Martin Vander Weyer Martin Vander Weyer

The arrogance of Apple

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Can flexible working get the best out of what a ministerial press release calls ‘hardworking Brits’ – or is it a couch potato’s charter? As of 6 April, employees have had the right to ask for flexibility – including remote working and hours to suit – from their first day in a job; employers can reject unworkable requests, but are obliged to consider and consult.

If you’re an optimist, you’ll think workers whose family lives are accommodated by enlightened employers will be happier, more loyal and more productive: ‘5 a.m. will be the new 9 a.m.,’ declares the HR Director, for parents who choose to ‘tackle work before attending to childcare commitments’ then ‘wrap up earlier… prioritising family time’. If you’re a pessimist, you’ll harrumph at news of Office for National Statistics workers voting to strike after being asked to attend their workplace two days a week.

We can never measure the productivity fall or rise that follows from these changes in workers’ rights, which will be dwarfed by whatever a Labour government enacts. But if it’s true that we’ve become a work-shy, sick-note nation, trailing our international competitors, then this must be one more small step in the wrong direction.

Retail reputations

The media couldn’t find much to say about Jason Tarry, the next chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, beyond the fact that he’s a Tesco ‘lifer’, having spent his whole career to date with the supermarket titan. Unlike the incumbent Dame Sharon White, a former Treasury official who, as I’ve said before, was unlucky to have been offered the JLP job for which she had no experience, Tarry is steeped in the ‘retail is detail’ ethos of good shopkeeping and should find no surprises at John Lewis and its Waitrose grocery arm.

On the other hand, he must also know that fate can be fickle for retail reputations. He was an up-and-comer when Terry Leahy made Tesco a market leader and icon of Blairite Britain, only to leave behind what I called a ‘too big, too dull’ monster in need of axe-swinging by a hired-in successor, Dave Lewis, to whom Tarry was a lieutenant.

Sharon White took a media battering during a Covid-hit JLP tenure strewn with rows about the employee-owned group’s future, but leaves it back in profit and refocused on pleasing the shopper. Tarry faces new threats, including a resurgent Marks & Spencer. Let’s see if he’s all he’s cracked up to be.

Shopper-spotters

I laughed when I learned that the ‘Just Walk Out’ technology deployed in first-generation Amazon Fresh no-checkout grocery shops was not advanced artificial intelligence but, as one wag put it, ‘AI standing for Actually, we relocated the cashiers to India’ – where thousands of low-paid workers were deployed to monitor customer activity on screens and add items to their online carts.

The revelation throws new light on the episode in 2018 when I was summarily ejected from a prototype Amazon outlet in Seattle. At the time I thought the tech giant’s vast database had picked me out as a hostile journalist when I downloaded its shopping app. But knowing the reputation of well-read Indian data-centre operatives, I now realise that a subscriber in Bangalore must have recognised me from the portrait above.

Apple to its core

A sharp little shard had lodged in the keyboard of the MacBook which contains my working life and when I closed the lid, the screen was destroyed. Blackout nightmare.

Have you even been to the Apple Store in Covent Garden – less a shop, more a temple of tech? In its inner-sanctum repair area,  called the Genius Bar, you lurk among other lost souls with broken devices until genius descends – in my case an earnest fellow called Leo who, to be fair, did his utmost to solve my problem.

A replacement screen would take a week. A replacement MacBook would be quicker – but Apple won’t transfer non-Apple software (Microsoft Office, for example) from the old to the new. A temporary fix with external monitor and keyboard was possible, but Apple sells only expensive own-brand components, not serviceable cheap substitutes.

So (on Leo’s advice) off I went to Currys in Tottenham Court Road, where salesmen Danny and Sanjay kitted me out in ten minutes for 250 quid. The temp set-up worked for a while at home, then didn’t; back to Currys, where genial Vince jiggled the mouse and hit random keys until it came to life again.

What’s my point? I’ve been a devotee of Apple’s beautiful machines for more than 30 years; but its ethos (like Amazon’s) is monopolist and arrogant and makes non-cultists like me want to graffiti the walls of its exquisite ‘store’. Apple might in turn deride Currys as a ‘box shifter’ but I’d say it’s an unpretentious high-street competitor that speaks the customer’s language in a crisis: that’s all most of us need.

Unspeakable

How absurd of Peter Banner, chief investment officer of the fund manager formerly known as Standard Life Aberdeen, to describe media mockery of ‘abrdn’ – the uncapitalised, e-free style adopted by the group in 2021 – as ‘corporate bullying’. Strange company names often reflect unhappy mergers: this one, we were told, was meant to show how ‘agile and digitally enabled’ the 2017 marriage of Standard Life and Aberdeen Asset Management was turning out to be. But rumours spoke of such a bloody power struggle between the two sides that City wags called it ‘Staberdeen’, which would have served more memorably than unspeakable ‘abrdn’ as a permanent name.

So no wonder we make fun of it. ‘Would you do that with an individual?’ asks our angry abrdn executive. Yes, if you called yourself ‘bnnr’, of course we would: few things are sacred in the modern world, but don’t bggr abt with our language.

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