My interest in computers started when I was twelve years old. I didn’t like Apple at the time, wrongfully thinking they were useless. I was into gaming and tinkering. I cobbled together parts, tweaked every software setting possible in Windows, all to achieve the very best performance possible, mainly for the games I played. Most had in-game consoles from where I tried tweaking every setting I could find. I was obsessive in trying to find the best configuration possible. But somewhere between 2004 and 2005 everything changed. Someone had put an (now classic) iPod in my hands.
It was a beautiful piece of hardware: white, with beautiful rounded corners and a brightly lit, dense screen. In its center was a circle as a metaphorical element reminiscent of the cd era, working both as a scrolling mechanism and harnessing buttons for play/pause, volume and skipping tracks. The moving of your fingers around the circle to scroll through the library, was like manually turning a cd with an infinite amount of songs on it, in a pleasant way. The iPod worked flawlessly. It scrolled through its library smoother than my PC scrolled through its Winamp library. I had only one criticism: it was bigger than my generic mp3 player containing a whopping 256MB flash drive. This is where the iPod mini entered the stage. It was like holding a piece of jewelry and came close to being the ultimate gadget.
I started checking out the complete Apple lineup. I didn’t buy the iPod mini myself, but I visited the Apple reseller in a city near my hometown almost every week, dreaming of the day I would have saved up enough money to buy something from Apple. I touched and played with both the iBook and the Powerbook and had an even better build quality as the iPod. It felt great to hold and use. When I started using the UI of MacOSX I was perplexed. After wasting countless hours trying to make Windows 95 to XP look beautiful with numerous hacks and applications, and not succeeding, here was an operating system that was beautiful from the outset.
It felt like perfection.
I only had one problem with the Apple computers: gaming. Because Apple used the PowerPC architecture, every application had to be built for MacOSX specifically. However, besides gaming, the macintosh was better at everything. Therefore I decided the best option was to go for the iBook, as it was thin and light, and keep my tower PC for gaming. Next Apple released the iPod Nano in 2005. I felt euphoric. Finally a company that knows what kind of products I like.
I still remember the day I purchased my first Apple computer. It was 2005. It was a sunny saturday morning. Amsterdam was burning up with city dwellers, tourists and shoppers. I had only one goal. Get to the Apple reseller as fast as possible. Swerving through the city crowd I saw the Apple logo and my heart started pounding faster and faster as my body filled up with adrenaline. I was scared, I wasn’t sure I was making the right decision spending so much of my money. Every doubt faded as I stepped into the store. I saw beautiful computers, a beautiful modernly designed store with a lot of open space to breath, friendly sales personnel and only smiling customers. This was it. I walked out with an iBook and an iPod Nano. It cost me a months salary, but it was worth every penny. I went home and played nonstop for 24 hours.
Things are different today. A popular subject in the blogosphere is talking about Apple’s fall into non-existence. Bloggers use a recent shortcoming or mistake of the company as a hyperbole to illustrate its imminent failure. A second popular subject is the completely idiotic discourse of saying that Apple is doing something Steve Jobs wouldn’t have done if he were still alive, thereby saying that Apple’s current path is different from the wishes of Jobs.
I can’t take these criticasters seriously. If Apple were to stop selling products today, it could survive for more then 10 years without cutting back on expenses. Hardly a doomsday scenario. However, there is something different about Apple today when compared to Apple when I bought the iBook. Something is missing. A feeling or maybe better worded would be to say a soul. It’s not missing in the hardware design, but it is missing in the software design. It doesn’t surprise and delight anymore. It doesn’t strive for perfection as it used to. There is still detail and fidelity in the design, but it isn’t timeless. Elements in the design feel outdated and strained, like leather stitching. Even worse are the glitches and weird functions in the software. Missing is the real ‘it just works’. Especially in iOS this is perceptible. Downloading a separate installer on your iPhone to update it just feels wrong. The mobile platforms of today evolve at a tremendous pace and you can’t afford to be behind the curve. iOS is still the best platform for me, but it feels more and more this is not the result of Apple’s input but because of the third party app market and its developers and their strive for innovation. The iPhone 5 looks beautiful, but the UI feels old. Its UI diminishes the ‘wow’ effect I used to have for the iPhone.
After the iPad everything Apple has released has not made me run to the store. It hasn’t made my heart pump any faster or made me skip a beat. The new iMac is beautiful, but is anything really different? The MacBook Pro Retina is one of the best laptops ever made, but it has trouble scrolling youtube videos. The iPad mini and the iPhone 5 both look amazing and feel high quality, but its UI look dated and not designed specifically for them. iOS was designed for the iPhone one to three. It might have scaled well to iPhone 4 retina screen, but it looks unfitting on both iPad (mini) and iPhone 5.
Apple’s biggest danger isn’t that Steve Jobs isn’t alive anymore or that Tim Cook is CEO, it’s stagnation in development and innovation. They are able to innovate in hardware design, but they’re struggling with software design, usability and implementation. They feel like a big company, and they have been big for a while now, where they felt small and nimble before. The source of this feeling is their current slowing pace of innovation, the increasing number of little programming errors and the inability to surprise in a meaningful way. We can’t expect Apple to come out with a brand new product and defining a market every year: they innovate and then iterate. However, the iterations feel less and less of an improvement. Siri was released as beta and still isn’t available in my primary language and it works sometimes perfect and sometimes flawed in the supported languages. Maps works great for me, but lots of conflicted map data were reported worldwide. It isn’t the nimble and flexible underdog technology company anymore, sweating over every possible small detail. It’s the big fortress, the biggest kingdom in the world of technology, only looking at the big picture and forgetting the small pawns you need to win a war. This changed the way I experience Apple’s products. I used to buy them because they were the best in design, UI and usability but also because the brand felt in some way personal to me: an underdog striving for perfection with the best products available and containing only few characterizing and innocent flaws. Now I own them because there is nothing better available. A critical difference.
I wish there would be a new company that was able to challenge the status quo in the technology world. Something that could make Apple really push itself, because Google is just creepy and they still don’t get design. Apple used to have internal strength pushing innovation. Maybe they can find it again. But I feel like they are pushing a bit too much for mass market adaptation instead of just making the best products available. This is where a new innovative company to challenge Apple could actually be beneficial to Apple.
There is a silver lining: Jonathan Ive is now responsible for design in both hardware and software. The surprising delights missing in Apple’s software have never left their hardware, which was designed under the responsibility of Ive. He has been awarded many awards for his design work, has been working for Apple since the 90’s and is intertwined with Apple’s DNA. Although he was never before responsible for the software design team, it’s quite possible that his design virtues could develop and improve the software. But I remain partly skeptical. If the software design becomes too minimalistic, there is a risk of lacking personality and alienating consumers. However, I am mostly positive that he can pull off bringing back a bit of magic in the Apple Kingdom. I loved the feeling I had when I bought my first MacBook, my first, second and third iPhone and my first iPad: the little nervous but exciting feeling when I go out to buy the product and the anxiousness of rushing home to try the products out. Hopefully Apple (and Ive) can make magic happen again.