Thursday, 7 June 2012
Apple's High Order Bit
I never really knew much about Steve Jobs.
Growing up in the early 80s I was lucky enough to have access to a computer my father would bring home from work (an Osborne I) and my love affair with computing (and in particular programming) began. My friend, Michael, up the street had an Apple II Europlus, Tommy and Sean across the road had a TRS-80 and our next-door neighbour had a Commodore PET. I wanted, no, needed to know how each of the computers in my friends' homes worked. The differences between them were as important as the similarities. It was inevitable that the creators of these devices would become heroes of mine. Woz was definitely at the top of the list.
But Jobs was something of an enigma.
By the time I started my career in IT in the early 90s, Steve Jobs, like all of the other entrepreneurs of those devices, had faded into the background. In the late 90s I had become disillusioned with the PC industry in general. Microsoft had the industry in a stranglehold. The Web seemed like the only area where innovation was happening while the desktop had stagnated. I spent a few years in a developer/tech support role installing and configuring Linux servers just to do something different from Windows. Then in 2001 a job came up at a company that sold Macs. They needed someone with a Unix background as their current techs were having trouble getting their heads around the newly released OS X. It was the change I was looking for. When I got my hands on one of the Titanium PowerBooks I was blown away. My passion for IT was rekindled. I could see that someone actually cared about both the craftsmanship and functionality of these devices. Jobs was making a remarkable comeback and his mantra was "build great products".
But still, I knew nothing about the guy.
There were stories here and there. When the local Apple rep brought the first Xserve G4 in for us to demo to customers he told us how Jobs had sent the device back to the engineers several times during the design phase because the lights on the front weren't the right shade of blue. Other stories of Jobs' attention to detail, his passion for great user interface and his reality distortion field permeated tech journals. And every year you would get a keynote presentation or two and a small insight into his way of thinking.
After he passed away in October last year I, like many others, rushed out to get a copy of Walter Issacson's biography of Steve. It seemed like the final opportunity to gain some insight into that enigma.
What I read bothered me.
It wasn't anything to do with Walter's writing style or the content (although I wish he had covered the NeXT years in more detail. I learned more about Jobs' time at NeXT from some of the corporate videos that surfaced after Steve's passing.). What bothered me was that the book detailed something I had an inkling of for quite sometime. Jobs' attention to detail had always covered the full breadth of the products and services offered by Apple right down to the colour of those lights on the Xserve. That was, until he fell ill. From that point on, understandably, his focus had became more concentrated on the new products that he wanted to bring to market.
To my mind, the result was that products that were somewhat immaterial to Steve started to suffer from that lack of attention.
This may not seem like a problem to some. Information technology products only have a certain lifespan and at some point need to either evolve or be retired and efforts focused elsewhere. The products that Steve focused on in his final years were the future while the ones he didn't focus on were the past. However, if it was in Apple's DNA "that technology alone is not enough" those other products should have continued along just fine without Steve's attention. They haven't, and I believe it points to a larger trend that with Steve now gone presents a gloomy view of where Apple is heading.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think Apple is doomed. Far from it. I just think that they have hit upon a trend of churning out new novelties that will continue to drive revenue while neglecting existing products. This trend isn't easy to see. It is difficult to determine whether the neglect of an Apple product has occurred as a result of a deliberate decision or due to a lack of attention. It is difficult largely because of Apple's preference for secrecy. Extreme secrecy. There are no technology roadmaps for industry professionals such as myself or for customers. We are left to our own devices to divine where Apple might be headed or at our own peril wait until the next big announcement and hope it doesn't damage our clients' businesses.
To me, Apple's propensity for secrecy smacks of insecurity. It's one thing to keep new products secret and "leak from the top" to drum up hype. The hype around a possible new TV from Apple is the perfect example of why you would want to do this. It frightens competitors and builds lots of interest in the market. It's another thing to keep everything you do secret. That's paranoia. Look it up. The funny thing is that in the days where Apple was struggling it made sense from a marketing point of view to maintain absolute secrecy to create an air of mystery and keep people interested in the brand. Apple is no longer that struggling company and yet Tim Cook says they are now "doubling down on secrecy".
Back to that Osborne computer my father used to bring home when I was a kid. It was created by Adam Osborne, an entrepreneur much like Steve Jobs. Unlike Steve, his mantra was "Adequacy is sufficient, everything else is irrelevant". In Silicon Valley folklore Osborne accidentally killed off his own company because he foolishly boasted that the upcoming version of the Osborne computer would be smaller and more advanced. Sales plummeted as potential customers held out for the new computer and the rest, as they say, is history. Apocryphal history maybe, but this came to be known as "Osborneing". It's as though Apple are still clinging to this old idea that any announcement of an upgrade on the horizon is going to cannibalise sales.
It's not the 80s anymore. We've all seen the future. Thanks to the Internet we are all well versed in what tech is on the horizon. And we are all quite happy to buy what we can afford now and make use of it. Tech is no longer a luxury good you hold out for, it's a commodity that you consume.
At some point I think this level of secrecy is going to start to alienate both customers (and probably employees) of Apple. Especially if a new release of an existing product doesn't match the hype and expectations that had been built up around it. All Apple is doing is setting themselves up for a fail. The only thing they really need to keep secret are any new product categories and the designs of Jony Ive and his team.
Maybe Apple maintains such secrecy because they are afraid of being copied? History has shown that other companies have only been able to make poor copies at best. Why? Because those companies think that creating products is about shoving whatever the latest breakthrough in tech is into a box and shipping it out the door. There is little regard for the end users who suffer with this junk because these companies realise that the average user doesn't know any better. These companies prey on the fact that consumers fall into the trap of thinking that it's their lack of skill as the reason why they struggle to operate a product rather than realising it's because of the product's poorly implemented interfaces.
Educating the public about this was something Apple used to focus on in their advertising campaigns. They should spend their money doing that rather than suing everyone in sight for copying them, which just makes them look like the bully in the mobile playground.
And even if other companies try to copy Apple why should Apple care? What ever happened to running your own race? Apple isn't known for being the first on the block with new tech. They are known for making new tech easy to use and delivering it in a quality package. Nobody has been able to copy that. Why? Because at Apple there was one person at the top who oversaw every little detail and no other company has that.
And now Apple doesn't really have that either.
Much of my career has involved divining what Apple are doing so that I can advise clients on when and where to spend their technology dollars (I also advise clients on HP, Cisco and Microsoft but all of those vendors advise us before their products are released so no divination is necessary, just an eye for which products are good and which are bad). There is a definite trend towards mediocrity with some of Apple's products but like I said it's hard to tell which is a deliberate decision to kill off a product and which is just a lack of care.
Here's an example of a deliberate decision:
Apple appears to have decided to pull out of the server market. They have made no announcement regarding this but I'm sure it is what they are doing. They retired the Xserve in January 2011 after giving 12 weeks advance notice. As Jobs said, when asked about it, "Hardly anyone was buying them". This was preceded in 2008 by the retirement of the Xserve RAID. Dropping these products without suitable replacements has rubbed a few customers the wrong way but points to where Apple sees the future which is in the cloud and not servers on customer's premises. If you're not convinced that this signifies their lack of interest in the server market, take a good look at Lion Server. It is simply an app that runs on the client version of the OS. Apple's server OS has been so dumbed down that it now looks more Anaheim than Cupertino.
Why doesn't Apple just tell their customers this is the plan? I've spent the last year moving clients that were running Apple servers to Dropbox and Office 365 for their server needs. Apple will need to come up with something pretty special for those customers to switch back.
Here's an example of a decision that looks like a lack of care:
The new Save a Version/Duplicate/Lock feature in Lion. Apple have given little explanation why all of a sudden they decided to change the way GUI based applications having been saving documents since 1984. This provides zero benefit and frustrates users. Autosave and versioning could have been implemented without this.
And finally here's a real example of a lack of attention. While the other two are mildly annoying this is what worries me the most about where Apple is headed:
Apple are now rushing versions of OS X out the door faster than ever before. Following the release of OS X 10.3 in 2003 there has been roughly a two year gap between OS X releases. With WWDC next week and the imminent release of Mountain Lion (10.8) that release schedule has now been slashed to one year. With any newly released OS, best practice from an IT delivery standpoint is to wait until a service pack or two have been released. In some cases, such as with Windows Vista, the best decision is to skip it altogether. Unfortunately, with Apple once a new OS is released all new Macs ship with that new OS. There is no downgrade path to run an older version of the OS as there is in the Windows world.
Why is that such a problem? Apple provides developers with preview releases of the OS and Apple's products are an end-to-end solution so there shouldn't be any problems, right? Well, with every new OS X release there have been issues with existing software packages and often from the two biggest software vendors, Microsoft and Adobe. Usually a new OS X release means about 3 to 6 months of getting customers to hold off purchases (for a sales organisation that's painful to say the least!) or trying to resolve issues for customers that have been "forced" to upgrade to the latest OS because of a newly purchased machine. After that period is over you can breathe easy for the remainder of the two-year release cycle because things "just work". With this shortened release period there will be no breathing easy and it's going to turn off many customers big time.
At least there don't appear to be any lame banners at WWDC this year proclaiming "Welcome to Windows 9". Although I wonder if the reason they are releasing Mountain Lion early is simply to get a jump on Windows 8 which is slated for release later this year. That would be a shame.
Most tellingly of all that something is awry, is that none of these releases espouse the Zen-like simplicity and perfection that Jobs craved and had previously accomplished with Apple's products. Consumers are starting to become confused and that's not representative of what Apple was supposed to be about.
So why do I care? Well from my perspective Apple is the only major technology company that has shown that there is another way of doing business. That you can be successful by creating quality products rather than just sacrificing quality for quantity in order to gain short term profits. To me that sort of integrity is important and it is shining example of how businesses should operate.
One of Jobs' insights was that large companies tended to stop making great products because they end up being run by sales and marketing. I hope that's not what is happening. Apple, please prove me wrong. Show me there is still a high order bit.