20 February 2010

Single. Best. Customer. Experience. Ever.

Here's a quick note of appreciation to Apple for their extraordinary effort to rectify a minor but recurring annoyance with my beloved, well-traveled, hard-working original-issue MacBook Pro. The details are too long and boring to post, but the elevator summary is: I went to the Los Gatos Apple Store for an appointment to visit the "Genius Bar" with a software question. This is always a treat-- imagine talking face-to-face with folks who actually know their products and can communicate effectively, rather than spending hours on hold to Bangalore waiting for an incomprehensible script-reading troll to not solve your problem. Customer service: what a concept. While there, I almost off-handedly mentioned a hardware issue with the machine, which the justly-termed Genius, Trevor, recalled addressing before when my machine was under warranty. He encouraged me to call AppleCare, although my extended warranty had expired last Summer. Within an hour, Apple had spun up an amazing effort to get to the bottom of the issue. Noel at AppleCare could not have taken better care of me and the resolution could not have been more perfect.

It got me thinking. I first used Macs early in my career to run the first versions of LabVIEW, back in my days at Newport Corporation in 1986 when the Mac was the only GUI machine in town. We accomplished some amazing work on those groundbreaking machines, including:
  • Devising an easy-to-use quality-test workstation which made 100% graphical, six-degree-of-freedom interferometry a tool that any production-line assembler could use. This precipitated an avalanche of assembly tweaks and quality improvements from curious assemblers eager to apply their weekend shade-tree-mechanic skills. All these years later, I remain awed and grateful for their gumption and creativity, and at the role LabVIEW and the Mac played in enabling it.

  • Turning around the company's motion-control business segment and turbocharging its instrumentation product lines as the industry's first adopter of National Instruments' brilliant instrument-library initiative for LabVIEW. To show this off, we bravely built a simple virtual instrument from our company's optical hardware and put it on the trade-show floor of the next major conference. It was mobbed. I recall standing in the back of the booth with my boss, the much-missed Dean Hodges, and observing a stunning phenomenon: customers over 35 were looking at the optical hardware, while customers under 35 were looking at the Mac. In a stroke, the Mac had helped us open a highly differentiating dialog with the up-and-coming Young Turks of the laser/electro-optic industry. (An exercise for the user: what would generate a similar effect for your company today?)

  • Building a thriving systems business on technical innovations that LabVIEW on the Mac let us explore quickly and with little risk. The keystone was my work on the first digital gradient search algorithm for nanoscale alignments of optical fibers, waveguides, etc. From idea to first demonstration of that took only a few hours thanks to LabVIEW's dataflow programming paradigm which the Mac's GUI enabled. Eventually we received the very first patent for a LabVIEW-based virtual instrument, and a multi-million-dollar business grew from that seed.
It was an enthralling time, and I even was honored to be subject of a photo interview on "Science and the Mac" in MacWorld magazine. But eventually, Microsoft came out with Windows, and by its version 3.1 there was a version of LabVIEW for it. While my family kept using Macs at home, the world went Windows. And soon we saw how monocultures are a bad thing, both for customers (who are deprived of competition-driven advancements) and for security (having a single, badly-designed lock to pick makes the job easy for the bad guys).

Today, Apple and the Mac are surging again, propelled by superb, imaginative products that are meaningfully differentiated by great performance, compelling design, unmatched solidity and a high-end focus. And please add nonpareil support to that, thanks to a corporate culture that grows Trevors and Noels.

And here, in a ZDNet blog story by David Morgenstern, is terrific news: for scientific and engineering fields, the Mac's story is coming full circle:

Engineering: The Mac is coming back

Most attendees at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco this week — distracted by plentiful iPhone apps, whispered tales of the forthcoming Apple iPad, and the sight of dancing booth workers with their faces covered by unfortunate costumes of gigantic Microsoft Office for Mac icons — may have overlooked a trend: The Macintosh is back in the engineering segment.
Engineering, which was often lumped into the beat called “SciTech,” once was strong segment for the Macintosh. Then in the early 1990s, the platform’s position was weakened and then lost. But now the Mac appears poised for a strong return.

“Engineering is primed to take off now [on the Mac],” said Darrin McKinnis, vice president for sales and marketing at CEI of Apex, NC. He said there was a “growing ecosystem of applications” to support Mac engineers and while previously, many engineers purchased Mac hardware to then run Linux applications or even Windows programs in virtualization, his company had seen increasing demand for a native Mac version.
McKinnis pointed to a number of engineering teams around the country that are now almost all working on Macs. With the native Mac apps, the loser will be Linux, he said.
McKinnis has a long (and painful) history with engineering solutions on the Mac. He was once an engineer at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, where in 1995, CIO John Garman decided to eliminate “unnecessary diversity” and switch thousands of Mac workstations over to Windows 95.
The battle was joined between NASA’s directive at the time for Better, Faster, Cheaper,” and what Garman dismissively called “Mac huggers” (a techno-word-play on the “tree huggers” environmentalist sobriquet). It didn’t help that Garman was mentioned in a Microsoft advertisement that thanked customers for their “contributions” to Windows 95.
NASA Mac users tried hard to point out that this policy would cause problems. My MacWEEK colleague Henry Norr wrote a series of articles about the fight to keep the Mac at NASA, which won a Computer Press Association award. Here’s a slice of his Feb. 12, 1996 front page story:
“Making me take a Pentium is like cutting off my right hand and sewing on a left hand,” said a Mac user at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston who recently faced forced migration to Windows. “I’ll learn to use the left hand, but there’s no doubt my productivity is going to suffer, and I’m going to resent it.”
To this engineer and hundreds of other Mac users at the space center, such desktop amputations hardly seem like an effective way to comply with agency administrator Dan Goldin’s much-publicized motto, “Better, Faster, Cheaper.” To them, the space center’s new policy of standardizing on Windows is wasteful, unnecessary and infuriating, and they are not taking it lying down.
Eventually, the fight went to hearings at the Inspector General’s office. McKinnis was one of the staff who testified there. While the investigation concluded with a report that sided with the Mac users, the Mac was supplanted.

No more. The Mac's architectural advantages in performance, security, robustness and ease of use are attracting users snake-bit by the malware, misbehavior and cumbersomeness of Windows and the chaos and geek-intensiveness of the Linux world.

And then there's Trevor and Noel.

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