I had one of those idle moments today when I sat peacefully and mused about my existence. I was thinking about the work I had to do over the next week, and reflecting on my work in general. I’ve been writing about Apple for more than 15 years, and in recent months I’ve found myself looking at this company, which once seemed unique, as though it is just another purveyor of beige boxes.
Naturally, they are no longer beige, nor are they really boxes. They are pocket computers, wrist computers, and more traditional laptop and desktop computers. But they’re not exciting anymore; they’re not edgy. I remember the launch of the first iMac, which shook up the computer market, and its subsequent revisions which refined the product’s raison d’être. I remember the launch of the iPod, in some distant past, which truly did change the way I interact with music. And, of course, I remember the launch of the first iPhone, just over 10 years ago, which, while seriously lacking in features, represented a new paradigm.
But in the past few years, Apple has been gliding along on their success, unable or unwilling to make new products that make me say “aha!” Yes, there was the Apple Watch, that clunky device whose first iteration contained a kitchen sink of software feature. Apple used us as beta testers to determine what we might want in a smartwatch. And they then refined the software, in version 2, and even more in version 3, to meet those needs. (I recently gave up my Apple Watch, because it’s just not worth the hassle.)
And what has Apple shown us lately? Yet another iPhone, thinner and lighter, with a better camera, blah, blah, blah. (Thinner, rather than with better battery life.) And AirPods; Apple’s new Bluetooth earbuds. They are interesting devices, but you’d be hard pressed to be able to buy any, as Apple doesn’t seem to know how to manufacture them.
There was a new laptop, the MacBook Pro the Touch Bar, an excessively expensive, underpowered, non-pro device that is not very compelling. And there is still the Mac Pro. That computer released more than three years ago, not updated, with three-year old technology, selling for the same price as it did back then. Apple should simply be ashamed that they are still selling this computer.
And what about software? I would say Apple’s operating systems are a bit more stable in the past couple of years than they were a while ago, but there are still far too many things that don’t work. iTunes, which, in many ways, is Apple’s flagship app, just gets more and more confusing. (I say it is Apple’s flagship app because it is the gateway to Apple music, at least on the desktop, which is one of the services Apple is working hard to promote for the future.) In my Ask the iTunes Guy column, which I’ve been writing for several years, I see the problems people have in using this app, and how frustrated they are with Apple because of it. If there is one area Apple needs to improve, it is iTunes, and the iOS Music app. (They could hire me to help understand the problems people face; I’m only half kidding…)
This is not entirely Apple’s fault. The entire computing industry has reached a plateau, and it is hard to come up with new devices and new features. But Apple got us used to words like “magical” and “revolutionary,” but when they use those words now to describe a features that blurs the background when you take photos, you simply can’t take them seriously. Yet when Microsoft comes up with an interesting design for a computer (the Surface Studio), we are truly surprised. But this is because Microsoft has never been the guiding light in hardware innovations.
So what would it take for me to see Apple in a positive light? Perhaps the company start by exercising a bit of humility. Stop talking about the “courage” it took to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone. Stop saying, as Tim Cook often does, “we have great products coming up this year,” when there’s not much new stuff, and it’s not really great. (I know, this is all marketing.)
Be honest; explain that these computing devices have become commodified, that we won’t see the radical improvements from iteration to iteration. Yet, at the same time, figure out how to make them work better. Develop new software, new services, because that’s the future of computing.
I like Apple; I like Apple products. I have been using Macs for more than 25 years. Yet recently, I just don’t feel that Apple is a forward-looking company anymore. The “magic” is gone. Maybe that time is over; maybe Apple won’t be able to be as “revolutionary” in the future. Maybe the next iMac will be beige.