I’m not “Anti-Apple”

I’ve certainly been critical of recent Apple products and services. Certain design choices in OS X Yosemite left me quite underwhelmed, and the numerous, undeniable issues it brought left me so worried from the start that I still haven’t dared upgrade my Mac from Mavericks. As I probably said too many times already, my general impressions regarding Yosemite can be summed up by saying that it’s the first version in OS X’s history that doesn’t really feel like an upgrade, but something where what you lose appears to be more than what you gain.

Then there’s the new 12-inch retina MacBook, about which my only true complaint has been its keyboard — though it has been enough of a let-down to make me reconsider the new MacBook as my next Mac. I’m a writer, and after an intensive test of the machine, I’ve concluded that it’s not a laptop for writers. And finally there’s Apple Music, Apple’s new music streaming service: my first reaction after trying it briefly has been “What’s so special about it? What’s so compelling about it to make me drop Spotify, whose great service I’ve been enjoying for five years now?” (I’m not leaving Spotify, by the way, in case you missed my previous article). Not to mention the impact and side-effects it has had on iTunes and users’ music libraries, troubling enough I still haven’t updated to iTunes 12.2. (Check Kirk McElhearn’s blog to read more about the various iTunes issues that have arisen since Apple Music’s launch).

Last week I received a few brief emails from people who probably started reading my blog or checking my tweets only recently. Their feedback was along the lines of Man, what did Apple do to you to be so “Anti-Apple”? This past weekend I got a similar message from a long-time reader, who told me (I’m paraphrasing a bit): You used to be more positive and supportive of Apple and its products — what happened to you? with a smiley at the end.

I don’t receive much feedback, and the little I get usually triggers private responses and correspondence. But in this case I felt it warranted a public response, because it’s worth adding this to the debate.

What happened to you? — this faithful reader asked me. Nothing happened to me. I’m not ‘Anti-Apple’ — in fact, if I didn’t care about Apple, I wouldn’t take the time to criticise their latest products (hardware & software) and services. I’ve been using Apple systems since 1989. I’ve spent a few years being (informally) an Apple evangelist and I have really lost count of the number of people I got to switch to the Apple ecosystem. I still use a lot of vintage Macs and devices, and I’m not leaving this ecosystem anytime soon because I honestly think it’s the best system.

The question is not what happened to me, but what happened to Apple.

Regarding the perceived decline in Apple’s software quality, back in January I wrote:

But looking at things from a more emotional, more personal standpoint, something has indeed changed. Above I said that, in the past, us long-time Mac users were more willing to put up with flaws in the Mac operating system and first-party applications because the total amount of such occasional annoyances wasn’t enough to affect the general level of satisfaction of working with Mac OS. I suspect that this perceived decline in the quality of Apple’s software products (OS X included) is more related to the nature of the flaws/bugs/annoyances, than the sheer number of those. In other words, it’s not that Apple’s software is quantitatively more buggy today than, say, in the Mac OS 8–9 era, but the issues are (or feel) more critical, and that in turn affects the general level of satisfaction of working with the Mac.

When a new OS X version introduces issues that were absent in the previous one, that doesn’t go unnoticed, especially when such issues — like Wi-Fi reliability — are taking two minor OS X releases to be fixed [In the end it took three]. When a new OS X version makes your Mac feels more sluggish than it was in the previous version, that perception clouds whatever new exciting features the new OS X version brings to the table.

There have been problematic minor releases in Mac OS X’s history, but in my experience no Mac OS X version took three whole minor releases to finally get rid of serious issues. Perhaps my recollection is clouded by a consistent positive experience with all versions of Mac OS X, but past versions felt generally more reliable, more ‘finished’, and more carefully thought-out from a UI standpoint than Yosemite. I’m insisting on this point because now that Apple Music has launched — and I’ve read how underwhelming and frustrating the experience is in iTunes on the Mac — now things are starting to accumulate.

Refining the software through iterations has always been the Apple way, and even more so since Steve Jobs returned at the helm back in 1997. (The hardware as well, of course, but I’m talking about software now.) What I’m noticing in today’s Apple software, however, is that the first iterations appear to be overall rougher than in the past. They feel more ‘beta’. They feel more hurried, more ‘let’s worry about pushing this out now, and we’ll get back to it later’. From a (software) design standpoint, certain aspects appear to be less focussed, less definite, less the result of saying no to a thousand things[1] and more the result of saying yes to feature creep (I’m thinking about Apple Music in particular here, but also about the Apple Watch user experience).

Yesterday, after noticing a tweet by my friend Fabrizio Rinaldi, I went to take a look at the article mentioned by Gordon Irving: it’s a series of observations on Apple written by Bob Lefsetz. At first I thought it was yet another ‘Apple is doomed’ piece, but then I found myself nodding more frequently than anticipated. The article is perhaps harsh and peremptory in places, but some of Lefsetz’s observations — especially on Apple Music — I believe are spot-on:

Once again, Steve Jobs only introduced a product when he knew he could win. Design did not sell the original iPod, however appealing it might have been, but functionality/usability. The iPod was the first MP3 player that transferred tracks at high speed, FireWire instead of USB. Furthermore, the software eliminated stupidity. That’s right, you just plugged your iPod into your computer and the software, i.e. iTunes, took care of the rest.

There is no great advance in Apple Music. Even Songza had hand-curated playlists. So the company’s only hope is it’s so early in the game that they can end up winning.

One can argue that Apple should have truly differentiated its product. Maybe by giving less. No playlists, but easier functionality.

And:

This was Steve Jobs’s credo, make it easy to use, with no flaws. Apple Music is MobileMe on steroids. And there are so many options included that functionality is crippled, users are overwhelmed. […] People are afraid to download the software for fear of it screwing up their library. I’m still waiting for a fix to library corruption, but Apple is mum.

Not only is there no admission of fault, there’s no manual. Steve Jobs may have put up a press blockade, but he was unafraid of explaining his product, which Jimmy Iovine and his cohorts did so poorly during the WWDC presentation.


 

I’m not sharing this criticism, and my diminished enthusiasm towards Apple’s software and services, because I got up one morning and felt suddenly tired of Apple. Not at all. I still care, a lot. I just think Apple could do better than this. (And especially with regard to iOS, Apple is really doing great.) I want Apple to do better. After seeing the Mac OS X 10.11 preview at WWDC 2015 I’m definitely more hopeful, and OS X 10.11 feels already like a much needed course correction. I want Apple to introduce services and solutions that make me want to adopt them right away like it used to happen, instead of making me scramble to gather information on the Internet to check the various reported glitches, issues and workarounds. I want Apple to rethink certain approaches to their Mac software and its user interface — less ‘facelift’ and more usability/functionality (see OS X and iTunes). And while we’re at it, I want Apple to produce better ads, because the latest If it’s not an iPhone, it’s not an iPhone campaign is rather bland and lacks certain punch and wit that were apparent in past commercials (I really miss the Mac vs PC ads).

On a final note, I wish there were more balance in the tech press when it writes about Apple. I still notice too much polarisation: blanket praise on one side, blanket negativity and defeatism on the other. Both sides are equally misinforming extremes. Apple is neither ‘doomed’ nor ‘doing everything great’ — Apple is transitioning, and the road has a few bumps. I believe there’s plenty of space for informed criticism without completely losing perspective one way or the other.

 


  • 1. “The system is that there is no system. That doesn’t mean we don’t have process. Apple is a very disciplined company, and we have great processes. But that’s not what it’s about. Process makes you more efficient.

    But innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem. It’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.

    And it comes from saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don’t get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

    (Steve Jobs, as quoted in “The Seed of Apple’s Innovation” in BusinessWeek (12 October 2004)

 

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!