Apple Has Problems that Need Fixing, Too

Apple’s been getting under my skin lately.

I’d barely noticed it until the other day at lunch when a friend brought up the company’s battle with the US Justice Department.

Apple’s been accused of conspiring with publishers to fix the prices of ebooks.

If this is true, it wasn’t for our benefit as book buyers. The arrangement effectively drove prices up anywhere from 50% to 100%.

Apple would have been acting in its own interests and the interests of publishers to instantly secure marketshare and increase profits.

But alleged collusion isn’t the only thing that’s irking me about Apple these days. There’s plenty more.

So while we’re on the subject of law-breaking, let’s talk about the company’s army of lawyers.

Blindly following an industry trend, the company is siccing its legal militia on everyone from Samsung to Motorola to Nokia (and maybe even me after this column). It’s such a fad, you’d think a new product line called iLawyer was in the works.

It’s as though the company has lost its will to be technically innovative and instead just wants to sue competitors out of existence. True, the tech industry is all about sue-or-be-sued these days, but just because Samsung jumped off a bridge…

Speaking of innovation (or the lack thereof), Apple’s last great one was supposed to be a voice command tool called Siri on the iPhone 4S.

Can we all agree that Siri sucks? I can type on my iPhone keyboard faster than Siri can transcribe, and that’s when she/it actually manages to accurately recognise what I said, which is rare.

Siri could be better. Other services are.

I bought a $1 app the other day called SayHi. It does on-the-fly voice transcription and translation between over 2-dozen languages including Mandarin, Hindi, and Thai.

SayHi is much faster and more accurate than Siri could ever hope to be. This app transcribes my speech and translates it before Siri has even finished scratching its/her head.

Then there’s iCloud. Which is really just Apple’s abbreviation for, “I (Don’t Get the) Cloud”.

Like MobileMe and .Mac before it (thanks for the string of redundant email addresses, Apple), iCloud is just another chapter in Apple’s embarassing effort to obfuscate the fact they don’t understand cloud computing.

Sure, some things are great, like syncing calendar and contact data between devices. But .Mac nailed that a decade ago. What’s improved since then?

Not much, Apple just keeps changing the name, re-branding the service, and forcing its customers through yet another painful technical migration process.

Apple still seems oblivious to the fact that we’re moving whole-hog into the cloud and we need to get all our stuff there, not just selected bits and pieces.

Microsoft, for example, gets the cloud. The integration between its desktop Office suite and Skydrive is close to perfect.

But just try to get a document into iCloud using Apple’s own word processing tool for Mac, Pages. You can’t. It’s pathetic.

Speaking of the Mac.

These days, the Mac is like that adopted child who is emotionally discarded when the parents finally manage to conceive.

It’s rumoured that even within the corporate edifice that is Apple, the Mac engineers themselves are treated like second class citizens in comparison to the lucky geeks who get to work on iPhone and iPad projects.

And it shows. The quality of the Mac, both experientially and technically, is dropping.

It’s becoming more like an iPad for no apparent good reason.

But, more to the point, Macs are getting harder to use and less dependable.

Apple’s own Mac apps are either embarassingly aged (Pages, Numbers) or have been catastrophically disabled (Final Cut). And the OS itself is becoming less secure: a critical Java security flaw was left open for months, resulting in the one of the largest malware infections of all time.

Other apps that are actually maintained, like iPhoto and iTunes, have become slow, barely-usable, over-functioning messes of non-intuitiveness.

Speaking of iTunes, what a mess. As a software application, it’s like your typical Yukon mansion: once a pretty little cabin, the owners just kept nailing new rooms on until it became a groteque monstrosity. iTunes is a digital Jim Robb painting.

I could go on. There’s a lot more about Apple that has really started to irritate me.

But I think the problem with Apple can be summarised best like this: it’s stopped moving forward. It’s comfortable and bored.

The company seems to have settled on a conservative strategy of iteration over innovation: tweak the iPhone, tweak the iPad, pretend to tweak the Mac.

Remember Apple’s “Digital Hub” strategy? It was introduced by Steve Jobs 11 years ago. At the time it was exciting, visionary, and inspirational. Now it’s tired and overwrought. Apple hasn’t really come up with anything to replace it.

Apple has embraced its new role as market dominatrix to the extent that it seems afraid of new ideas.

Apple needs to drop the courtroom drama and get back in the lab. The company needs to update its strategy so that again it’s clear, forward-thinking, visionary, and inspiring.

The company has about $100 billion in the bank.

That’s more cash than the US government has. Apple could refinance Europe with it. Apple could buy America’s Big 3 automakers and still have something left over.

Or it could buy itself. I don’t mean share buybacks. No, more simply, the company needs to reinvest in itself, reinvent itself.

The path the company now treads has an endpoint in sight, and the company is clearly growing weary of its tedious hike toward it.

Before it gets lost, Apple needs to pull out a map and some machetes, chart a new path through the wilderness and start cutting. Like just before the iPhone was introduced.

If Apple doesn’t establish a new direction for itself it will just keep getting more lackadaisical. Competitors are already nipping at the company’s heels, and it won’t be long before they’re neck and neck. Then the company will only have itself to blame when it starts to fall behind.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, May 11, 2012.

4 thoughts on “Apple Has Problems that Need Fixing, Too

  1. I haven’t used iCloud with Pages, because I don’t need to do a lot of formatting on my iPad, but I do use it with Byword (which is a more focused writing app). It works great there and is instantaneous on a wifi connection at home. I know other apps have Dropbox support that works great, but I think iCloud is developed more for people who don’t get Cloud computing themselves – people who don’t want to worry about file management and want it to just work.

    I think you’re right that Apple has become too comfortable with what they’re doing. They aren’t receiving any pressure from any company that’s making them need to reinvent themselves. It’s kind of like Microsoft and Office. Microsoft doesn’t need to publish a new version of Office every year and it makes a killing on the product. Apple has become that way with their products. Bump up the speed, change the display, and they’ll sell millions of whatever they create.

    • It’s interesting, your point about iCloud. I don’t know what you’re experience has been with introducing “the cloud” to less experienced computer users, but the ones that I know have had way more trouble learning about iCloud than they have Dropbox. I think, despite being designed to be simpler, iCloud is tougher to “get” because it’s such a paradigm change. With Dropbox it’s just another folder on your desktop. iCloud is a massive conceptual abstraction and people generally have a harder time comprehending how it works and how to use it. (The fact that files are generally locked to apps is especially difficult for them to understand.) That’s been my experience, anyway.

  2. I am glad that you have brought this topic up. The fact that quality of Apple’s software is dropping is noticeable pretty much everywhere in Lion.

    Owing a last-gen MacBook Air I can attest to the fact that I see issues with the OS almost everywhere. From quirky behaviour of certain config panels, through instability of full-screen rendering in Safari (the Web Process crashing frequently or spiking up the CPU without clear reason) to aging software such as the iWork. The latter, while still absolute pleasure to use shows Apple’s lack of dedication to support their own product that they obviously designed as an alternative to MS Office.

    Personally, I believe that Lion has been by far the least reliable OS they have so far released. There have been reports lately that the Mountain Lion Betas lack shockingly in quality as well. Just reports at the moment, and I do hope they get things polished before the release, but I would not hold my breath for it.

    Maybe they have not learned all that after all. Or, maybe they simply started to manage the company differently. We shall see in the forthcoming months.

    Thanks.

  3. I have to disagree with quite a few of the opinions expressed in this article. I will start with issue of Apples legal action. While it seems to be fad in itself to bash Apple for protecting patents I tend to side with Apple on most accounts. For the longest time I was an android user because I liked the unique features and UI the OS had to offer. Unfortunately every phone manufacture (samsung being the worst) would skin android to a point where it looked like a dumbed down version of iOS. If I buy an android phone I dont want a lock screen with the same “slide to unlock” as the iPhone and I don’t want the same grid of apps that scrolls horizontally across multiple screens. Not every smartphone should be a clone of an iPhone, which is exactly what was happening. Since Apple has starting this seemingly crazy crusade to protect its patents the other phone manufactures have come up with cool new features and innovative UI changes that improve usability and in turn will force Apple to innovate. This is obvious when comparing an original Samsung Galaxy S to the recently announced Galaxy S III.

    As for the comparison between SayHi and Siri the author is comparing apples to oranges. SayHi is merely a dictation and translation software, something that has been around for years in the form of Dragon Speak and Google translate. Siri on the other hand is a software algorithm that not only does speech recognition but can understand both the syntax and semantics of language (albeit not nearly as well as a human). They are two very different things, and as far as the coding and servers required to back up the code, Siri is far more advanced.

    In terms of iWork the fact that it was last released in ’09 may seem like a long time, but one has to remember that Microsoft Office went 4 years between 2003 and 2007 without a major update, and there was a 3 year gap between Office 2007 and Office 2010. Personally I think this is fine as I would prefer not to have to purchase new software every year to maintain compatibility.

    As for iTunes and iPhoto again I don’t agree with the author. Being an owner and user of OSX Lion, Windows 7 and Ubuntu Linux iTunes and iPhoto are by far the easiest of the bundled software suits to use. When compared to Windows Media Center iTunes is a veritable godsend. It is light, efficient and allows music to be organized in an effective and useful manner. iPhoto is also a very powerful piece of software. While it doesn’t have nearly the same features of Adobe lightroom or Photoshop it does allow the user to import and convert RAW files, tag locations, faces, events, etc and even upload to Facebook, Flickr, etc. Try doing that with Windows explorer.

    There is a reason Apple went from a struggling computer company in the 90’s to the largest in the world and it has everything to do with the features, software and integration offered in the companies products. They are by no means perfect and their competitors do do some things better, however I think it is rather unfair to criticize them merely because you dislike some of the services they offer.

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