Hey Apple, Where’s the Fire?

I know the trend lately is to suggest that Apple is not moving fast enough. That it should be releasing brand-new groundbreaking products every year or two. That iOS needs a complete design overhaul so it won’t be so “boring.” Where’s the Apple TV? Where’s the iWatch? And so on.

Down with Skeuomorphism! Flat Design FTW!

Forget all that. What Apple really needs to do is slow the hell down.

The Mac was released in 1984. The iPod in 2001. The iPhone in 2007. The iPad in 2010. Sure, the revolutionary new products are coming faster now than they used to, but is that a good thing?[1]

Apple has introduced some incredibly cool technology over the past several years that hasn’t come close to reaching its potential. FaceTime, Passbook, iBooks Author, iCloud—just to name a few—were all so promising when they were introduced. But most of them have failed to be completely successful, not because they aren’t great ideas, but because Apple isn’t doing a whole lot to either improve or evangelize them.

If the pattern used to be “release, then iterate, iterate, iterate,” it seems like Apple is not giving itself enough time for the “iterate” part of that process. It’s being pressured to move on to the next thing. And that leaves us with a lot of half-baked products and a ton of unrealized potential.

Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail.

FaceTime

The first time you use FaceTime to talk to your family members from across the globe is a pretty magical experience. We’ve all seen the commercials and gotten teary-eyed. Anyone who has used FaceTime can see the value in making free long-distance video calls, right? But what’s holding FaceTime back from wider adoption?

When Jobs introduced FaceTime, he said that it would eventually be an open standard, that anyone could use the same technology and thus it wouldn’t matter if your kids or wife or whoever also had an iPhone or iPad. You could call people on Android, Windows, etc. What happened to that? Did the standard get rejected? Did Apple ever bother submitting it?

And why is FaceTime still a one-on-one conversation? I can do a video iChat with three people over AIM, for crying out loud. And I can’t share my screen during a FaceTime call, either. The Mac app hasn’t been updated since it was in beta, really. And the carriers are only now opening up and letting us use it over our cellular data plans. Considering how long FaceTime has been around, it’s stunningly similar to what it was at launch.

Update: Rene Ritchie from iMore has informed me that Apple is in the midst of a lawsuit involving FaceTime, and that may have had a strong effect on Apple’s ability to improve the technology, and to open source it. That certainly would explain the lack of progress there. Thanks for the tip!

Passbook

The four times I’ve used Passbook were some of the most delightful retail experiences I’ve had. Who wouldn’t love the idea of never having to worry about losing paper tickets or waiting in line at Will Call again? Every time I buy tickets to a movie, concert, or comedy show, I scan the confirmation email, hoping to see a Passbook link. And more often than not, I’m left disappointed.

I’d be using Passbook a lot more, except few companies seem to be adopting it. This one is a real head scratcher, as from what I can tell the technology isn’t difficult to implement. It appears as if Apple actually got the hard part right, but no one at Apple is selling it enough. I know that Passbook is relatively new, but is anyone out there pushing companies to try it? Does Apple even have Evangelists anymore?

It would help if Apple Retail at least adopted Passbook for Apple Gift Cards and in-store pickups. Talk about eating your own dogfood.

Update 2: @hmk on App.net pointed out that last November, Apple did start allowing online Apple Gift Cards to be transferred into Passbook. The physical cards you buy in Apple Stores and other retail locations are still not transferrable, however. 

iBooks Author

Phil Schiller said Apple wanted to reinvent the textbook with iBooks Author. And what have we gotten since? Is Apple taking this book revolution seriously anymore? Maybe it is, but it’s hard to tell when Apple has been basically silent about it ever since, minus one update that didn’t address most authors’ needs.

Maybe footnotes would be a good start.

iCloud

Lots of stories lately about how Apple is blowing it with iCloud, so I don’t need to belabor the point here. Everyone seems to agree that contact, calendar, and preference syncing is mostly okay, though not perfect. But the real issue is more complex data sync, which is both broken and next to impossible to implement.

iCloud needs developer adoption, and right now the top developers are telling everyone to stay away from it. This is a huge problem for Apple. I know the tendency for Apple is to think of users first, then Apple, then the devs, but this is one case where putting the dev first is actually going to help Apple and the users more. If Core Data sync is truly unfixable, replace it with something better under the hood. Keep calling it iCloud, because no one outside the developer community will know you changed anything. They’ll just be happy it started working.

Conclusion

Behind every one of these products is a brilliant idea. This is not a Ping situation, where Apple saw it had made a mistake and quickly cut it loose. Every one of these and many more could easily become world-changing, competition-killing features with the right amount of polish and some proselytizing. But Apple can’t do that if it starts to adopt a more Google-like “throw it all up against the wall and see what sticks” attitude. This would be harmful not only to the users who get burnt as their favorite new technologies die on the vine, but also to Apple itself as people start to lose their faith that everything new Apple does is golden. It’s also destructive to the talent within Apple who come up with these things. You can’t retain talented people if you abandon the projects they work so hard to deliver.

When the iPhone was first released, and it didn’t have cut, copy, and paste, I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t worried there were no third-party apps. I knew that would all happen eventually. I want to be just as sure about Apple’s newer products.

Even on the hardware side, we’re just scratching the surface of iPad adoption. There are far more people who don’t own a tablet than who do. It’s clear that tablets are destined to become the primary computing device for most people; but not if Apple is already putting all its attention on wrist computers and not addressing the shortcomings that make the iPad impractical for average users’ needs. The current iPads are awesome, but they’re not done. There’s plenty more to improve.

If Apple took the year and worked on half of its existing prodcuts rather than trying to introduce new ones, they’d be doing themselves and us a much bigger favor. If they spent the year fixing the unbelievably sloppy bugs that still exist in iOS and Mountain Lion (I’m talking boneheadedly simple things like drag and drop on the Mac), rather than bringing five new half-baked apps like Podcasts to the platform, our phones and our laptops would be better at surprising and delighting us.[2]

I’ve loved jabbing Adobe for its many flaws over the years, but when they took a step back with Photoshop CS6 and spent the majority of the release fixing all the teeny little annoyances we were complaining about for decades rather than peppering it with a thousand useless new features, you could feel the collective joy from the user base. We were thrilled that Adobe was finally fixing most of the broken stuff. Apple would be wise to take some time to do something similar with iOS and OS X. All those little irritations add up, and every new product you introduce that doesn’t get more love later is yet another breeding ground for discontent.

Maybe that’s not sexy enough to gather all the right headlines. Maybe new features in iWork for the first time in seveal years won’t keep Wall Street or the idiot analysts happy. Maybe the competition is too fierce to afford the time to slow down and get some perspective rather than plowing forward at breakneck speed. (I seriously doubt it.) But all this rushing, all this spreading of resources too thin is starting to show. Allowing pressure from others to set the pace of innovation at Apple would be a very costly mistake.


  1. Personally, I think the iPad was released a few years earlier than it should have been. Jobs wasn’t going to be around much longer, so it made sense that he wanted to see it out in the real world before he passed, but the more I use my iPad mini, the more convinced I am that the mini would have been what Apple released as the first iPad if it had waited a few more years to refine the product to its usual standards.  ↩

  2. The release of the new and improved Podcasts app actually gave me hope. Most of the press only cared about the killing of skeuomorphism, but the more significant UI changes and new features in Podcasts demonstrated that Apple knew exactly what was wrong with the app and how best to fix it. If Podcasts is an indication of where iOS is going in general, then I’m not worried. Let’s hope we’ll see more of this sort of methodical polish in the near future.  ↩