SAN FRANCISCO — It’s hard for a company that’s improved a pilloried product to announce to the world, “Hey, we stink less than we used to.” So, Apple, AT&T and Microsoft, I’m here to do it for you.
With relatively little fanfare, the three tech giants have significantly improved offerings that, in their earlier forms, earned scathing criticism and damaged reputations: AT&T’s voice service, Apple Maps and Windows 8.
The best thing that ever happened to AT&T Mobility was also the worst: the four years it held exclusive U.S. rights to Apple’s iPhone.
From a business standpoint, it was undoubtedly a winner, bringing millions of customers. From a user standpoint, it was a disaster.
AT&T’s network was overwhelmed by the bandwidth-munching hordes of iPhone users, giving it a well-deserved reputation for uncompleted and dropped calls and making it the butt of late- night TV humor.
AT&T “literally got crushed by the iPhone, and public perception was even worse,” said Bill Moore, president and CFO of RootMetrics, a Bellevue, Wash.- based firm that uses crowd-sourced data to help measure wireless carriers’ performance.
Over the last several years, AT&T has poured tens of billions of dollars into improving its network. Meanwhile, the 2011 end of its exclusive deal gave iPhone users a choice of carriers. Verizon Wireless, Sprint and most recently T-Mobile US now offer the iPhone to their customers.
In recent months, I began noticing that the number of dropped and uncompleted calls in the San Francisco Bay Area was diminishing. Even that longtime dead spot on the waterfront embarrassingly close to AT&T Park, home of baseball’s San Francisco Giants, finally had service.
The improvement isn’t an illusion, said Moore, nor is it limited to just a couple of high-visibility markets like San Francisco and New York. According to RootMetrics data, the number of dropped calls on the AT&T network fell by more than half in the first six months of 2013 from a year earlier.
By most quality measures, AT&T still remains well behind Verizon. Of 125 markets surveyed by RootMetrics, Verizon is either top-rated for voice service or shares the top spot in 68 markets, to 42 for AT&T.
Still, you can’t deny the progress. And if you don’t believe me, just drive down to AT&T Park.
In Microsoft’s case, many critics point to Windows 8 as a major reason why PC shipments are plummeting — down 10.9 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, according to the Gartner Group.
Whether that’s fair, Windows 8’s attempt to be all things to all users has proven to be a problem. Its colorful, tiled Start screen is supposed to bring Windows into the era of tablets and touch screens — but makes little sense for existing owners or buyers of non-touch PCs.
Microsoft is preparing to release an update this fall, Windows 8.1, that begins to remedy some of the problems. For one thing, it allows users to bypass the Start screen and boot directly into the desktop, a step-saver for people who still mostly use traditional Windows programs.
It also resurrects the traditional Start button — sort of. The button is now back, though instead of opening a menu of programs and documents, it throws you back to the Start screen.
I’ll have a fuller look at Windows 8.1 once it’s released in final form, probably this fall. In the meantime, Microsoft, like Apple and AT&T, deserves some credit for acknowledging user pain points, and doing something about them.