Monday, January 12, 2015

Apple: if only every tech firm could be this unsuccessful

Apple isn't stuffed, but that doesn't mean it's completely safe

Is Apple's software falling behind its hardware?

There's a bit of an internet storm brewing around Apple this week, based partly on a blog post by developer Marco Arment: writing on Marco.org. He suggested that Apple's software quality control isn't brilliant.

He's right. I can point angrily at Mail, which keeps breaking; Safari on iPad, which keeps crashing; Continuity in Yosemite, which keeps ringing long after I've answered and ended a call; iMessage, which keeps going weird; or iTunes Match and AirPlay, both of which only seem to work when I don't want to listen to music.

The thing is, though, I could have said pretty much the same thing about previous OS Xes, iOSes, iWork apps, Logic Pro, iPhoto… the list of Apple annoyances goes back a long way.

Does Apple ship stuff that contradicts the "it just works" line? Oh yeah.

Has it been doing it for years? Oh yeah.

Is it getting worse, and if it is, does it matter?

Let's have a look.



The best of times, the worst of times

Arment's well-intentioned post fuelled the fire of the usual doom merchants, who were quick to pile on and proclaim Apple's inevitable demise based on what was intended to be a constructive post.

Apple is many things, but in trouble isn't one of those things.

It's rather like the story about legendary footballer George Best, who was staying in a hotel and ordered room service champagne; when the waiter delivered it to Best, whose bed was covered in thousands of pounds of casino winnings and the then-Miss World, he asked the footballer: "Mr Best, where did it all go wrong?"

Looking at Apple's sales and its financials, it's clear that lots of companies would kill to be as unsuccessful and doomed as Apple apparently is.

The thing is, though, George Best's (possibly apocryphal) waiter was actually correct. Best's lifestyle killed his career and ultimately killed him too. He may have been rolling around in enormous piles of money, as Apple is now, but his time at the top was over.

Is there a lesson to be learnt here?

The good, the bad and the Googly

I think Arment is probably right that Apple's software quality control isn't what it could be and that it does seem to be slipping somewhat, and I think his diagnosis - too many irons in too many fires, with unnecessarily tight deadlines such as annual OS releases - is probably right too. But the problem isn't that Apple is getting crap. It's that rivals are getting better at what Apple does, but Apple isn't necessarily getting better at what its rivals do.

Patrick Gibson framed it perfectly back in 2012, noting that "almost anything Apple does which involves the internet is a mess" while "Google, specifically Android, has been steadily improving its entire platform."

Two and a bit years on and Gibson has been proved right in spades. Look at the polish of Lollipop and the quality of Android's flagships and it's clear that Android has caught up with Apple. But look at Apple Maps, or iCloud Drive, or iTunes Match… do you think Apple has caught up with Google?

What happens when everybody else's stuff "just works" too?

When good enough isn't good enough

"It just works" was always something of an inside joke, but there was still a core of truth to it because for a very long time rivals' products barely worked at all. You forgave Apple its occasional sins because what were you going to use instead? Windows? Linux? Zune? Ha ha ha ha no.

That truth still holds to some extent - for example Microsoft's own goal with Windows 8 didn't do Apple any harm, and for a long time Android was pretty horrible compared to iOS - but some of the things that haven't just worked from Apple recently are pretty serious. iOS updates that kill all connectivity? OS X updates that can't do Wi-Fi properly? That isn't what we pay Apple the big bucks for.

It's important to keep this all in perspective, of course. For all the expletives I've hurled at my OS X and iOS devices recently, none of the problems have been bad enough to make me jump ship to a rival OS. They're irritating, sure, but they're not the kinds of thing that'll ruin a beautiful relationship.

At least, they aren't yet.

The perception problem

Apple is famous for its belief in design, its embrace of the principle that design isn't a quick bit of cosmetic pixie dust you sprinkle on products in the final stages of manufacturing but something that informs the entire experience. But if the demands of its hardware release schedules are pushing its software teams beyond their ability to cope, they risk damaging that experience.

Even if they aren't, the risk of damage is still real thanks to Apple's sheer importance and general click-worthiness: as Bendgate showed, issues affecting Apple don't need to be particularly serious to generate astonishing amounts of coverage.

Apple has long positioned itself as the BMW or Mercedes-Benz of tech, a firm who makes the best products it possibly can and only then starts to think about the price tag. "There's always a large junk part of the market," Tim Cook told Bloomberg Businessweek. "We're not in the junk business."

The junk business is in unimpressive hardware and shonky software; Apple would rather "compete like crazy" for the bit of the market "that really wants a product that does a lot for them," Cook says. And that's great, but the better your rivals get the tougher that competition becomes.

Even if Apple's quality control is no worse than it was five years ago, its rivals have got a whole lot better - so the perception is that things are getting worse. When your massive margins depend largely on convincing consumers that the gap between what you do and what your rivals do is equally massive, that's a very dangerous development.

Source: TechRadar

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