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Comparing Apple’s MobileMe Contrition with Google and Netflix

In email sent to MobileMe users late on 18-Aug-08, Apple announced that the company will be extending all accounts in the system by 60 days. Any paid or trial account that was active as of midnight on 19-Aug-08 receives two additional months. The 60-day extension will be given to subscribers who may already have received the 30-day extension Apple previously granted (See “MobileMea Culpa: Apple Apologizes and Explains Tiger Situation,” 2008-07-16, for who qualified for that extension.) The 60-day extension will be applied to accounts within a few days.

The full 90 days of membership extension add up to $24 for an individual subscriber who paid .Mac/MobileMe’s full $99-per-year cost. (Tip: Buy boxed editions of MobileMe for new accounts or renewals to save money; Amazon sells the $149 MobileMe Family Pack for $109.99, for instance.) Although Apple hasn’t published subscription numbers for MobileMe, two million users is regularly bandied about online. However, I heard that number from a source within Apple several years ago, so I’d expect the current user base to be larger, particularly given the role that MobileMe plays for the perhaps six million iPhone and iPod touch users out there. That means that Apple is
forgoing at least $48 million in gross MobileMe membership fees, and perhaps quite a bit more.

That financial hit may account in part for why Apple doesn’t quite seem apologetic about the MobileMe transition, which has been marked by lost email, service outages, syncing problems, and more. Internally, I’ll bet that Apple feels that the service extensions make a loud statement because they add up to a lot of money for the company. Or rather, it’s a lot of revenue to push into the future, since all it will really mean is that Apple will have to wait an additional 90 days for MobileMe renewal revenue to come in for current subscribers.

But for any individual user, $24 isn’t that much, and if you spent hours dealing with lost email or pulling your hair out with syncing problems, $24 doesn’t begin to make up for it, especially when none of Apple’s communications start with “We’re sorry!” Apple has made several public statements about the situation that acknowledge that there were problems – though Steve Jobs’s internal email was by far the most plain-spoken – but only one has used the word “apologize,” and only once.

That first email message to MobileMe users read, in part:

"We want to apologize to our loyal customers and express our appreciation for their patience by giving all current subscribers an automatic 30-day extension to their MobileMe subscription free of charge."

This was also the only public message to explain at all what was going on. All subsequent statements, including today’s email, have asked for patience and made vague statements about the transition to MobileMe being rockier than hoped, but haven’t repeated the apology or provided any details. From today’s message:

"We have already made many improvements to MobileMe, but we still have many more to make. To recognize our users' patience, we are giving every MobileMe subscriber as of today a free 60 day extension. This is in addition to the one month extension most subscribers have already received. We are working very hard to make MobileMe a great service we can all be proud of. We know that MobileMe's launch has not been our finest hour, and we truly appreciate your patience as we turn this around."

As a writer, I’m struck by how Apple’s statements seem to dance around the matter, and as a parent, I’m reminded instantly of that oft-repeated phrase to misbehaving children told to apologize to another, “Say it so he can hear you, and say it like you mean it.” It may be instructive to compare with several other high-profile outages of late.

Both MobileMe Mail and Google’s Gmail went down on 11-Aug-08 for a few hours. Apple’s recent email doesn’t mention that outage as part of the rocky transition, and the only acknowledgment I could find of it was a pair of entries in the MobileMe System Status page (bookmark this page, folks!). There was no mention of the outage on the semi-anonymous MobileMe Status blog at all, with the most recent posting being from 29-Jul-08, claiming that lost email had been restored and promising (but not delivering) another post later in the week. Since I initially wrote this article, Apple has officially closed the
MobileMe Status blog, perhaps recognizing that it had no credibility from the start.

Google, in contrast, quickly posted a highly apologetic message on the Official Gmail Blog titled “We feel your pain, and we’re sorry.” It outlines in reasonable detail what went wrong, why it happened, and what Google is doing to prevent the problem in the future. I don’t know if Google offered paying subscribers to Google Apps Premier Edition (who are guaranteed 99.9 percent uptime) a credit, but since Gmail is free to most users, an apology is mostly what’s warranted.

For another example, look at how Netflix handled the communications surrounding their shipping system outage last week. Within two days, an email message arrived entitled “We’re Sorry DVD Shipments Are Delayed.” The first paragraph of the message explained what was happening, the second paragraph apologized and explained that Netflix would be recompensing users for the inconvenience, and the third paragraph apologized again and gave a customer service telephone number for anyone who needed further assistance. And this is for an entertainment service, not something like MobileMe or Gmail that is relied upon for business by at least some people.

The next day saw a similar message from Netflix, “We’re sorry your DVD shipment was delayed,” which explained what had gone wrong and that systems were back up. It then went on to apologize several more times, and included this nicely crafted statement:

"We pride ourselves in delighting you, and we've let you down. We apologize, and we will issue a 15% credit to your account in the next few days. You don't need to do anything. Your credit will automatically be applied to your next billing statement."

Netflix also did an excellent job of posting updates on the Netflix Community Blog to keep users apprised of the situation, starting on 12-Aug-08 and including one or two posts per day until the situation was resolved on 15-Aug-08. Now that’s contrition. Admitting mistakes, using apologetic language, and issuing credits within four days.

Apple isn’t denying problems or pretending the entire situation will just blow over, and that’s good. But at least to my ears, the blog and email communications from Google and Netflix sound significantly more contrite – these people really are sorry for having inconvenienced me. I also find myself feeling more kindly towards the messages from real people – the postings on the Netflix blog in particular give a sense of just how hard Netflix’s people were working to resolve the problem and how terrible they felt about the outage. Apple’s anonymous and pseudonymous messages don’t carry nearly the same weight.

Plus, although there are some who may try to avoid apologies on the grounds that they can be seen as an admission of guilt or weakness, there is also a lot of evidence that sincere apologies can instead actually fend off lawsuits, since people often sue because of perceived stonewalling. It’s well worth reading Sarah Kellogg’s DC Bar article “The Art and Power of the Apology,” and there’s an entire Web site – Perfect Apology – devoted to learning the best ways to apologize and explaining why apologies are so useful.

Speaking not just as a commentator, but as someone who has messed up mailings to tens of thousands of TidBITS subscribers on more than one occasion in our 18-year history, the moral of the story is this: When you’re faced with a problem that affects significant numbers of users, communicate the details of the situation quickly and clearly, have the message come from a real person, and, for goodness sake, say you’re sorry so everyone involved can hear you!

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