With a 37-year history, Apple’s story is intertwined with the personal computer and consumer electronics. It has loads of melodrama, huge personalities, and sweeping highs and lows. Right now we’re entering ‘new iPhone’ season with expectations and rumors running rampant – but instead of speculating on new products I’m shaking my head and gritting my teeth about Apple in general.
In my head I have been bouncing around all of the Apple-related press of recent months. From the ongoing legal battles with Samsung to the ITC banning veto to the DOJ anti-trust action to seeing same-day articles confirming that the new iPad Mini WILL and WILL NOT have a Retina screen, it is clear we’re in another Apple-centric press cycle. These cycles do little to increase my opinion of many web sites – by the start of next week some sites will be recycling the same posts with minor wording and title tweaks multiple times within a 24-hour period to get more hits.
This is the sort of stuff we try to avoid on Gear Diary – as well as the speculative posts about how X or Y means Apple is doomed or iOS is behind or whatever. That sort of thing might get some hits and a ton of comment-vitriol from Android and iOS fans, but it really isn’t productive. What is swirling in my head are things that really bother me about Apple – as a company whose products my family depend on, whose products I have used for years, and whose ecosystem I spend loads of money in every year. With each recent ‘iPhone cycle’ it seems my spending choice has been tougher and made more reluctantly, so I wanted to discuss a few things that have made that the case.
A Little Background
My own computing history weaves in and out of Apple’s story for the past 35 years. The first computer I bought was an Apple ][+, then I inherited my Dad’s SE before I bought a Classic and later a Quadra. Jumping to laptops I had a Portable, Powerbook 170, then a Pismo, Titanium, Al Book, the a seemingly unending stream of Macbook Pros. I jumped into the Newton fray with the MessagePad 2000, then had a 2100, then nearly every generation of iPod ever made, then every iPad and finally an iPhone 5.
Yet Apple is also responsible for some of greatest disappointments – I spent loads of time, energy and money converting my MIDI studio to Cakewalk on the PC in the 90s as Apple’s products failed to keep up with advances in technology and even the ability to run modern software for a reasonable price. Then I had become fully invested in the Newton platform just as Steve Jobs killed it – and developers fled almost instantly, leaving me to choose between maximizing resale price and keeping a collectible.
The iPod era brought in a host of new things – but many of those are symptomatic of the ‘Steve Jobs Era’, which is where many of my frustrations emerge. Let’s take a look!
OK, that is a mouthful, so let me elaborate: when iP0d came out it was Mac-only. This was more about waiting for the Windows version of iTunes, but it was done because Jobs and Apple wanted to control what went on to the iPod. They KNEW they would be selling music, and they wanted to sole-source. They used the Mac version to hook the audience, and with the Windows release they dominated the market, so when the iTunes Store launched they were instantly the top digital music store.
These were bold moves, to be sure, but it is clear Apple had a possible vision in which they secured the hardware market, then the content market to support the hardware, which in turn led to further hardware sales – and it was critical that the hardware and content were linked and exclusionary of other hardware. It is that ‘vertical integration’ that fuels many moves that some call anti-competitive (a legal term I won’t touch).
Others include the refusal to allow Google Voice on the iPhone for a while, which on the surface Apple claimed was to ‘maintain the purity of the iPhone experience’ but most people recognized as a move to appease AT&T and their concerns over excessive data usage and also to maintain control over the usage of the phone. In other words, it had nothing to do with customers – it was all about control.
And let us not forget how Apple has dealt with those who (one way or other) get hold of their secrets – they have mobilized police departments, staged break-ins, ruined lives and careers, and shut down websites. They are ruthless, merciless and destructive beyond what should be considered reasonable.
‘Just Enough’ Technology:
Here is what really bugs me: with every Apple iOS product release you can easily see the ‘+1′ version. iPhone 4S was clearly the same design as the iPhone 4 but with enhanced hardware and some new iOS capabilities, and we can guess the iPhone 5S will be the same. Same for iPad – every step is a half-step, with the next-gen already mostly evident.
Why do I care?
Because right now Apple dictates the pace of technology evolution.
Wait … what?!? No one would call Apple a bleeding edge technology company, as they have for years focused on strong technology but with incredible design and integration. Yet, for every innovation that comes from other companies, very few go anywhere. Samsung implements things in a very Samsung-specific way that is too often gimmicky (stylus, hover-hand) and excludes general Android adoption (pretty much everything from Samsung).
NFC is just the latest example of a technology that is languishing waiting for Apple. If Apple was to decide that paying via NFC was cool, everyone would adopt it; same for check-in, hotel room keys, and so on. Apple provides a critical mass of devices and a proven dedication to maintaining support. This stability is essential for making infrastructure investments – and Apple is the only one really giving it to folks.
The Constant Screwing of the Gaming Community:
Having just played Deus Ex: The Fall and X-COM: Enemy Unknown on the iPad Mini and also the PC versions (ok, for Deus Ex it is ‘Human Revolution’), I couldn’t help but wonder what those games would have been like if the iPad Mini was based on the iPad 3 rather than the iPad 2. On the iPad Mini for advanced games you need to reboot before playing to clear memory and deal with more crashes than necessary – because Apple only equipped the Mini with 512MB of RAM.
Apple has long courted the gaming community, seeing the value in making the Mac, iPhone and iPad a desirable game development target. Yet they seem to constantly come up short of actually supporting that community. I remember back in late 2002 playing Jedi Knight II on the new 1GHz Titanium Powerbook with a 64MB ATi Radeon 9000 card and having the absolute best performance in the ‘Yavin Swamp’ area available on any laptop. That didn’t last long – and it has never returned.
The iPad Mini is the latest – it really needed 1GB of RAM for the video system to handle larger games and textures. But since it didn’t get 1GB, it has resulted in developers scrambling around optimizing and trimming and editing to make everything work on what is essentially a 2 year old technology. So instead of getting the best possible games, we are getting compromised experiences tailored to the lowest common denominator.
The ebook example is perfect here – they worked with publishers on the Agency Model, which provides a fixed 30% profit margin to distributors such as Apple, Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Then they tell Amazon and Barnes & Noble that any books sold through their app were subject to the 30% app store fee. In other words – by selling an app on an iOS device Amazon or Barnes & Noble would net ZERO profit, by Apple’s design. How is this anti-consumer? Because it forces those bookstores to become non-profits or remove the stores from their iOS apps.
And THAT hurts the consumers.
There are loads of examples – like the old one with the first iPod Video that required a special chip to allow for video out through the 30-pin connector – which just happened again with the adapter for the Lightning-to-30-pin connector. All of these are designed to force you to buy more stuff by limiting functionality.
App-Store Lockdown / One-Size Fits All
The app store mentality is simple – you buy an app and you get free updates forever. If the app developer wants to get more money, they release a new app, and everyone – whether or not they had the old one – pays the same. The problem is that is NOT how software upgrades have been handled since … well, forever. I remember upgrading my music software (MOTU’s Performer) back in the mid-80s. There were three tiers – new purchase, competitive upgrade, and version upgrade – with different prices. If you owned the last version, you got the lowest price to remain current.
When Apple introduced the App Store there were some immediate issues and concerns about things such as upgrades, limits on root access and private APIs, and sandboxing. Apple figured that what worked for iOS would work for the Mac, and to a large extent it has – consumers have flocked heavily to the store over the past couple of years. But like anything else, things change over time – and while people can easily see paying again for a sequel to a game, paying full price again for a version upgrade to a word processor or image editor is a tougher sell.
Most recently Omni Group thought they could work with this by telling users who had bought the Mac App Store version that they could get a discount on the next upgrade version through the Omni Group store. That was also against App Store policy, so they had to stop. In other words, rather than being able to reward all of their loyal customers, they can only reward those smart enough to NOT buy the app from the Mac App Store. Which is sad because the Mac App Store offers tons of convenience.
But it is all part of the ‘one size fits all’ approach that ends up hurting more customers than it benefits. Sure it is simple to say ‘sell through App or App Store, pay Apple 30%’. But music, software, games, books, movies, DLC, and upgrades all have different use cases and business models in the real world, so it only makes sense they should be treated differently by Apple. But they are not, and the consumer is the one who ‘pays the price.
All of this gets at my expectations for the Fall. I am assuming Apple will introduce a number of evolutionary products that will be really cool and millions of people will buy them (I know I am all-in for a new iPad). They will advance technology, but not as much as many hope or speculate, and they will also destroy some old technologies and likely a few companies along the way.
And when the dust settles we will still have technology that is a compromise rather than the best available; capacities that are lower than many competing devices; GPU speeds that claim more than they deliver for gamers; and an app store and customer treatment model that is unchanged.
And while I am not thrilled that these things are true, the reality is I have already shown that between productivity, blogging, games, music, work and other things I can make the iPad my 90% computer – and there is nothing else that comes close in terms of breadth or scope of technical coverage. So while I am not pleased and not loyal to Apple as a company, their products continue to meet my needs in a way others simply can’t. So I will buy again.
What about you? Are you frustrated with Apple? What do you plan to do about it?