Friday, September 21, 2012

The Slow Decline of Apple

There is a thought I've been having since Steve Jobs died -  that the iPhone 5 would be a strong indicator of how Apple's corporate views have changed.

And signs point to where I had feared.

Tim Cook isn't Jobs. He isn't the prodigal son returned.  He lacks a cult of personality and an iron grip on the company. He's no doubt a talented executive, but without being the dictator Jobs reportedly was, the company will revert to a standard corporate structure.

Insular development, eschewing third-party native applications, design by committee, and development based not on quality, but profits.

Jobs seemed to have an understanding of the balance required. Using the iPhone, iPod, and iPad as examples (because laptops and desktops are different beasts), each new generation lacked something. It wasn't something that you needed necessarily, but it was something that would have been nice. Each iteration implied that a direction was being followed. Cries of "why can't it do this?" would fade away, and then the new version would have whatever "this" was. It left the consumer wanting more, but content with what they had.

Because what you had worked well. The touchscreen was responsive, the apps loaded quickly, the experience was seamless. Jobs insisted that "it just work." This was often the reason given for something not being included - "It's not where we want it yet."

And if a number changed in the device from a 3 to 4, or a 1 to a 2, you knew the new one would be envy-worthy.

But the iPhone 5? Meh.

It's taller, thinner, lighter, and it has a different back, and under the hood it's newer and faster. This is called a standard upgrade. There's nothing inspired here. It feels more like "the 4 still looks cool, but we have to do SOMETHING to it for the 5, oh and we have to change the aspect ratio."

But that's only part of it. The maps are getting some wide coverage on how terrible they seem. Bad directions, no streetview, no transit directions, less detailed maps, missing areas, mislabled locations, weird image mapping, etc.. In reality, most of these won't affect people day to day. But it speaks to a slip in quality control. For the sake of not supporting Google apps on their phones, Apple has rushed their own replacement.

This is something that could have been held off until the next iOS upgrade.

And the adapter change reeks of a money grab. It undoubtedly has technological and design benefits, but $30 for an adapter that doesn't actually adapt and won't fit in existing docks? That's exactly the "oh well" sort of thing that loses customers. After all, if I need a new phone and will lose functionality with my stereo either way, then you lose another tether to me. I feel kind of bad for people who integrated docks into their home.

Jobs had a plan. You could see the evolution of the devices as their underlying technology. It was there in how the iPod became a phone which became a tablet which altered the operation of the laptop and had people calling for a television.

Apple now? I fear they'll slowly collapse. Creating devices to compete, instead of creating devices to compete with, will become the norm. Apple has always been behind on specs and tech, but they excelled on taking ideas that had been heretofore poorly implemented and making them accessible and usable. Siri and cloud integration may be the last technologies we see Apple take a lead on. The original phone changed phone design forever. The 4 brought video calling to the masses The 4s brought decent voice interaction and native cloud support. The 5 brings... what? A subpar map replacement, and no native YouTube? An extra row of icons?

Sure, there will always be the fervent followers.  The iPhone 5 is breaking sales records and those sales are living up to the hype even the device isn't.  That doesn't mean it's comparable to the achievements of the past, and I fear it's reinforcement at the beginning of a negative trend.

Under Jobs I was convinced Apple had something up its sleeve. over $100 billion in cash was a strong signal that some big move was coming. My money was on a roll-out of an Apple network. A data-only network without the legacy cell crap.  After all, Facetime is an Internet phone. It's Skype for those who don't know about Skype. Now? I expect the cash will be used to buy up companies with interesting patents and for fighting lawsuits. They've already introduced a dividend instead of investing in the company. In short, there is no grand plan. This is a shame, because love or hate Apple, when it made a move, it changed the board, often to the net benefit of all consumers.

From here on out, I expect the net benefit will be to Apple.