Cue and Federighi on the Talk Show

A big surprise in this week’s Talk Show podcast from John Gruber at Daring Fireball: Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi stop by for a chat.

my guests on this special episode of my podcast are Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi. It’s a wide-ranging discussion, and includes a bunch of interesting scoops: the weekly number of iTunes and App Store transactions, an updated Apple Music subscriber count, peak iMessage traffic per second, the number of iCloud account holders, and more.

It’s a fascinating discussion and if you are at all interesting in Apple, it’s worth an hour to listen to it.

Gruber has previously scored a couple of exclusive podcasts with Apple execs: Federighi was on the show a couple of months ago, and at last year’s WWDC he surprised the crowd with Phil Schiller.

It’s a good episode: Gruber will probably get yelled at by some for throwing softballs, but I thought he did a good job of bringing up some of the important issues that have been simmering recently in the public chatter without being hostile or  in their face; neither Cue nor Federighi ducked the issues that were brought up, although both of them at times carefully reframed the discussion, but for the most part, they did a good job of trying to bring the Apple worldview into view on these topics.

And basically, their way of framing the issue was to point out that for Apple, it’s not that they’re ignoring or unaware of problems, but that the situations are a lot more complicated and nuanced and harder to solve than people want them to be. This was fairly explicitly stated when they talked about the recent criticisms of Walt Mossberg — who echoed what many of us believe is a general drop in quality in Apple software; Gruber in fact directly noted the idea that iTunes is a bit of a dumpster fire, which Eddy Cue didn’t agree with but did try to explain why things are the way they are. My take from reading between the lines was that Eddy was effectively saying “the ‘solutions’ people keep telling us are obvious and easy would make things worse for many of our customers — this is tough, and as soon as we figure out how not to make things worse, we’ll do it”

logosI think the key message to take from this discussion is this: Apple isn’t oblivious to the comments and challenges, and they are working on improvements, but their problem and the scale of their user base is such that changes are more complex than people realize, and they won’t do it fast or badly — better to live with the problems you know that push forward and end up with new, worse problems by being in a hurry”.

This latest podcast, plus the recent release of a preview page for the IOS 9.3 release where Apple explains some of the upcoming functionality that’ll be in that release, convinces me about something I’ve been thinking for a  while — Apple is taking a new, less secretive stance with us on what they’re up to. In discussion of that page, Federighi explained Apple’s thinking about this: that things that require developer support and buy-in still need to be announced and explained at WWDC, but that many other features don’t, and that Apple is now starting to release those during the year and not holding them back for the annual monolithic release; user features may show up during the year, where developer and platform features will still go through the WWDC announce and release cycle.

This is a huge shift for Apple and IOS and a very smart move and will give the company a lot more flexibility. if you think about it, this will reduce the complexity of that annual WWDC announce/release cycle, and by not throwing everything into one big release, will make development less insane leading up to  WWDC and make testing easier. I think this is a big move towards long-term stability improvements for the platform. I’m really jazzed to hear them explain this new philosophy, and I don’t think developers (or blogger pundits) have really thought through the implications this shift imply. It’s a very positive thing.

The new, chatty Apple

When Steve returned to Apple, leaks were a huge problem for the company and were creating big problems in selling product or managing the marketing of those products. Steve’s response to this was to crack down on leaks (which often seemed to trace back to QA grunts on contract when we caught one) and try to strongly control the distribution of company information as a way manage the conversation about Apple and it’s products. It worked pretty well, but as a side effect, it led to the rise of the Apple rumor sites and ended up giving them a lot of power in spinning the wider conversation about Apple and it’s products, much to the frustration of Steve and Apple’s marketing teams, to the degree that Apple ultimately sued and shut down the ThinkSecret web site.

Today, it’s 9to5 Mac and Mark Gurman that sits on top of the Apple rumor punditry landscape. One thing that’s changed since I left Apple is that much of their production and supply chain has moved offshore to China and elsewhere in Asia, and indirectly, Apple has lost some control over their ability to prevent leaks. If you notice, though, Apple mostly ignores the problem now and at times seems to assume some information will leak and seems to leverage those leaks in subtle ways — and yes, Apple has always found it useful at times to seed a leak here or there to make sure information gets seen or a destructive rumor gets defuse. Or so I’ve heard…

The problem, though, is that Apple is still not really controlling the conversation about upcoming products: the rumor sites are. Over the last 18 months or so, starting shortly after Katie Cotton left Apple, I’ve noticed that Apple seems to be experimenting very quietly with ways to influence this discussion, including occasionally refuting rumors (something that never happened when Steve was in charge — his response was the cease and desist) but also through things like these podcast interviews.

And in many ways, that’s why Eddy and Phil and Federighi are on Gruber’s podcast: John has the street cred as an independent but honest voice that’s somewhere between sympathetic and friendly, and his podcast reaches exactly who Apple wants to reach: the influencers that help create the discussion. I’m not sure how long the planning was going on for this podcast, but I can’t help but think Walt’s criticisms were a key reason Apple decided to do this.

This is all clearly a huge shift in the way Apple is doing its business, and I love seeing this evolution. Steve’s policies were effective but not necessarily optimal and definitely not the only way to do things, and this new, more open Apple is an interesting shift in attitude. Who knows, maybe they’ll fire up a blog, or actually start talking to developers again.

But whether they actually decide to get social with us or not, there’s a big shift in how they’re planning and releasing their products going on, and how they’re managing the conversation about those products, and to me, these changes are very positive and very encouraging — and probably long overdue. And I expect we’ll see more and more of this as they figure out what works and get comfortable with the idea of doing this pro-actively, instead of just as a spin control reaction.

One of the messages I tried to promote when I was there was that if you are part of the conversation all the time, the need for spin control is much reduced because you see these things coming and you can influence the direction of the conversation before it goes viral. It seems Apple is finally figuring that out and may even be thinking of joining the conversation a bit, rather than jumping in when it spins out of control.

Long overdue, but Apple does tend to move slowly and methodically — something we should remember every time we cuss out iTunes and wonder why they haven’t fixed it yet. Ultimately, they’ll fix it when they can make it better, rather than push something out just to make it different. And almost always, the wait turns out to be worth it.