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Why Apple has to enrage its best customers

Erin Fuchs
Deputy Managing Editor

Apple (AAPL) has incensed some of its best customers with product changes that were meant to be innovative, most recently killing headphone jacks on its iPhones and ditching most of the ports on its new MacBook Pro.

Yahoo Finance’s Rob Pegoraro went as far as to accuse Apple of arrogance and of demonstrating “why people hate the tech industry” this fall, when the company killed off the headphone jack on its new iPhone.

But Horace Dediu, a bullish Apple observer, recently suggested the tech giant needs to incite a little hate from its best customers in order to improve its products.

“We’re going to get to a point where there will be no more ports in any of their products because everything will be wireless charging and communication,” Dediu said at a recent talk with fellow Apple watcher, Neil Cybart, which was hosted by UBS.

He added: “They are orphaning people. But firing their customer is essential to the brand. It’s not nice to have. It’s essential to have. You have to fire customers. You have to anger the people who are your best customers.”

Apple has a long tradition of killing off beloved product features. Dediu noted that the company removed the DVD and CD drive from many of its products, along with parallel ports. Way back in 1998, Apple also raised some alarms when it killed the floppy disk drive in its new iMac. At the time, The New York Times suggested the move might alienate some of its customers.

“A few customers may be able to work effectively without some way to transport data physically, by backing up files to a network server or to the Internet,” The Times noted, “but most of the consumers Apple is trying to appeal to live in a world where floppy disks are important.”

Now-deceased former Apple CEO Steve Jobs said customers called the company “crazy” for taking away some features. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

Steve Jobs acknowledged that Apple’s changes often displease its own customers. At the D8 Conference in 2010, the late Apple founder said that people called Apple “crazy” for getting rid of features like the floppy disk drive.

“We’re trying to make great products for people. We at least have the courage of our convictions to say, ‘We don’t think this is part of what makes a great product. We’re going to leave it out,'” Jobs said. “Some people are not going to like that. They’re going to call us names. … We’re going to take the heat because we want to make the best product in the world for customers.”

Indeed, Dediu seemed to suggest that Apple knows what’s best for its customers, in particular when it comes to removing the headphone jack.

“Wired headphones are as exciting as wired landline phones,” he said at the UBS event. “Lots of people said ‘I’m never going to give those up,’ but I don’t think in five years anybody will be using wired headsets.”

This thinking reflects the sentiment that customers might not know what they want until a company presents it to them. As Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Still, at least some fans of wired headsets have not given the impression that Apple has done them any favors by getting rid of the headphone jack.

Yahoo Finance’s Rob Pegoraro noted, for instance, that Apple’s headphone jack removal creates a huge inconvenience for customers. That’s because they either have to use a special dongle to connect their headphones to their jackless phones, or spend money on wireless headphones. Customers could also buy wired headphones that plug into the iPhone’s Lightning port — but those headphones won’t work on the company’s other mobile devices.

“We should all hope this move flops in the market,” Pegoraro wrote.

Cook himself acknowledged that dissatisfied customers may ultimately sway the company’s decisions. “If we succeed, they’ll buy ’em,” Jobs said back in 2010. “And if we don’t, they won’t. And it’ll all work itself out.”

Erin Fuchs is deputy managing editor at Yahoo Finance.

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