Apple Needs to Find its Soul Again
Apple announced a new line of phones yesterday in the inaugural press event from the new Steve Jobs theater at Apple's new headquarters. Unfortunately, the announcement was underwhelming and riddled with awkward design and hiccups.
Apple's keynote was just under two hours long, and in that time we were given a new generation of Apple Watch, a new Apple TV, and a few new iPhones.
First, let me just state for the record that I am writing this article on an iMac. I use a Mac professionally and have owned no less than five generations of iPads and iPhones through the years.
I even worked for Apple as a customer service representative between 2003 and 2004.
I'm not an Apple hater. I'm a cheerleader for technology and innovation. It's in my best interest that companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, and others push the boundaries with each new generation.
Sadly, I feel that Apple has lost the drive to do just that. It has dropped the ball that it once carried further and faster than any other brand on the planet. Apple has lost its soul.
What Made Apple Cool
I could write all day about what I believe made Apple a great technology company. It wasn't always. There was a period in the '90s when Apple was struggling to anything.
It had a stagnant operating system and stale hardware. It had fallen behind in virtually every measurable way. Microsoft was eating Apple for lunch because it could run on products made by companies that were pushing boundaries and driving the technology further.
Apple was about to close its doors when Steve Jobs stepped back into the role as its captain. The first thing Steve Jobs did was throw out the idea that it was at war with any other company.
A deal was struck with Microsoft that resulted in a cash injection that helped Apple stay afloat long enough for a new type of Apple product to be developed.
More importantly, under Steve Jobs' leadership, Apple found its voice. It was the brand of the artist, the free thinker, the rebel, and anyone else that thought outside of the box.
Its products reflected this voice. Colorful, awkwardly-shaped laptops and desktop computers replaced boring, bland beige boxes. Apple's design was finally in lockstep with its messaging. It was different.
Apple stopped trying to be the first company to step into a market and started focusing more on being the one that took a product category and changed the way everyone thought it should be.
Every aspect of Apple's products were designed with the "Think Different" motto in mind.
This made Apple cool again, but it was its impeccable attention to detail and quality that made it great.
What Made Apple Great
Apple has never been the budget-friendly brand. It's a boutique brand, or at least it used to be. Its prices were higher than the competition, but it produced products that consistently delivered on the philosophy that you get what you pay for.
While a PC would last two to three years, a Mac would easily give you five or more years of use. After which, you could sell it for at least half of what you paid for it years prior. That was the mark of a quality product.
Steve Jobs was focused on making sure that everything was as close to perfect as possible. Quality was key.
One of the greatest aspects of Apple's business model was that its software and hardware were made for one-another. They were brilliantly optimized.
This was a big selling point, and one of the reasons why Apple became the go-to brand for video editing and other performance-intensive tasks.
When Steve Jobs was CEO of Apple, its mission wasn't to create products in search of a market. It was to identify holes in the market and to develop products to fill them.
With the iPod, Apple created a device that took an emerging market with very limited technology and pushes the boundaries further. Digital music players before the iPod were extremely limited, and ultimately cheap gimmick devices created as an afterthought by brands that were more heavily invested in CDs and other physical media.
Apple identified the need for a portable media player that was small enough to fit in a pocket, but that held enough music to satisfy the avid collector.
It also created a music store that carried more songs than any other digital music store in existence. It created a solution to its problem and released them simultaneously. An iPod owner didn't just buy an iPod from Apple. They bought music, too.
The smartphone market in 2007 was very week. Windows Mobile was the OS of choice, and users were locked into a tiny screen and physical keyboard.
I owned a Samsung Blackjack and found it only really useful for tethering with my laptop. I could sort of read email if I scrolled constantly, and websites were usually broken.
Apple introduced the iPhone at a time when the smartphone market was in bad shape. There was demand for data on cellular plans, but not a lot of devices that could take advantage of it.
Enter the iPhone, a sleek smartphone with a capacitive touch screen that enabled users to manipulate it with their fingers. Meanwhile, its closest relative from Palm uses resistive touch technology requiring a stylus.
Blackberry phones were no better. They featured big physical keyboards and little cursor nubs for navigation. Hardly a natural interface.
Apple found a hole in the smartphone market and developed a solution that solved most of the problems that kept people from entering into it.
When Apple created the iPad, the tablet computer world was in dire straights. Microsoft was set on making tablets run a desktop-class operating system on hardware that wasn't anywhere close to as powerful as what users were accustomed to.
Even the Windows operating system wasn't optimized for touch. This was a massive turnoff for consumers.
Apple, identifying the problem, decided to go a different route. The iPad would run a mobile operating system which was built from the ground up for touch.
More importantly, this operating system was optimized for the low-powered hardware. Apple innovated around the problem where Microsoft was forcing innovation for the sake of being first.
While the rest of the tech world was focused on netbooks, these tiny laptops with painfully weak processors and terrible features, Apple identified the problem and provided a solution in the MacBook Air.
Consumers wanted ultraportable laptops that were small and light enough to fit in a school backpack. They also wanted one that didn't cost an arm and a leg.
Netbooks were portable, but they were riddled with sacrifices. Performance, screen size and built quality to name a few.
Apple's MacBook Air wasn't the super cheap laptop budget consumers were hoping for, but it was the perfect ultraportable laptop for Apple's target customer.
It provided decent performance thanks to the natural optimization that comes when the same company develops both the software and the hardware. Using materials that cost a little more, Apple was able to keep both size and weight down and deliver a product that was uniquely thin and light, less expensive than its higher-end laptops, and a perfect solution to the demand that netbooks introduced.
Where Apple Lost its Way
Steve Jobs passing away was a big blow to Apple. His health was on the decline for years leading up to his untimely passing on.
What Steve Jobs gave Apple was a soul. He had a vision of what Apple was and could be. That vision dictated every decision from the finest point of design to the largest marketing campaigns the company had ever undertaken.
His death didn't make Apple lose its way. The loss of that cohesive drive was.
During OS X's early years, every major update came with a host of new features. These features had practical application for users and would improve the way they interacted with their Macs.
There was a focus on building software that people would love, including iLife and iWork suites complete with apps to help people organize their photos, compose music, and create compelling keynotes.
These apps are still around, for the most part. They rarely get updated, and when they do, there is no mention of them at all in Apple's keynote addresses.
macOS High Sierra is coming soon, and instead of a new set of exciting features, it's boasting faster file management and a new video codec.
Apple's continued insistence that the industry as a whole switch to its Metal platform puts more work on the part of developers to create compelling cross-platform software.
For this reason, big game development houses like Blizzard have opted not to make their new games available on macOS until Apple works to make it more friendly for multi-platform developers.
iOS Optimization Woes
Apple's mobile operating system, iOS, has traded in its industry-leading optimization and peppiness for gummy animations and frame stutter that haunts even the most powerful iOS devices to this day.
This problem is elevated by devices that are one or more years older. The stutter becomes more apparent with each software update.
Poor Design Choices
If someone wants to understand why people such as myself are showing disappointment in Apple's design choices over the past few years, they need not look any further than the latest edition of the Magic Mouse.
Apple opted to put the charging port on the bottom of the mouse. So, instead of using it while it's charging like virtually every other rechargeable mouse on the market, you have to physically flip the mouse over and plug it in to charge.
Another great example is the so-called "trash can" Mac Pro. Its cylindrical shape, while unique and interesting, made this pro-level desktop impossible to upgrade and thermally limited.
Apple's executives reportedly admitted recently, “I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner, if you will.”
This Brings us to the iPhone X
Perhaps the icing on Apple's messy design cake is the upcoming iPhone X.
The iPhone X features an edge-to-edge screen reminiscent of Samsung's latest Galaxy devices, except there is one added nuance. A black bar containing its front-facing cameras, speaker, and IR sensors.
This bar doesn't just cut off the display; it interrupts it by creating a big notch. This notch is a noticeable interruption to an otherwise brilliant OLED visual experience.
In Apple's keynote slides, a video featuring gameplay on the iPhone X reveals that the game's interface is cut off by the notch. A situation that we can expect many of the App Store's hundreds of thousands of apps to either have to develop around or face similar issues.
This is what Apple is producing now. It's a far cry from the minimalistic, simple user experience that Apple was known for a decade ago when the original iPhone launched.
Apple was about clean lines and gentle curves. It was the brand that didn't interrupt user experience with technology. It made its technology invisible while you enjoyed what amounted to a work of art.
Those of us that are disappointed in today's Apple aren't simply nostalgic for what was. We want Apple to do better.
We want Apple to think differently, again.