Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Apple CEO Tim Cook. Photo: Reuters

OPINION

Just as Hurricane Sandy was about to cut a swath across the north-eastern US on Monday night, 3500 kilometres away in Cupertino, California, Apple CEO Tim Cook was cutting a swath of his own, this one through the executive ranks of his own company.

The heads on the chopping block belonged to Scott Forstall, head of Apple's mobile operating system, and John Browett, senior vice-president of retail.

Both men had been associated with recent slip-ups. Forstall was identified with the defective Apple Maps program that went over poorly with consumers when it replaced Google Maps on iOS 6, leading to a public apology from Cook being posted on the company's website in late September.

Forstall was also not known for his ability to create harmony with fellow executives, reportedly refusing to even sit in the same room with one of his peers.

Browett's immediate departure as head of retail after only six months was not surprising either. As overseer of Apple's retail stores, he had dared to suggest back in August that Apple's store operations were too bloated and he planned to slim them down. Browett proposed to cut back on staff numbers at selected outlets and reduce the hours worked by some employees at other stores.

Bad move, according to many in the uproar that followed.

After being pilloried in the blogs and tech columns, Browett was forced to apologise and retract his decision. Apple issued one of its public mea culpas, trotting out the usual corporate blah blah of "Our employees are our most important asset and the ones who provide the world-class service our customers deserve."

It's true that Apple's retail stores are heavily identified with service and typically have a lot of blue shirts swarming around. The question though is whether or not Browett really had a point and ended up being hoisted on his own petard simply because his decision made bad PR rather than bad operational sense.

Even Apple can have too many or too few staff at a store and any company that cannot finetune it's workforce to match demand for fear of a PR problem is headed for trouble. It is hard to believe that Browett didn't make the original decision to cut staff hours without having done a lot of homework.

The store staffing issue will resonate in Australia where Apple still has plenty further to go with its retail rollout. The problem is not just one of numbers of people on the shop floor but also their quality. The customer experience at Apple stores is not uniformly positive even now, and as any retail chain expands it has increasing difficulty maintaining quality control over standards.

But the problems in Cupertino reflect more on the rough time Apple is having with its product releases.

Dan Swinhoe, an analyst with IDG Connect, a division of technology media company International Data Group, suggested in a post last week that Apple's aura was fading. Under the header Are We All Suffering From Apple Apathy? Swinhoe articulated the public reaction to the latest series of Apple products such as the iPad Mini as follows: “And now, for the first time since the rebirth of Apple, people and the press are asking, "Do I care? Do I need it?" And it seems that the answer is no.”

Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at michael@mbaker-retail.com and www.mbaker-retail.com.