive plan is an expensive prospect, no matter which way you slice it.

Apple has always hated it when its customers have a subpar user experience, but this problem isn’t going to go away: in fact, it’s only going to get worse.

Why? What? How? I am not taking this out of context — Salmon simply doesn’t finish this thought.

To sum up, then: Apple’s customers have traditionally been willing to pay more for a better user experience, but as they produce products of a more mainstream calibre, they risk corrupting their user experience with customers who actually can’t afford their products, and with wireless carriers that charge too much. This is Salmon’s thesis, in a nut.

His article then uses incorrect prices, forgets about built-in workarounds and exaggerates the difficulties that one might find while using these circumventions, all the while ignoring every other manufacturer that faces these same problems. In addition, while the United States may currently be Apple’s biggest market, carriers in Europe and Asia often have much better pricing for wireless plans, and Apple hasn’t fully tapped into those markets.

F for effort, Felix.


The always-alert Carter Allen noted on Twitter:

Re: Felix’s piece, a MiFi costs $50/month, minimum. So his “cheaper but worse” argument doesn’t even work mathematically.

And it’s $30 to buy one on a two-year contract. True, the 3G iPad is $130 more than a WiFi-only equivalent model, but the plan is $15-25 per month without any contract at all.