Forget The iPhone: What Can Apple Teach Product Mangers?

by drjim on September 26, 2008

The Apple iPhone 3G had a power adapter problem: recall or not?

The Apple iPhone 3G had a power adapter problem: recall or not?

Ah, to be a product manager at Apple – working for a company with very good mojo, cool products that everyone wants, and probably a really good bonus program! What more could any of us want? If, for just a moment, we could push the product hype, the speculations about Steve Jobs’ health, etc. off to the side and focus on some of the normal day-to-day stuff that we all deal with – but see how Apple product managers handle it.

It always helps if we have a good case study, and what do you know we do: Apple’s iPhone 3G power adaptor. The iPhone ships with a ultra-compact USB adapter that is shipped with all iPhones sold in the U.S., Japan, Canada, Mexico and several other Latin American countries (it looks like pretty much everyone who uses 110V household current). It turns out that its prongs can break off in power outlets and cause a risk of electrical shock to iPhone users. Oh, oh – what’s a product manager to do?

The challenge here is that apparently the problem was showing up in “… a very small percentage of the adapters sold…” as reported by Apple. Additional, no injuries have been reported to date. Hmm, this is always one of those big product manager moral problems: it looks like it is a possible problem; however, it has really turned into a problem yet. Just to make things a little bit more interesting, there is a work-around. It turns out that the iPhone 3G can be charged by connecting it to a computer via a USB cable, using a car charger adapter, or even by using a different model of the USB power adapter.

Hmm, which road should a product manager take? This is not like the big Tylenol scare, or even the Intel Pentium math error issue. Instead, it is a possible product issue that has the possibility to either quietly go away or blow up in a product manager’s face. W.W.A.D? (What Would Apple Do?)

You’ve probably already guessed the answer, the Apple product manager(s) have decided to exchange the power adapters for new ones without the prong-breaking-off-issue. Here’s what their press release said:

Customer safety is always Apple’s top priority, so it has voluntarily decided to exchange every ultra-compact power adapter for a new, redesigned adapter, free of charge.

Now how’s that for making lemonade out of lemons? Once again, perhaps there is something about taking the high road that we can learn from the product managers at Apple…

Has a product that you were managing ever had to have a recall? Was the issue a serious issue or a probably-really-doesn’t-impact-the-user issue? What did your company decide to do about it? Who lead the decision making process – was it the product manager, legal, sales, or somebody else? Leave a comment and let me know what you’re thinking.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Lou September 26, 2008 at 2:36 pm

Good post of a case study. At my previous job, I faced several of these decisions as a product manager. We were a small company so the ultimate decision came from the CEO. We replaced product free of charge for those who called and complained.

There is a risk to issuing a press release for something that has a low rate of occurrence–mainly that fear can blow the issue out of proportion. And, I’m sure Apple is passing the cost of the free replacements to their supplier.

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Dr. Jim Anderson September 26, 2008 at 5:34 pm

Lou: good point. You know, product issues like this always make me think back to the Intel chip math problem. I seem to recall that experts said that basically nobody would ever experience a problem; however, it was a POSSIBILITY nonetheless. Intel tried to explain this to everyone, but nobody was buying it!

Even for a small company, taking the high road is probably the best way to go.

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Steven Haines September 28, 2008 at 6:10 pm

What actually blows me away is that no one knew this during alpha or beta testing, or they knew, and chose to not miss their own market window.

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Dr. Jim Anderson September 28, 2008 at 8:49 pm

Steven: It sure looks like something got missed here. I wonder just exactly how one goes about doing testing on an ultra-compact USB adapter? I mean, basically you plug it in and if it works, it works. However, I thought that the folks at Underwriter’s Laboratory were the ones who found this type of safety related issue. Hmm, maybe we’re looking at a side effect of rushing a product to market before all the testing had time to complete? What do you think – testing miss or rushed schedule?

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Steven Haines September 28, 2008 at 9:23 pm

Jim – probably both. A quickie lab test and the QA engineer says ‘yup, it works’ and the product manager probably never even touched it. We’ll never know the truth – but the real deal is that everywhere an electron flows (and I’m not an engineer), there’s a test to be considered. And by the way, last time I looked, our friends in Redmond aren’t doing such a great job either. Now I’m getting wound up… this is one of my hot buttons.

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Tom Rarich June 17, 2009 at 8:48 am

Taking the high road is the best approach, but unfortunately not the one chose frequently enough anymore. The June 14 Newsweek cover story http://www.newsweek.com/id/201935 makes the point that a sense of “ethics” and “do the right thing” is increasingly missing as greed, and profit maximization too often rule decision making.

Do the right thing needs to be restored to capitalism today, if we are to reduce the frequency of economic crises like we are currently experiencing.

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Dr. Jim Anderson June 17, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Tom: Amen to that – the quicker the better!

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Nick Kitchener June 20, 2009 at 9:06 am

This all extends from the company and buyer persona.

Apple’s, well steve job’s, motto of “Boom it just works” really is about hassle free experience and allowing the individual to focus on their objectives.
Apple also are not shy about experimenting – they have a reputation on this along with quality of the product.

The buyer is buying Apple’s hassle free, quality and innovative experience rather than the physical product.

So it’s in line with Apple’s corporate that they defend their values by resolving the situation at cost to them.

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Dr. Jim Anderson June 21, 2009 at 3:52 pm

Nick: good point. Apple products always seem to command a premium price – their computers cost more, their MP3 players and phones are always premium priced products. You bring up a good point that because “… it just works” we are willing to pay more for them. Not a bad way to run a business!

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