The problem with walled gardens is forgetting who’s supposed to be on each side of the wall. In the past half year or so, though, it looks as if Apple have managed to manoeuvre the wall between themselves and their customers, a rather odd arrangement that was last the case in the latter half of the 90s. I am, of course, like everyone else on the Internet, jumping on the iOS 6 and iPhone 5 bandwagon except long after the wheels have fallen off.
Their new (well, it was new, last year, when I originally drafted this post) phone looks like an incremental increase. It looks almost devoid of the incredible innovation that we’ve come to expect from Apple. Well, I have one and I can tell you: it has an almost magical build quality and feel to it. It’s a lovely device. It’s hard to explain, but somehow, in an Appley way, all the little things add up and I couldn’t see buyer’s regret with a set of super-strong, industrial strength binoculars. Plus, I come from couple of generations ago (device and reality) and as a result I’ve still not got bored of asking Siri questions like “who lives in a pineapple under the sea”, “why is my train late again” and “why is the bus timetable a work of fiction”. Regardless, though, its uniqueness and pleasure feel like they come from a large population of small tweaks and twiddles rather than any massive leaps over the competition.
The four riders of the appleocalypse
Four things seem to have changed about Apple recently that are, to me, a happy user and developer, causing a light smidgen of “armchair generalness” to seep to the surface and because this is the Internet, it would be wrong of me to mind my own bloody business like a normal person. Instead, I’m going to get all four things off my chest because it’ll make me feel better – and, given that I’m sitting on a train writing this – I could do with feeling better (the station’s dispatchers were playing “passenger inconvenience bingo”. The winning move, incidentally, was to get all the rush hour passengers safely to platform 5 a few minutes before departure and then announcing a platform change that involved everyone having to move a long way, fast. They did this, with a straight face, in between two announcements asking everyone to be careful on slippery platforms due to today’s “inclement weather”. I take my hat off. It was a spectacular play.)
Firstly it’s the new focus on litigation rather than innovation. Now, all but the blind and deliberately closed minded know that Samsung ripped the hell off the iPhone when they kicked off their large-screen smartphone career. In some screenshots the devices and software looked the same. Well, they did with my glasses, anyway. But regardless, Samsung were followers and Apple leaders. If you’re copying then by definition you are behind as you need to know what to copy before doing it. To see Apple investing so much time, effort and money in waging war-by-lawyers against Samsung instead of making new leaps into the lead turns smiley faces into frowns. Ironically, I suspect history will remember this so called “protection of innovation” as achieving the complete opposite and allowing the competition an unprecedented period of catching up.Secondly it’s the ease of use stuff. Once upon a time, Apple were masters of disguising the complex with the simple. No matter what magic went on underneath the hood, Apple managed to stick a non-patronising user-interface on top of it that allowed one to get on with the job rather than being baffled by unnecessary complexity. Now, though, this appears to be slipping away. Things like horizontal slider bars that appear and cover up the bottom item in a finder window when you’re trying to select it just feel like lazy, poorly considered design. Buttons that you press that look like they do nothing (no visual indication at all) and then suddenly, a few seconds later, things happen. Or, buttons that just do nothing (iTunes, in particular, is particularly guilty of this). This all breaks even Apple’s own guidelines, so it does seem a touch… off. Then there’s “Open With…” lists that repeat the same item several times until you fix it with some cryptic Unix command-line-fu. Oh, and I must mention the icons vanishing from docks and dialogs like “there’s a newer version of this iCloud document on the computer ‘Sack of Snakes’, which do you want to keep?”: tens of billions of operations per second and you can’t tell me? Why not lay the two next to each other and let me drag differences across and then just sort it out? Why do I, suddenly, have to be clairvoyant in order to make a simple decision? Why, Apple, why? Or how about “The volume ‘Time Machine’ can’t be ejected because it is being used.”. But by who, Apple, by who?. This is a pointless dialog that has no value because I cannot do anything about it. It’s a little like a dialog saying “I’m going to punch you in the face” with a single “OK” button. A while back, this would have been unacceptable, but then again, a while back the share price was almost double of what it is today. Thirdly it’s the apparent drift away from “the customer rules kiss-kiss-kiss, love Apple xx”. See that cute little fella to the right? That’s a Lightning to 30 pin dock converter. Like so many others in the UK (and France and probably elsewhere), I was promised one of these when I ordered my iPhone. Apparently, this was a mistake. The Apple thing to do would have been to admit the mistake but honour what was promised given the marginal costs have surely got to be offset by the goodwill. Apple enough would have been to apologise to those affected and offer the thing for a reduced price of, say, a tenner. Instead, the slow dixonsification1 of their retail operations appears to be gathering momentum and the whole thing was expertly airbrushed out of history. But what really gets my goat, milks it without my permission and runs it over with a combine harvester is that they never even bothered to notify their early adopters who searched their boxes for this mythical adapter. And no, that wasn’t a euphemism. Apple Stores feel like a First Class shopping experience, so long as you don’t go on a saturday where they’re packed with teenagers using Facebook for free (they usually forget to log out, so feel free to add something fun to their time-line). We all like a little luxury occasionally. It makes us feel special. Take that away and it’s just the usual miserable experience that First Capital Connect, Stagecoach, British Telecom, British Gas, O2, Tescos and so many others are shovelling down our throats on a daily basis.
Fourthly, and perhaps more worryingly for long-term splendour, it’s the Google battle. To the casual observer this looks like an ill-considered playground fight where the users are stuck in the middle getting punched from both sides. With iOS 6, though, most the user damage is coming from Apple’s side. Never before has a component of iOS become an international laughing stock until maps. My house and street aren’t even on it and neither of them are exactly new. Hell, ten months down the line and they’re still not there: we continue to have to warn visitors not to use Apple Maps if they’re looking for our house. Maps wasn’t ready. It still isn’t ready. It seems like taking someone’s roast dinner and fine wine away from them and replacing it with a slice of bread and some water with the promise that you’ll slap some jam on the bread at some point in the future. Butter too, if you’re lucky. Would Steve have allowed it out the door? After all, he was an enthusiastic Google battler having felt cheated over Android. I don’t know. And nor do you. But between maps and the loss of the YouTube app it is hard to see how the Google extermination program is going to have a happy ending. What next, Microsoft’s Bing as a default search engine?
Five sides to every story
Maybe it is true that Googlemonster made unacceptable demands relating to turn by turn navigation. Maybe it is true that Apple’s future plans require them to define an API Google doesn’t and won’t have. Maybe this is a firm foundation upon which amazing things will be built, after all, geo-anything is a fundamental cornerstone to our future mobile device usage. Maybe Tim Cook’s apology was from the heart, not just a gimmick or an exercise in stopping more horses getting away. Who knows. But one thing is for sure: right now, it’s the customer – the very component of the equation apple built its deserved position from – that is being slapped in the face. When Apple writers like Daniel Eran Dilger2 feel they need to somehow justify the dog’s dinner that so many of us outside the Bay Area are experiencing with pathetic arguments that wouldn’t work for the prosecution in a kangaroo court you know we’re on the verge of taking the wrong turning. I see eyes. And spiders. And something blinked.
Of course it makes complete sense to control such a key component of your operating system as opposed to leaving it in the hands of a direct competitor but usually, it makes sense to have the steering wheel fitted before making sudden changes of direction: it’s this that makes it all seem so darn odd to those of us whose lives got three rungs harder as a result of this decision.
It looks as if there is a gradual ooze towards “the usual bloody awful way business is done and delivered” that until now Apple has refreshingly avoided. Maybe it was too good to last. Maybe Apple’s success was tied to Steve in ways that cannot be replicated or maybe, just maybe, Jonathan Ive, Tim Cook and their team of groovy people are only now getting their feet under the table without him and are on the verge of revealing a hat so full of rabbits that the whole world will be surprised and delighted again. Maybe it’s also darn unfair to pick on them after a ten-year stretch of transforming everyone’s lives, as, let’s face it, everyone deserves a break occasionally whilst they regroup, plot and plan.
I hope it’s the latter. I love OSX. I love its UNIX underpinnings. I adore development in Cocoa and Cocoa Touch. It makes me happy. I get on with my work whilst a wonderfully thought through set of APIs take my development pain away. Oh, and Xcode. Wow. It would be superior to Visual Studio even if it cost the same. It doesn’t. It’s free. Microsoft’s apparent fuck-you developer strategy of charging a King’s ransom for their IDE coupled with their cute deprecation policy is tiring, stressful and turns the wonder of software implementation into an miserable exercise in dodging bullets on a daily basis.
Let’s face it, we’re on the other side of closed doors and passing judgement on what’s going on behind them with only the Internet and personal opinions to guide us: and if there was ever a combination of sources that was the opposite of accurate commentary it’s the Internet combined with personal opinions. And let’s face it even more, I’m a small person commenting on a big thing that I don’t fully understand (but, if it’s not for ill informed opinions and porn, what is the Internet for?). Regardless, though, to some on the outside, Apple look increasingly mean-spirited and as though they’ve lost their way and I think a lot of people miss the magical customer-centric wonder that Steve inspired. That feeling you really needed something that you didn’t even know existed the previous day. The joy of the oooooos and ahhhhhhs as the way we go about our daily lives was transformed in front of our eyes is something that I don’t want to lose.
Even the share price, which looked like it would climb forever, reflects the falling confidence that investors have in the current direction’s ability to continue to print money. When your key USP of delighting the customer is eroded by what looks like your own bitterness and confusion over the vision then the writing may not yet be on the wall, but you can rest assured that there’s a queue of people eagerly holding pens.
Perfection is all in the detail. Until recently, it was the detail that Apple almost always got bang on the money. They stood the height of a stack of giraffes above everyone else. But now, with lots of little details going wrong from the software to the hardware, their magic looks increasingly like a trick that everybody can do…
… let’s hope not. I’m having fun. Even with the frustrations. I’m not ready for it to stop. With Apple’s 2013 WWDC just around the corner, I’m going to be glued to the set, popcorn in hand, prepared for wabbit season.
1 Dixonsification, the failed, doomed policy that all of the high street is following on their way to nowhere. It was with enormous shock to the entire world that the former CEO of Dixons, John Browett, was appointed to manage Apple’s retail operations, albeit briefly. If ever there was an “un-apple” approach to retail, it was that of Dixons. Even he admitted afterwards he wasn’t the optimal choice. The very fact that he was offered the job indicate changes tool place that were, well, just not Apple.
2 Sorry Daniel, I love your writing and it gives me much to think about, but let’s face it: if Apple bagged up kittens and threw them off bridges to drown, you’d somehow explain how this was a magnificent step forwards before explaining how Microsoft’s Zune is ultimately the real killer of kittens.