It’s been a while since I read an article by Joshua Topolsky. The last one was probably before he started The Outline, which is a space I rarely visit because I find its design to be a bit confusing and visually abrasive. Coincidentally, these are the terms he uses to describe iOS 7’s design in his latest Apple is really bad at design piece.
Here’s the twist — I liked Topolsky’s article. His tone does come across as the tone of someone with an axe to grind, but you should try to ignore it while you read, and focus on the points Topolsky makes, because most of them are valid. In certain places he gets a bit carried away with the nitpicking (I do find the Back button on the status bar a useful UI detail, for example), and in others he appears to enjoy a vocabulary of destructive criticism, but the result isn’t just a checklist of baseless observations.
Dave Mark at The Loop, writing about Topolsky’s piece:
I find it remarkable when people write with judgment, with venom. Joshua Topolsky’s “Apple is really bad at design” post is full of both.
The tone is over the top, the headline clickbait, and there’s a constant sense of “Apple is doomed” and “Steve would never have allowed this” that there seems no shortage of in the press.
Superficially, maybe. But this wasn’t the takeaway I got from that essay. Topolsky’s conclusion is harsh but not outrageous:
But with victory often comes complacency, and in Apple’s case, that complacency comes in the form of design without thought, a self-congratulatory sense of your gadget stores as “town squares,” and an increasing lack of concern for what is coming next.
Over the years, Apple has accustomed us to good design; the company has really turned expressions like easy and intuitive interface, and constant attention to detail into trite-but-true attributes of its approach at designing hardware and software. Apple has been offering premium products whose premium status is usually justified by their overall better quality when compared with similar products from the competition. In my 28 years as a Mac user, I’ve always found Apple’s computers and devices to have better-designed internals, better-quality materials, better manufacturing, simpler and clearer operating systems (and user interfaces), and more. The sum of these qualities has always been a superior user experience.
When you have this kind of reward, you happily spend more when choosing Apple products. It’s an investment. In my experience, the reliability and longevity of Apple hardware alone have quickly repaid whatever sum I may have spent at the time of purchase.
But, as Topolsky writes, things [have] changed.
Every now and then I get the occasional message from long-time readers of my blog, in which I’m told I’ve been getting more critic of Apple in recent times. That I used to ‘defend Apple much more in the past’, implying that I was somewhat more forgiving and accommodating towards certain things Apple had done (design choices, strategic choices, and so forth).
The thing is, back then I felt that Apple was making the right choices in several contexts, but that a lot of people (even certain long-time, inflexible Mac users) didn’t understand such choices. The absence of the floppy drive in the first iMac. The iPod as a potentially revolutionary device. The transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X. The transition from PowerPC to Intel architecture. I spent long months full of long days as a consultant explaining Apple to bewildered users and clients who, more than once, thought that the company was “losing its mind”. And so on and so forth. If you’ve ever done tech consulting and/or support, you’ve surely been there too.
But now — now I’m criticising Apple more not because I suddenly developed a grudge against the company. On the contrary, I still care a lot about Apple. I’m surrounded by Apple hardware at home, I’m still quite invested in the ecosystem, and even vintage and obsolete machines are put to good use in the household. It’s because I care that I feel, strongly, that Apple should be criticised — mercilessly, provided it’s informed criticism — whenever there’s something truly worth criticising. And in recent times I’ve been more critic of Apple because I simply think there’s more to criticise.
There are questionable design choices, both in the hardware and software departments. There has been a drop in hardware and software quality, manifesting in more units with hardware issues, and long-standing software bugs both in Mac OS and iOS. There have been moments where I truly felt — and in some areas still feel — a lack of direction, or at least a lack of focus on Apple’s part. And, as I already mentioned multiple times in the past, I think that part of that perceived lack of focus stems from Apple wanting to have their hands in too many pies. Or having to take care of too many product lines in this unstoppably-growing ecosystem, and ending up neglecting some (the Mac) to concentrate their attention to others (iOS devices, Apple Watch). All this, of course, within a self-imposed schedule that has got too tight for Apple’s own good.
Since Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite, Mac OS X versions have felt more rushed, with the introduction of features that ended up breaking something in the older code, or changes introduced for no apparent good reason (discoveryd) that created new unnecessary bugs. For me, from OS X 10.9 Mavericks onward, updating to the next version has gone from ‘no-brainer’ to ‘let’s carefully evaluate costs and benefits’ or ‘let’s wait at least a couple minor system updates before diving in’.
But enough with this. The real point I want to make here is that there’s something worse than the kind of criticism Topolsky makes. It’s the attitude of those tech writers who make excuses for Apple. Those who always have to find some silver lining even when Apple does something ridiculous like the iPhone X’s notch. Those who respond with But look at the bright side… Those who reassure you that no matter what, Apple has a plan or must have a reason behind this. Those who — sometimes in an involuntarily condescending way — suggest we should be patient and understanding. Apple is notoriously iterative, so it’s gonna get better. Next round. It’ll get better.
Well, no thanks. To hell with this attitude. You feel like paying more than $1,000 for the design experiment that is the iPhone X? Be my guest. You feel like investing time in trying and troubleshooting Mac OS and iOS public betas, having your Mac’s filesystem changed to then have to revert back to the old one because something something incompatibilities etc.? To then end up with Golden Master versions that are no less buggy? Feel free to do so. You’re free to rationalise aloud while you do all that, but don’t make excuses for Apple. I expect more. For what I have to pay, I expect more. I expect the striving for excellence that has been touted for years. I expect great products whose premium prices are amply justified by their sheer quality and the guaranteed seamless productivity they provide. I expect the attention to detail. I expect thoughtful design choices. I expect the It Just Works to just work. And I know it’s not asking too much, exactly because these are all things Apple used to provide everywhere, consistently.
Making excuses for Apple means behaving like enablers. It’s an invitation to that complacency Topolsky, with reason, warns against.
- 1. Ignore this part of my rant if you’re a Mac/iOS developer, of course. It’s your job to stay up-to-date with the hardware and software. ↩︎