Monday, November 20, 2017

Why Apple Products are a Dark Cloud Over the Tech Industry

You would never know it from the stock price, but Apple, the company who's products we once loved, is falling apart. Design, once a cornerstone of every Apple product, is eroding under the weight of copy-cat features and an arbitrary bend through the iPhone looking glass. And quality?

Consider iOS 11. As of this post, we're on iOS 11.1.2, the seventh release of the 11th version of their iPhone software. Take a look at this MacRumors iOS 11 round-up. This update to Apple's iOS, while described as a "major design change", doesn't bundle huge new feature sets. In fact, the second paragraph of the round-up talks about "subtle design changes to interface elements throughout the operating system". And yet, iOS 11 introduced a broad range of bugs into the OS. Seven releases and they still haven't fixed their calculator animation bug.

Now, some companies might offer the excuse that they don't have enough resources build a perfect product. And yet, Apple, with multiple campuses throughout Silicon Valley, hardly seems to be the resource strapped company that it once was. What's more, Apple is sitting on over $261 Billion in cash, so it's not like they can't afford to hire a few good software developers, if that was what was needed to fix iOS.

Contrast iOS with In the past, I've often complained about issues with, but Salesforce releases an update to it's platform three times a year without breaking it's core feature sets or functionality. In iOS 11, I've had issues where the Mail client indicates that I have unread emails from one of my VIPs, even though none of my recent VIPs have even emailed me. I would call that a bug in the core functionality of the device. And this is simply one more issue -- I wish that I had a way to characterize some of the issues that I've had with the touch screen since iOS 11. These days, my iPhone just does stupid stuff -- like randomly playing audio when I put my Airpods away after a phone call.

The Broader Problem with Apple
At it's core, I think that Apple is struggling with a vision problem. While Apple has long been considered a visionary company, I think the current iteration of the company has lost it's way. Consider the new iPhone X and it's facial recognition capabilities. Have they really done anything beyond adding Microsoft Kinect to a phone? Or the Touchbar that was added to the Macbook Pro line -- do you see that anywhere else in their Mac platform? Essentially, the seem to be grabbing at feature straws, wildly swiping through the air trying to capture another brass ring that might equate to iPhone or iMac gold.

But these are not the moves of a mad genius. Instead, they feel more like the flailing efforts of a committee that seems to reach for a consensus view of what they imagine somebody in a black turtleneck might dream of.

Say what you will about skeuomorphic design, I think that when Apple leaned more skeuomorphic, there was a clearer framework to shape the thinking of the people inside the company.

And while today's Apple may consider designers and "pro-users" to be just "some small segment" of their much broader cash cow, I think that they truly underestimate why Apple products became so beloved within that segment -- and it wasn't simply because Apple offered different color options or a rose gold (pink) version. Fundamentally, the core aspect that made Apple product so much better was good design.

These days, Apple just bolts on products and features to build some arbitrary unity around an ecosystem of unnecessary accessories. If Apple were the Marvel Universe, it would be like having Howard the Duck show up in all of their content because, hey, Howard the Duck. And so, we have the Amazon Echo copy, Apple Homepod, so that you can say "Hey Siri" at home. And you also have Siri making a random, Howard the Duck appearance on the Mac. Hey Siri, can you turn my wifi off for real this time?

I'm sure that over in the halls of whichever Apple campus, that they still have product management meetings. They still make product roadmaps. They track their bugs and they schedule their releases. I'm sure that, when it comes to the formal dance of a product, they go through the steps. And yet, iOS 11.

So what does it mean for other companies more broadly, when a company can have more money than most of us can imagine, all of the resources that they could possibly need, and yet to still struggle so fundamentally in something like this "update" to their iPhone OS? What does it mean when innovation for "the most successful technology company" simply means thinner, or slapping a "Touchbar" on it?

So this is what happens with tech companies grow up.

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