Apple’s 2016 in review

This has been the winter of our discontent. 2016 was the year the tone changed. There’s always been a lot of criticism and griping about anything Apple does (and doesn’t do — it can’t win) but in 2016 I feel like the tone of the chatter about Apple changed and got a lot more negative.

This is worrisome on a number of levels and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’m used to watching people kvetch about the company, but this seems — different. One reason: a lot of the criticisms are correct.

Apple, for the first time in over a decade, simply isn’t firing on all cylinders. Please don’t interpret that as “Apple is doomed” because it’s not, but there are things it’s doing a lot less well than it could — and has. Apple’s out of sync with itself.

Here are a few of the things I think indicate Apple has gotten itself out of kilter and is in need of some course correction.

Missing Ship Dates

Apple rarely missed ship dates, and rarely missed them by much. But over the last year or so, we’ve seen a number of products announced with shipping dates that were pushed out, and out, and out, or met by small shipments that woefully struggled with demand. Last year it was the pencil, and now, we’re seeing a similar challenge to ship with the AirPods.

They’ve also misjudged demand on products, something Apple never used to do, at least since Steve came back. The iPhone SE clearly surprised them with a much higher demand than expected. That creates frustrations among users who can’t get them when they want them, but it also indicates a more fundamental issue: Apple seems to not have a good view of their user base, because the user base reaction to products isn’t matching up with their forecast models. Something is out of sync between Apple and its users, and bad forecasting is one place where this becomes visible.

Apple’s model of who its users are and what they want seems to be different than what happens out in the real world among its real users. And that to me indicates potential problems of all sorts, since that misjudgment affects not only forecasting, but product design, feature choice and performance specifications all tie back into this. And given the criticism of the MacBook Pros by many long-time Mac users, that’s a worry.

Apple seems out of touch with its users. That’s bad.

Languishing Products

Apple has products it’s let languish without any significant update for long periods of time. If you look at how Apple’s treated their Airport line, you’d think WIFI was a mature technology where nothing was really changing. In fact, a lot is happening including a big shift to mesh networks, and Apple has seemingly ignored all of that. It used to be you bought Airports because they were some of the best WIFI devices out there. Today, the only reason to buy them is you want easy, and because it has the Apple brand. They’re woefully out of date (and in fact, I just replaced mine with a set of EERO devices, which are Apple easy to use, and blow Apple’s products away in terms of performance). Rumors have come out that Apple has cancelled future development of these, but they’re still for sale. Why?

The Airport is a great example of the problems of not putting effort into updating your products: Apple is now at the point where they have significant work simply to match what’s already on the market from competing devices. That’s likely why Apple seems to be closing down these products and I expect over the next few months you’ll see the Airport line go away and be replaced with a partnership with some company — hopefully Eero, since the design is clear “so Apple”. A similar thing has happened with monitors, where Apple has stepped out of the market and partnered with LG.

Now, to be fair, I think it makes sense for Apple to stop making WIFI devices; the market is established and there are good products in there, unlike when Apple stepped in and started selling them. It’s not core to their company, and those resources are better used elsewhere. At the same time, though, they’ve let the product stay on the market long past it’s shelf date and for what good reason? I can’t think of one.

Long delays between product refreshes

Much of the complaining has been about Apple’s missing updates to its Mac line; this has led to much speculation that “Apple doesn’t care” or “they’re giving up on the Mac”. I don’t think that’s the case, but I do think Apple made some bad strategic decisions that led them to this situation, and they’re doing a poor job extricating themselves. I’ve written in more detail on this.

When they did finally update the Macs, they just updated the MacBook Pro line and left the desktops — the most out of date and badly in need of new hardware — languishing without even a comment. This upset the Mac base so much we’ve seen Tim Cook having to make statements that boil down to “please be patient”. For people waiting for updates to the Mac pro for four years, that’s kind of hard to accept.

Defining products by the spreadsheet: A big percentage of complaints over the new MacBook Pro devices is that they ignore the needs of the “power” user. I think a better way to define this is that these units define “power user” different than many people who see themselves as power users do, and they’re upset (justifiably) that there aren’t options that allow them to solve their needs.

The problem? This group is fairly small and have needs living well towards the end of the bell curve. They are, effectively, a niche within the niche that the Mac now finds itself in. Apple seems to have made business decisions not to support this group. Why?

Why make a product?

If you boil business down to essentials, there are only three reasons a product should exist:

Because it makes you money: Most products need to make you money and contribute to the financial success of the company. Some are going to be more profitable than others, but you shouldn’t be doing products that lose you money (buy hey, we’ll make it up in volume!). Unless…

Because it’s strategic: Sometimes you create a product for strategic reasons: it’s not going to make you money, but it’s necessary to compete, or it creates other opportunities where you can profit indirectly (iTunes is a great example of this, where most of the profit came from iPod sales and later music and media sales), or you’re investing in in something that in the long term you expect will make you money some day, but you need to start now and let the market grow (but you can’t really wait until it does, because someone else will take the market from you first) — the Apple TV, while labelled a hobby for years, was such a strategic investment. So were the early Airport devices, because Apple saw wireless as a big part of its future and a long-term competitive advantage, but existing WIFI devices were pretty terrible and had horrible user experiences.

Because it matters to you: And sometimes you do it because you feel it has to be done. Apple’s strong commitment to accessibility is one very visible place where they are clearly investing not because it’ll make them money, but because it’s an important thing to do.

I bring this up because it helps me frame my view of the reality of the Macintosh product line and why I think Apple’s gotten some things very wrong with it.

Apple has built some laptops that nicely handle the needs of the vast majority of its users. It’s easy to look at the volume numbers on what sells and convince yourself that these edge cases aren’t worth building a device for. That seems to be what Apple’s done with these new laptops.

But here’s the problem: sitting in this niche of excluded users are some of Apple’s strongest supporters, the influencers that create word of mouth, and to me, most importantly it includes a significant number of the developers Apple depends on to create it’s Mac and IOS apps.

Right now, the only real option Apple has offered these users is the iMacs, which seems to be their answer for high end machines. That may work for some, even thought it won’t be their first preference for many. It’s clearly left many disgruntled and some thinking of jumping ship to other manufacturers, either running Linux or Windows.

It might make sense from a purely spreadsheet view, but this feels to me like a penny wise and pound foolish decision that puts at risk the halo effect and influencer networks they’ve put so much effort into building; and if developers decide to abandon ship, or cut back their work on IOS?

Has Apple decided these risks are worth it, or are they oblivious to it? I can’t tell, and in past years, that wasn’t true. Even if it doesn’t make “spreadsheet sense” to create a laptop option aimed at these power users, how can they not be defined as strategic enough to support?

Back when I was running most of Apple’s e-mail systems for the marketing teams, I went to them and suggested that we should consider dumping the text-only part of the emails we were building, because only about 4% of users used them and it added a significant amount of work to the process of creation and testing each e-mail.

Their response? That it was a small group of people, but a strategic one, since it was highly biased towards developers and power users. So the two-part emails stayed — and they were right. It made no sense from a business standpoint to continue to develop these emails as both HTML at text, but it made significant strategic sense. It was an investment in keeping this key user base happy with Apple.

Apple, from all indications I’ve seen over the last year and with the configurations they’ve shipped with these new laptops, has forgotten this, and the product configurations seem designed by what will fit the biggest part of the user base with the fewest configuration options. They’ve chopped off the edges of the bell curve — and big chunks of their key users with them.

Did Apple really think the existing models would support these users and make them happy? Evidently they did, but if they’ve listened to the feedback, they’re very, very wrong. Or did they decide they were too small a group to warrant supporting? Maybe, and if so, again, they’re very wrong. Your developers and influencers, and that group at the edge of the bell curve are the definition of a strategic investment area for the long-term viability of both the Mac and IOS platforms. And Apple ignored them with these new laptops.

This isn’t even Apple’s worst slight of these key users. In fact, most of these power users might grumble a bit and move on if it weren’t for an even worse case of neglect in the Apple product line. That is, of course, the Mac Pro.

The Mac Pro

It’s been over a thousand days since this product has seen an update. As Apple’s high end flagship, this is unconscionable. It shows a lack of respect for its high end power users that have depended on it.

True some of this has been because of chip delays at Intel, but there are still options Apple could have taken to refresh this device along the way, starting with updating the GPU to modern units. But it didn’t.

What’s worse, is that with this version of the Mac Pro, Apple took what was a solid developer machine and turned it into an appliance, one users couldn’t upgrade components on their own. That puts the onus on Apple to refresh these devices on a regular basis so users can upgrade if they need the added power. They failed.

To put the Mac pro in context: This was the “Can’t Innovate my Ass” product that Apple produced to counter criticism that it wasn’t innovative any more and that it was letting the Mac product line languish (hey, this isn’t a new complaint…). They came out with something that was visually distinctive and they build a really interesting set of guts inside the trash can.

But here’s the problem: in retrospect, what they built was a device based around their own ego needs of proving their critics wrong, not a device that served the purposes of their power users. It’s not configurable, it’s not upgradeable, it’s not expandable: It’s pretty, and full of (for 2013) innovative hardware design, but is that really what Apple’s power users needed?

I don’t believe so. I think they were much better served by the “cheese grater” Macs of the previous generation, and I think Apple needs to rethink this, and for the high end, go back to more of a developer machine which gives users flexibility to expand it and customize it to their needs. Just like the old Mac IIci, one of the best computers Apple ever built. I propose just this in a piece I wrote about this.

The Mac Pro, and its possible successor are serving niches within the niche that is the Mac market overall, but it’s an important niche: it’s the power users, the influencers and the developers who build all of the Mac and IOS apps we all depend on. These are important people that support and evangelize the Mac AND IOS platforms and ecosystems, and Apple has done a poor job of supporting their needs for a good three years now.

Apple is relying on data too much

Apple’s always been a data driven company, but I think they’ve gotten overly reliant on data to drive business decisions. Spreadsheets can tell you where the sweet spots in the market are and how to hit them, but they struggle at finding and bringing forward strategic areas that also need coverage. That was, actually, one thing that Steve excelled at. It means you need people in leadership who understand their user base and which bits are strategic and need to have product coverage.

Apple’s view of its users doesn’t match its users: I think Apple’s lost sight of its users. It clearly has a model of what their user base is, but there have been multiple instances in the last 18 months where the user reaction has clearly been much different than Apple expected it to be.

The new MacBook Pros and the Touch Bar are the most recent example: Apple clearly expected us to fall in love with this new bit of technology and saw it as a tentpole feature. I think down the road it may well be, but the reaction to the announcement was a lot less enthusiastic than they seemed to expect, and more criticism of it being a bauble and not a feature.

Another example is 3D Touch/Force Touch, which Apple clearly saw as this huge usability improvement, and even now, users seem to either not know about it or not care, and it’s implementation is inconsistent across Apple’s own apps — it seems like Apple is still trying to figure out how to turn this into the usability tool it thought it had when it first announced it.

Another example would be the popularity of the iPhone SE, which clearly surprised Apple. They misjudged how many people wanted the smaller form factor by a wide margin, and that people really were interested in it seems to have been something they completely missed.

These are signs to me that Apple doesn’t understand its users as well as Apple thinks it does, which is a huge problem. In fact, I’d say it’s the one big problem that leads to the other ones we’re griping about (not supporting segments of users, not getting demand right, misjudging how interested users will be in features).

They really miss Katie Cotton, because they seem to have gone tone deaf on how they explain the story of the product. Worse, they seem to be making big misses on how we are going to respond to their new products — look at the criticism to the MacBook Pro Touch Bar vs how clearly proud they were and how they expected us to love it. Similar reaction to Force Touch — and let’s not forget that’s already gone through a name change and is called different things on different product lines..

How do they fix this? They need to do more talking — and even more listening — with their users. Engage with the influencers. Sit down and find out what their developers need that the current products don’t offer. Find out what is making their users unhappy.

Once they do that, they then need to go off and be Apple, but from a base of knowledge instead of a set of assumptions — assumptions that seem to be flawed and incorrect. But what Apple doesn’t want to do is start building products the way other companies do, because we don’t need “faster horses”, we need Apple to look beyond what users are asking for and figure out what they really need. That’s been Apple’s innovation strength in the past, and right now, it increasingly seems missing from the products they give us.

Apple is getting sloppy

Apple clearly has a vision of the future, and a big part of that vision is that your data lives in the cloud, and you can access that data from anywhere. That is the core of their services strategy, and the redesigned Notes app is a great example of what can happen when they get it right. Apple’s been working towards this for a while: you can see the core of this in the redesigns (and feature removals) to get their Pages, Numbers and Keynote apps to share a common set of features and data storage. Same, to a good degree, with the death of Aperture and iPhotos in favor of the new Photos app that shares with the IOS Photo app.

The problem is that Apple isn’t doing this consistently, or well. The apps mentioned above — except for Notes — all were dealt significant criticism because of the changes, in part because those changes weren’t communicated ahead of time or well explained to end users, leading to grumpiness and many users (myself included) heading off to other apps.

The new “share your desktop” feature in Sierra would have worked great for someone like my mom, a very casual user, but as many — like Jason Snell — found out, for power users it could turn into a horror show. Did Apple not think of these use cases? Did they not care? It’s hard to tell how that feature shipped as it did, given the impact on so many users (and then, on top of it, were the bugs….). Basically, my advice continues to be that if you’ve heard of Dropbox, you need to turn this off.

There are far too many details of bugs slipping into releases, weird design choices (the chaos of trying to use stickers in messages, for instance), usability problems and general “lack of polish” and the trend line on the quality of OS and app releases is headed in the wrong direction.

Apple isn’t sweating the details, which is a real issue given that design excellence is a core deliverable Apple users have been taught to expect. In fact, I’ll take it one step further.

Apple needs to return to living up to “best of show” expectations

Apple has traditionally set the bar on design and application quality for its platforms. In the last few years, that bar has slipped. It should upset Apple that I find Office 365 a much better and more usable set of tools than Apples.

Apple should set as one of its goals leading the way by showing all developers for its platform the way things ought to be done. Does it? No.

Just a few examples: If Apple still takes the Mac seriously as it claims, where is HomeKit? Where is the Home app? Well, it’s over on IOS, so use your iPad (I guess). Not a good message to be sending to Mac users if you want them to think you’re taking the Mac platform seriously, especially given the weak hardware offerings in the last year.

Or, for that matter, where is Apple News on the Mac? Or TV? And you’re seriously trying to tell us that iTunes isn’t a dumpster fire that needs to be re-designed the way you’ve done it on IOS?

Want us to think you’re still serious about the Mac, Apple? Show us parity of capabilities between the two platforms, at least on your core product sets — and that should include both HomeKit and News given how much you’ve pushed them at keynotes.

And when you write apps, Apple should be holding itself up to the best practices it wants developers to follow. Does it?

Not often enough. Just one example, the new Apple TV remote. Which is iPhone only, which means if someone goes to the App Store on an iPad and search for it, they won’t find it (unless they know to change the search parameters). How can Apple — of any company — ship a non-universal App without being embarrassed?

And when you do fire up the Apple TV remote app, what do you see? To be honest, this app looks like something that the designers were too busy to bother with, so they shipped an engineering prototype. It’s missing any kind of Apple design sense at all — and it’s ugly.

Is this really the new Apple, things like key features missing on the Mac (Homekit? please?) and ugly non-universal apps?

Apple, if you want to understand why some of us are unhappy with how things are going with you, look no further than that new Apple TV Remote app and ask yourself “how did anyone think this was ready to ship or represent the kind of quality Apple stands for?”

When did Apple stop demanding it live up to its own best practices? We as users demand quality features and good design, and too often, we’re finding this missing. And Apple, you keep offering us features like the Touch Bar and expecting us to fall in love with them, but you aren’t doing a good idea of teaching us why we should.

It’s not all bad

You may get the impression that everything about Apple is negative, but that’s not true. This is not Apple with the engine on fire, this is Apple where they need to recalibrate a few things to get the engine operating smoothly and effectively again. They’re still doing a lot of things right.

For instance, if you ignore the manufacturing challenges, the Pencil and the AirPods both seem to be truly innovative marvels. It may be Apple needs to slow down pushing their manufacturing capabilities, since it seems they’re creating things that are a bit too hard to reliably build at times — but once they work out those gremlins, the products themselves are incredible.

And if you fall within the user base that they’re designed to support (I am) the new MacBook Pros are incredibly nice machines. I’ve fallen in love with Touch ID on the desktop, and I like the Touch Bar. I really enjoy being able to carry around roughly the same processing power in my new 13” machine that my big 15” machine had, but without the size and weight.

If I were Apple’s boss, and at some level I am because I keep buying their products, I think my annual review would boil down to “meets expectations with some areas that need improvement”.

Is Apple broken? Nope, not even close. It’s not firing on all cylinders, though, and it needs to do some internal thinking and realignment to get back to where it was a few years ago.

Is this Tim Cook’s fault? I don’t think so. I think these kind of things happen, and good companies recognize it and correct it. More than anything else, I think it’s almost an inevitability given the size and scale Apple has grown to. It’s still trying to act like a fairly small company — and it’s not working as well as it could. Ben Thompson at Stratechery touched on this, and I’ve come to agree with most of his analysis: Apple’s corporate structure needs some changing to better function at the size that it has grown to.

My worry is that Apple isn’t seeing this, because it’s looking at the sales numbers and they look fine, with many products under backlog and strong demand (including the new MacBook Pros). If you just look at the numbers, things are okay. But what Apple’s always been good at is looking beyond the numbers to the things they don’t say — and I worry they’ve lost that.

They need to get it back. Here’s hoping what we see in 2017 shows they have, with solid products and improved quality and design across all of their software on all of their platforms. They can do it, but the problem is, they haven’t been doing it consistently.

That said, I’m really looking forward to seeing what Apple brings forward in 2017, because I see much more opportunities than I do dangers.

So onward to 2017!