Last week I wrote about the latest Apple product releases and event and how it’s lower-key feel was a feature, not a bug — my view is that Apple tech press (and by extension it’s readers) are addicted to the major-world-changing-massive-innovation hype cycle, and Apple is a company that is now moving into a more mature environment with evolutionary products and needs to wean all of us from this hype cycle. If you think about it, Apple has gone through a phase of massive innovation: iPhone, iPad, Watch, Apple Music, Apple TV, the beginnings of HomeKit, the emergence of ResearchKit and now CareKit…
And there has been growing discussion and grumpiness about the lowering quality of Apple’s software, which Apple has felt the need to try to defuse — to the point of having people like Phil Schiller and Craig Federighi and Eddy Cue reach out and talk to us about this via blogger/podcaster John Gruber. And they make a good point about how complicated things are, and that’s a good point we should consider when criticizing them.
But it’s also my point: the software and environments Apple is working are a lot bigger and more complex than the days when I was there whacking on servers for them, but that is, honestly, a reason for Apple to double-down and put more effort into doing those things while maintaining the expected standards, and if I came away from the Cue/Federighi chat with anything, it was an implied attitude of “well, this stuff’s difficult, so of course there will be rough edges.”
And that’s not the attitude I want from Apple or that I think they should let creep into their corporate attiude, but I believe they are and that “that’s good enough to ship” is creeping into their lexicon. If they don’t stop that, they’ll regret it.
My take isn’t as negative as, say, Marco Arment (just listen to any Accidental Tech Podcast recently) but he and I generally agree: the perceived (and real) quality of Apple’s software, especially at the App level, is declining. I’ve removed Apple’s office apps from my machines in favor of Office 365, because I cussed out Pages and Numbers one too many times and I am done with them for now. Even Keynote has enough quirks in it that I find myself pulling out Powerpoint at times, and god help me I never felt I’d say that without hostages being involved.
Apple has a technical debt problem. It’s about those rough edges, the boundary conditions, edge cases, inconsistencies across platforms and devices, glitches, things that go bump in the night. Apple’s analytics focus heavily on crash conditions, which are nasty, and Apple’s done a great job of reducing those across the platform — but at the same time, aspects of app quality that aren’t part of their analytics, like fit and finish, design consistency, minor usability glitches, interoperability — things that aren’t outright crashes but still impact user data and usability — by my view are getting worse. Ask any Mac/IOS developer about bugs that go into RADAR and end up in the “not important enough to fix” pile indefinitely.
Apple has a growing problem here, and some of it is a factor of their being so focussed on the innovation cycle that they’re letting the secondary bugs and the non-criticial glitches pile up. And if you do that long enough, you dig yourself a quality hole you have a nasty time building a tall enough ladder to get out of, and ultimately someone else comes and fills the hole in with dirt over you. Not a place you want to be.
But Apple also has an opportunity here: I think we’re mostly through the biggest bits of this innovation cycle: look at the list above, that stuff’s now all out here and being used. With the exception of the Apple Car project, the big bits seem to be shipping, so I’m hoping Apple takes this as a good time to shift gears and put more effort and resources towards polishing what they have and making it the best it can be again, because honestly, almost none of Apple’s software qualifies as “best of show” these days and it should.
And I’m hoping the rather evolutionary aspect of the Town Hall even is an indication of Apple’s intent to shift attention back in this direction. I think a sub-text of the Eddy and Craig talk with Gruber might indicate that as well, but honestly, I’m reading tea leaves now and I wish Apple would make it more obvious and explicit — but I’m not holding my breath.
But seriously, Apple, stop accepting “good enough”, and stop excusing it with “it’s hard and complicated”. That’s what other companies do, not Apple.
Kicking Uncle Walt in the Ankle
Of course, breaking us of the hype cycle like I talked about last week is going to be tough and it’s going to take time, and we can expect the tech press to fight us every step of the way, because, when you think about it, when your revenue model is tied to advertising and advertising is tied to pageviews, evolution and low-key don’t pay the rent nearly as well as hype and noise, right?
And that, in a nutshell is why you read a piece like Walt Mossberg’s The iPhone 7 had better be spectacular. Because it needs to be spectacular not because Apple needs it to be, but because people like Walt and the tech press do. And they (and the analysts) will beat Apple up if things don’t happen in a way that benefits the press and analysts.
What’s worse, of course, is that when you look at what Walt outlines for what Apple needs to do, it — as John Gruber so wonderfully notes — is something that Walt would never declare as spectacular. So even as Walt is exhorting Apple to go do this, he’s set up a future where you can almost guarantee he’ll declare Apple to have failed. Which, actually, makes sense, because criticism and negativity generates a lot more pageviews and success and praise.
And thus the hype cycle reinforces itself as being more important than the companies and products the tech press cover.
John Martellaro wrote a great follow up to my piece on the event, wrapping what I said in the larger picture and defining the phase Apple is moving into as Childhood’s End. You really do want to read it, and it saves me from writing a similar bit because he’s done it so well. I’d actually thought about writing my piece using the idea of maturation into adulthood as a way to explain what’s going on with Apple, but never really found a way to do that I liked — so John did it for me.
Well worth your time.
Back to the Mac
One of the decisions I wanted to validate at Cocoaconf — and did, to my satisfaction — was writing this app I’m writing for the Mac instead of for IOS. There were some technical reasons why I preferred the Mac, but I also felt it likely that it would be incredibly hard to get noticed on the IOS App store and if I chose to market and sell it, it might be easier to reach an audience on the Mac. For his Macworld column, Jason Snell tackled this idea and ended up at the same place I did: that programming for the Mac seems to make sense. It does: the audience might be smaller, but there are better opportunities to be found by it.
And honestly, my plan right now is to go to Cocoaconf San Jose in November and take the IOS Programming tutorial, because it seems like a good timing for me to consider taking what will hopefully be a completed Mac App and start work on retargetting it to IOS. But starting on the Mac makes sense for me, and for this App, and Jason does a nice job explaining why.
Fixing the App Store and other bits and pieces
There’s been a quiet thread going on on Twitter taking on Apple for the number of products and complexity of the product line. This mostly reminds me of the chatter that used to go on in Apple fandom where people would bring up The Computer For the Rest of Us and chide Apple over this or that years and years after Apple had stopped using that slogan and moved on to other marketing and market realities. The thing is: times change, companies change and the universe companies operate in change over time, and people pointing at the very simple product lines Steve implemented when he returned to Apple are missing this. The swath of things Apple’s products solve, the segment of humanity using those products and the geographical extent this is done on have all widened massively. Apple’s product line is more complex because of that, by necessity. Yes, there are some product overlaps, and yes, it can be complicated figuring out which form of what thing is the best thing to buy — but this is a better problem to have than the “any color you want as long as its beige” problem of the olden days. So while I understand some of the criticism, having been chewing on what purchase decisions I need to make this year, the overall tone of the criticism is misguided and simplistic. Things change, and Apple’s adapted to them. Not perfectly, but there is no perfect answer. There’s an interesting take on this in episode 150 of Release Notes, where they discuss why the larger product line of the iPad is a good thing and they think will encourage people on the fence about buying one to pick up one that’s more tailored to what they need.
Case in point: Fraser Speirs chats a bit about having to make that decision for his school, and it’s a nice glimpse into the kind of world Apple has to deal with beyond individual consumers. I think this explains well why some of the complications of the previous paragraph exist. And yes, it makes making decisions more difficult in some ways, but people like Fraser need the ability to weigh and choose among the options, rather than have a few simplistic decisions made for him by Apple.
And Finally… Follow the Money
And finally, author Charlie Stross looks at Apple vs. the FBI and does a nice job explaining why Apple is doing what Apple is doing, and what it might mean for the future. And in Charlie’s future, it’s Apple Pay giving Apple that entry point that allows them to take on and disrupt the banks the way they’ve disrupted music and other industries. And in that context, Apple’s focus on privacy isn’t just a moral fight, but part of a long play business strategy of moving into banking and financial services. Some interesting speculation here. Bonus points for noting that the equity buyback program Apple’s implement might mean Apple buying itself private AND maintaining it’s massive cash pile by 2024. Now that would be a long-term plan to think on, no?
(and no, I don’t plan on doing this on a regular basis, but the follow-on from the event over the last week or so had a bunch of interesting things to chew on that I didn’t want to break into lots of small blog posts…)