Is Apple UK insulating itself from its customers?

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 08/90 item 02 - scanned

Have you ever been to Apple's Stockley Park headquarters, near Heathrow? It's a strange experience, not least because it is so incredibly ostentatious. I mean, the entrance area comprises a range of exceedingly comfortable leather settees on a raised platform which allows the visitor to study the beautifully polished parquet floor and its luxurious thick-piled jazzy rugs!

Between the rugs and the visitor lies a high tech reception desk and a low tech tree. The desk looks a bit like the space craft which took Neil Armstrong down to the surface of the moon. Huge, load-spreading pads carry the hydraulic legs of this hopelessly over-engineered piece of office equipment. One end of the desk sports a bowl of artfully arranged fruit - apples, of course - while the other contains a compact Mac.

When Apple first moved in, the tree looked as if it was going to croak. The higher leaves were looking very dead, but now it reaches up majestically through the central well to the first floor, where most of Apple's staff beaver away in little low rise cubicles. The management, of course, have real offices in which you could probably swing several cats.

Beyond the rugs is more open space and, round the corner, is an open plan canteen. It's worth arriving at lunchtime just in case someone decides to buy you some Banafee pie. A sickly mixture of toffee and banana, this is apparently a long standing Apple tradition. It's probably the most effective way of delivering sugar directly to the Apple employee's brain.

Apple's employees remind me of doctors - the older I get, the younger they seem. A huge proportion are very earnest marketing types who know how to wring every last favourable sentence out of the media. What with the Alice in Wonderland premises, the youth of the employees and the ever present idea of 'having fun', it's little wonder that my old mate and fellow columnist, Martin Banks, has christened Apple's HQ 'the Wendy House'.

I can see his point. But, whatever you call it, Apple (UK) manages a very high turnover per employee - reputedly thirty times the UK national average. So, Wendy House or not, Apple (UK) is doing OK. Or should I say, it appears to be doing OK. Turnover per capita might be high, but no-one would dare tell me how profitable this is.

One way of maximising the turnover figure, apart from premium prices, is for Apple to farm work out to third parties. In some cases, such as AppleLink, this makes perfect sense. Apple can still have a day to day involvement, without having to set up the world-wide infrastructure to support international communications.

Apple has also exported its support of UK developers and other deep support to an outside company, SRL. All developers, people with A/UX queries and Apple's own hotline folk refer to SRL when stuck. This means that SRL is building a body of knowledge and expertise which doesn't exist in Apple (UK). No doubt it has some sort of reporting system to Apple, but this does mean that Apple's detailed knowledge of its own products is being acquired second-hand - if at all.

The trouble with Apple (UK) is that it's not like any other company. It is more or less obsessed with keeping its head count to the minimum and getting as much leverage as possible from its external relationships. Apple clearly thinks very carefully about the people it gets into bed with, but that doesn't alter the fact that relationships can go sour, businesses can change direction and Apple (UK) could be left stranded with plenty of marketing and distribution skills, but a lack of fundamental knowledge about its products.

My instincts tell me that developers would rather get their information directly from the horse's mouth. Dealing with a third party strikes me as odd, but perhaps that's because I've been brought up within the traditional manufacturer support system.

Unfortunately for Apple, I believe that the approach it has taken is insulating it from the developers, the very people that cause the sales of Macintoshes (try running a Macintosh without any applications).

Wearing one of my other hats, I publish a piece of software (not for the Mac) and one of the greatest benefits has come from the telephone calls from customers. I get more of a sense of direction from talking to them than I would ever get acting in isolation. Their calls are also an opportunity for my company to show that it cares and to generally spread the good word about us while clearing up misunderstandings that could harm us.

Now I know my business is utterly puny by comparison with Apple, but I can't help feeling that the same principles apply. Perhaps Apple should consider giving succour directly to those companies that support it, even at the expense of a few more on the headcount.