Since Apple lost its founder it has lost part of its spirit but many thoughts that most would remain: Apple would remain on the front of both technology and society.
There is no doubt that Apple is a landmark of technology, it is as ubiquitous as it is polarising, it has and probably will change lives again, but its values might not be the same as when Steve Jobs was at the helm.
A Drifting Vision
Steve vision was that technology can change life, and to do so required a subtle balance of hardware, software and services. During Jobs tenure, that balance was not always perfect but Apple strived to put its best at giving the optimal user experience. For many users it often translated into the most intuitive software in the market but more often into the most advanced and most gorgeous hardware. In fact Apple is a Software Company and Steve Jobs explained it that way
Apple is Software, what a Mac is, it’s OS X, it’s in a beautiful box but it’s OS X, and an iPhone is software: the big secret is that Apple sees itself as a software company.
Jobs also quoted Alan Kay
People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.
Apple has seen unsuccessful products like the Cube but Apple is one of the only few in the industry attempting to truly design things having the user in mind, not because it looks pretty or because it will bring the favour of the decision maker over the actual users. John Gruber actually suggested in 2012 that Apple is an Experience Company.
The latest batch of products in 2013 is highly compelling: new iPad Air, iPad Mini Retina, iPhone 5S and 5C, iOS 7, OS X Mavericks, new iLife, new iWork, new Mac Pro. Still a doubt is gaining me and this is particularly disturbing for a fanboy like me: I am no longer sure that prowesses from Apple are made to make my life better, to improve my user experience… …or for the sake of the prowess itself.
When the unibody technology was unveiled by Jobs it made the laptops lighter and stronger at the same time, I could get either more power, longer battery life or lighter laptop. A few years later I get all: lighter laptop, much more performance, and more battery life. All brought to us from innovations, software technological advances and manufacturing process.
I’ve upgraded my iPad retina 3rd generation for an iPad mini retina and it’s a dream! I haven’t seen the need to upgrade my iPhone 5 though as it is already ideal for my needs. The new iOS 7, as polarising as it may be is in my book a great OS so software for Apple mobile devices is equally good. Though the iPad version has an embarrassing bug where the background image does not always rotate properly at wake up. After all there is not much question that these products represent for a few years now the bulk of Apple’s revenue so there is good reason to keep quality high.
I can feel that there starts to be a struggle at Apple to differentiate in a market where the distance between the market leader and the next is shrinking. There is always room for improvement but what can really be done to make better what is in my mind already a perfect product: more battery life yes, the new ID touch yes, but not yet something to compel me to upgrade and I’m not alone here. The real breakthrough this year is 64 bits computing, but truly this is something that will make a difference in everyday life only when apps follow, even then it might be perceptible to everyday users only for a future generation when computer memory has increased (the current SoC has only 512Mb memory).
There is a risk here that Apple starts to drift from bringing its users true value to apparent value covered in a smoke of marketing, to drift from prioritizing its users to its shareholders. Apple has always been also a marketing company, but they never sold lies, they just highlighted the strength of their products which actually changed life as advertised.
The State of the Mac
For desktop computers, apple did a fantastic job incrementally improving its iMac range over the years, high quality computing in a gorgeous enclosure, shrinking its footprint while delivering more performance and reducing power consumption. As for laptop, it has become the ultimate model for the industry, look at a computer store, non-Apple machines are either attempting to mimick Apple products or they are incredibly ugly and cumbersome.
Even workstations have now a new gold standard: the new Mac Pro. It is difficult for power users not to salivate at the specs of the new Mac Pro, its external appearance and its alleged performance (which initial tests show to be very real).
And the Software?
Then there is the software. Apple has and continues to deliver the best operating system on the market. It has continuously brought deep innovations from user friendly vital features, but traditionally cumbersome to setup and manage, such as network configuration, backup (Time Machine) and synchronisation between devices, but also deep optimizations which, from a software perspective alone has increased significantly battery life on laptop.
In the User Application area, Apple has made mistakes in the past and had to make amend: Final Cut Pro X, iOS Maps and others older such as discontinuing without warning its web authoring tool iWeb. A pattern starts the emerge: Apple software quality is continuously improving at operating system level but it is decreasing at user application level.
iWork, the new version is clearly driven by a marketing intend to converge mobile and desktop solution: as a result the desktop version has been stripped down from features that were key to power users of the precedent version. Maybe similar to Final Cut Pro X, Apple will be gradually bringing back features but why not wait and launch iWork when it’s ready and fully featured, unless there is more pressure to release than to make it right. Also, unlike with Final Cut Pro X which was deeply rewritten to cater for the future and ultimately get an even better product, I fail to see that in iWork beyond the simple convergence between mobile and desktop. It is also true that, at least on iPad or iPhone, work can be distributed between specialised apps apter for a given job than a single monster apps that are Excel, Word or PowerPoint. But when sandboxing is a god sent gift to security, it is a nightmare for the integration of multiple parts of a single document, and that still remains a necessity for the typical iWork user. Mac OS environment is less subject to it, but with its sandboxing it is moving in the same direction.
iBooks for Mac and iBook Author
Mac OS X Mavericks has a big, but generally overseen, software blunder: iBooks for Mac. E-book management was so far left to iTunes for synchronisation and consumption on an iPad. Apple wanted to bring reading capabilities to the Mac: iBooks for Mac. Rather than make the apps a simple book reader, Apple opted to bring under a single roof library management and reader and they made a mess. It is now cumbersome to use, often does not work well the first time(s) it is launched; library management is unbelievably weak in management features (such as simply showing book information, renaming a book or managing genres) and is mostly unusable for large collection of e-books and PDFs. The reader part is not better and the rendering engine is appalling in the reader compared to the mature iBooks apps on iPad, with even images being cut between pages. Synchronisation with iPad or iPhone still requires iTunes but both apps struggle to communicate together and more often than not, do not communicate at all. In short: iBooks for Mac barely deserves a beta label, rather a proof of concept which is not ready for prime time, even now that Mac OS X Mavericks received its first point release iBooks for Mac has not improved. A product rushed which is well below Apple standards, actually any standards in the IT industry!
Staying on the topic of e-Books, I have played a bit with iBook Author, which is a fine apps to author e-book but in my experience it is an extremely unstable apps with which too often I have lost my work (I have otherwise very stable machines with rather high capacity in both memory, disk and processor power). Again there is weakness in the validation process for end user application.
But at operating system level too…
With the arrival of the new Mac Pro another big blunder has been put in light: while the new workstation can drive 4K monitors. When they launched its retina line of laptops Apple had well understood that letting user windows and menu bar scaling down on a laptop screen wouldn’t cut it: it would be too small to be comfortable. A new mode was implemented to keep interface element the same size as for non-retina laptops while letting applications access to the super high pixel density: a comfortable and familiar user experience with stunning graphics for photo or video editing software.
Unfortunately the new 4K support in Mac OS X Mavericks does not provide a similar retina mode: either users have to deal with the native 4K resolution with the user interface becoming too small to be comfortable or they have to stick with lower resolution, more comfortable but not delivering the expected quality of a 4K solution for which users will have invested a few thousands dollars… Again a rushed execution from Apple on the software side, this time at operating system level. This might get corrected with time but this reinforce the emerging partner that software products are being rushed at Apple…
What about photography?
Why is that relevant to me, photography and this blog? Well because it could have a real impact on photographers: Apple publishes Aperture, one of the best photography software, which has remained relevant with many small updates since its initial launch but surely would benefit from a good and deep refresh (I mentioned my hopes previously) but it would seem now that either Apple is drifting toward being only a hardware company (Which would mean that Tim Cook is struggling to deal with the pressure from its board of directors or shareholders) or is simply spreading its software development resources too thinly (which would indicate big internal and prioritisation issues, again a sign that Tim Cook struggles under the pressure to deliver results), or that resources are wasted in internal power struggles after the recent reorganisation (indicating that Tim Cook leadership style and approach to collaborative creation is not as effective as Jobs’ style).
In any case this slowly starts to worry me: I was hoping to see an Aperture update with the Mac Pro launch but Apple seems to have much bigger software issues to deal with and any likelihood to see soon a major release is quickly vanishing…
I deeply hope to be proven wrong… and soon!