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An edge-case perspective of Apple

Josh Carr, @carrjd
09.06.14
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Throughout the last decade, reading rumors about Apple products gave me an edge-case perspective of Apple. With each new rumor, I have an internal discussion that determines the validity with a "yes" or a "no." In the past couple years, the dialogue changed from "yeah, that would be cool" to "please, no." Unfortunately for me, my objections often go unaddressed as Apple heads in a direction I find unappealing. So why did that happen? Apple changed, but more realistically... I changed.

Let's start with how I changed. Ten years ago, I was only eighteen and in the military. I bought an iPod Photo with my first credit card. I loved music and basked in it while studying for my military knowledge tests. A company called Apple filled this stressed out teenager's need for simplification with a portable music collection that I could fit in my pocket. I was impressed and kept watching Apple.

Moving forward a few years, I was tired of carrying around my iPod and my LG flip phone. There was a short period where I tried the Motorola ROKR, but that was a terrible device with very little storage. Again, Apple stepped in and filled a need for simplification by introducing iPhone. During this era, I also picked up a Mac and fell in love with the creativity it allowed; for the first time, it seemed like the software stepped out of the way and I could just create.

About the same time, Apple introduced the Apple TV, then the iPod touch, and finally iPad. None of those devices really filled a need for me. Sure, there's some convenience to having every Apple product in existence... but there's really no need for it. I have an Apple TV, an iPad, and an iPod touch now, but my iPhone and my Mac receive 90 percent of my daily attention.

As I've aged, my needs changed, and my desire for new technology products has dwindled. (I'm more interested in seeing developers push the limits of our software, but that's not the point of this piece.) I'm constantly using my Mac for work, and my iPhone handles my free-time interactions. I bought my iPad mainly for reading, but I largely prefer a real book when given a choice. I bought my Apple TV for media sharing, but I don't have a cable or Netflix subscription so some of the built-in capabilities are useless to me. I bought my iPod touch for... well, I didn't actually buy it; one of my customers didn't want to fix it so I bartered other work and fixed it for myself. I haven't used it much. I apologize if I sound elitist here – in fact, most of my Apple devices are hand-me-downs from my repair company customers. For work, I have to stay well educated in the world of Apple; having a wide range of devices is crucial to my success as an Apple consultant. I always say that I know too much about Apple and how it thinks because there's no sense of mystery left for me. My friends call me "The Apple Guy" and often ask to chat about what they read on rumor sites. That would be awesome if I were more interested in the choices Apple makes.

Examining Apple hardware

Let's switch gears and talk about how Apple changed our hardware over the last ten years. They started with the iPod, its so-called halo effect, and increased Mac adoption. Shortly thereafter, they introduced the iPhone (and another halo effect for the Mac). I would consider all of these products revolutionary. Sure, the iMac in 1998 was amazing, but it really took the halo effect, Justin Long, and the switch to Intel processors to push the Mac back into the mind of the consumer.

Since then, everything appears evolutionary to me. I do not discount the amazing progress we've seen in the capabilities of these devices, but they remain largely unchanged in scope. One can argue that the iPad was revolutionary – for a lot of people it was – but it only accounts for 10 percent of my usage. If you ask my wife, it's about fifty-fifty between iPad and iPhone; she doesn't use a computer outside of work. For some people, the iPad serves as their primary device. I think Apple's really targeting that demographic at this point. More on that thought in a bit.

Examining Apple software

Let's stop talking about hardware and address the software changes Apple introduced in the last ten years. The evolution of OS X is ongoing. In my industry, I cannot look at new software like candy and eat it immediately. Every recent dot release had major issues that hurt a lot of my customers... and I haven't seen it get better over the years. It's not worth discussing specifics here: they are irrelevant to this article, and they were very different depending on customer needs. The same things happen with major iOS updates; the biggest complaint is always battery life.

Forget about the OS for a minute and think about the app updates released in the last few years. Apple consistently removes features from apps to help define the difference between consumer and prosumer or to create feature parity between Mac and iOS versions. iMovie and GarageBand seem largely worthless at this point because Apple wants you to upgrade to Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X. Aperture is dead in favor of an unreleased Photos app that assuredly focuses on consumers. iWork only recently updated to a usable app after Apple nerfed it last year; it's still not the powerhouse of old.

The built-in creative capabilities of a brand new Apple device fail to exceed (they don't even compete with) those of my first generation MacBook. Instead, you have to rely on third-party – usually paid – software to fill in the gaps. Whether from Apple, Adobe, or another third-party developer, paid software is a must for anyone wanting to do something beyond the most rudimentary functions of the default software. However, most people would never notice the lack of creativity. I'm convinced that Apple knows this and changed its entire business model to reflect it.

Realizing I'm not the focus

Ultimately, I am an edge case. I want my devices to function in ways the average user would not. I want Apple to move into categories where their market research doesn't see profitability. Apple does not, and likely cannot, consider an edge case like me. My edge-case perspective of Apple doesn't align with its target demographic at this point.

The first time I realized I was no longer Apple's primary focus was the introduction of Lion and its Server app. It crippled much of my business-related Mac use. I eventually switched to Ubuntu for most server-related activities, and I couldn't be happier. Still, Apple forced my hand by releasing terrible server software; that left a bad taste in my mouth.

More recently, iOS 7 confirmed my suspicions that I wanted a different product than Apple wanted to create. Apparently, Apple's market research suggested that people wanted a freshly updated interface. In six years, we hadn't seen a major refresh to the iOS interface design. Some developers, like Tapbots, were taking strides to refresh the interface but Apple felt like it had to do something drastic to keep consumers interested in their products. During this time, we saw executive turmoil at Apple as Jony Ive took over interface design from Scott Forstall. I'm not arguing that skeuomorphic, minimalist, or flat design is better, but I will say that rushing a major redesign seems negligent.

I still believe that iOS 7 was a regression in design and usability mostly because Apple pushed it out too quickly and left many consumers scratching their heads. Remember how bad the calendar app was in the initial release? It left many people scrambling to find an alternative like Fantastical. Yes, it's great for third-party developers, but doesn't this sound eerily familiar to the Mac app situation I mentioned earlier? Is the built-in value of Apple devices diminishing?

The future looks edgy

I'm afraid that Apple is pushing OS X 10.10 Yosemite in a similar direction. I know better than to criticize an unfinished product. I will however express concern about the timing of the release: I'm not sure Apple has enough time to fix all of the interface issues before the public release this fall. It feels rushed at this point. I want it to feel polished; I'm hoping they make the upgrade exciting instead of regrettable.

From an iOS perspective, I'm excited for iOS 8 and the added APIs that will push the evolution of iOS forward. I can't wait for a TextExpander keyboard and a 1Password Safari extension. I still don't agree with some of the user interface choices, but it already seems more polished than iOS 7 ever did. The software coming to my truck looks appealing too. My CarPlay-compatible stereo is already installed and awaiting a firmware update from Pioneer and Apple.

The upcoming Apple TV software update looks like an improvement, but it's still a far cry from what it should be. I often remind myself that the living room revolution is largely dependent on the cooperation of the television and movie industry. Without their support, Apple can't do much more in the living room... unless it produces a gaming console. Unfortunately, I think the company hopes to continue using the horsepower of your iPhone or iPad to generate large screen gaming.

Desiring revolutionary products

If Apple wants to revolutionize how we interact with our technology, CarPlay and Apple TV are where I wish they'd spend their time. I believe Apple could easily disrupt those industries with a little more effort, but I'm just an edge case. If rumors prove to be true, Apple seems more concerned with larger phones and smart watches at this point; that doesn't excite me.

As I mentioned earlier, my favorite Apple products filled a need in my life. iPod, iPhone, Mac – those products simplified something for me. I'd really like to see Apple focus on filling a need we all share. Is a bigger screen on an iPhone going to do that? I don't think so; I'm not interested in a bigger screen. Can a smart watch fill a common need? I don't think so; I see too many drawbacks in a largely unproven category to consider it worthwhile. Biometric monitoring could certainly change lives, but that seems more like an edge case than a general need... at least to me.

I also want to comment on the possible inclusion of sapphire glass in the next generation iPhone. It will be great for Apple, but it's terrible for clumsy phone users everywhere. Most people think the hardness of a material makes it less breakable. That's actually not true; sapphire is more scratch-resistant than gorilla glass, but it's also more brittle. Check out this video if you don't believe me.

Ultimately, I want to eat these words on September 9th. I hope that whatever Apple introduces excites me as much as the first iPod or the first iPhone. Historically, Apple has seldom been first to market: MP3 players, smartphones, and tablets – those categories existed before Apple stepped in and obliterated the competition. Whatever they introduce on Tuesday, I want it to be more disruptive than their recent, evolutionary products.

Continued Apple dominance

Either way, Apple isn't doomed. Analysts and consumers seemed pacified after the release of iOS 7 simply because it was different. Apple shares are near an all-time high, no other company can touch their market cap, and the company has a ridiculous amount of money in the bank. My jaded perception of Apple's recent products hasn't meant a thing to its success because people keep buying them.

If you share my sentiments, keep reminding yourself that the edge case rarely receives attention. Apple's target demographic doesn't mind having U2 at the keynote, likes bigger screens because the text is too small, and thinks watches are cool. I'm very far removed from that demographic at this point. Maybe someday my edge-case perspective will shift back into the mainstream. It would be nice to get excited again, wouldn't it?

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