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Is Apple Doomed?

Entry 1890, on 2017-12-20 at 22:23:48 (Rating 2, Computers)

I'm a big Apple fanboy. As I sit here writing this blog post (flying at 10,000 meters on my way to Auckland, because I always write blog posts when I fly) I am actively using 4 Apple products: a MacBook Pro computer, an iPad Pro tablet, an iPhone 6S Plus smartphone, and an Apple Watch. At home I have many Apple computers, phones, and other devices. I also have one Windows PC but I very rarely use that.

So the general state of Apple's "empire" is pretty important to me. Many of the skills I have (such as general trouble-shooting, web programming, scripting, configuration, and general software use) could be transferred to Windows, but I just don't want to. I really like the elegance of Apple's devices on the surface, combined with the power of Unix in the background.

But despite my enthusiasm for their products I have developed an increasing air of concern with Apple's direction. There is the indistinct idea that they have stopped innovating to the extent they did in the past. Then there is the observation that the quality control of both hardware and software isn't what it was. Then there is just a general perception that Apple are getting too greedy by selling products at too high a price and not offering adequate support for the users of their products.

These opinions are nothing new, but what is new is that people who both know a lot about the subject, and would normally be more positive about Apple, are starting to join in the criticism. Sometimes this is through a slight sense of general concern, and other times through quite strident direct criticism.

I would belong to the former class of critics. I think I have noticed an increase in the number of errors Apple is making, at the same time as I notice an apparent general decrease in the overall reliability of their products, and to make matters worse, these are accompanied by what seems to be higher prices.

You will notice I used a lot of qualifiers in the sentence above. I did this deliberately because I have no real data or objective statistics to demonstrate any of these trends. They might not be real because it is very easy to start seeing problems when you look for them, and negative events often "clump" into groups. Sometimes there might be a series of bad things which happen after a long period with no problems, but that doesn't mean there is any general trend involved.

But now is the time for anecdotes! These don't mean much, of course, but I want to list a few just to give an idea of where my concern is coming from.

Recently I set up two new Mac laptop computers in a department where there was a certain amount of pressure from management to switch to Microsoft Surface laptops. The Surface has a really poor reputation for reliability and is quite expensive, so it shouldn't be difficult to demonstrate the superiority of Apple products in this area, right?

Well, no. Wrong, actually. At least in this case. Both laptops had to go for service twice within the first few weeks. I have worked with Apple hardware for decades and have never seen anything remotely as bad as this. And the fact that it was in a situation where Apple was under increased scrutiny didn't help!

In addition, the laptops had inadequate storage, because even though these are marketed as "pro" devices the basic model still has only 128G of SSD storage. That wasn't Apple's fault, because the person doing the purchasing should have got it right, but it didn't help!

Also recently Apple has suffered from some really embarrassing security flaws. One allowed root access to a Mac without a password, and the other allowed malicious control of automated home-control devices. There were also a few other lesser issues in the same time period. As far as I now none of these were exploited to any great extent, but it is still a bad look.

Another issue which seems to be becoming more prominent recently is their repair and replacement service. In general I have had fairly good service from Apple repair centers, but I have heard of several people who aren't as happy.

When you buy a premium device at the premium price Apple demands I don't think it is unreasonable to expect a little bit of extra help if things go wrong. So unless there is clear evidence of fraud, repairs and replacements should be done without the customer having to resort to threats and demands for the intervention of higher levels of staff.

And even if a device only has one year of official warranty (which seems ridiculous to begin with), Apple should offer a similar level of support for a reasonable period without the customer having to resort to quoting consumer law.

Even if Apple wasn't interested in doing what was morally right they should be able to see that providing superior service for what they claim is a superior product at a superior price is just good business because it maintains a positive relationship with the customer.

My final complaint regards Apple's design direction. This is critical because whatever else they stand for, surely good design is their primary advantage over the opposition. But some Apple software recently has been obscure at best and incomprehensibly bizarre at worst, and iTunes has become a "gold standard" for cluttered, confusing user interfaces.

When I started programming Macs in the 1980s there was a large section in the programming documentation about user interface design. The rules were really strict, but resulted in consistent and clear software which came from many different developers, including Apple. I don't do that sort of programming any more but if a similar section exists in current programming manuals there is little sign that people - even Apple themselves - are taking much notice!

So is Apple doomed? Well probably not. They are (by some measures) the world's biggest, richest, and most innovative company. They are vying with a few others to become the first trillion dollar company. And, in many ways they still define the standard against which all others are judged. For example, every new smart phone which appears on the market is framed by some people as an "iPhone killer". They never are, but the fact that products aspire to be that, instead of a Samsung or Huawei killer says a lot about the iPhone.

But despite the fact that Apple isn't likely to disappear in the immediate future, I still think they need to be more aware of their real and perceived weaknesses. If they aren't there is likely to be an extended period of slow decline and reduced relevance. And a slow slide into mediocrity is, in many ways, worse than a sudden collapse.

So, Tim Cook, if you are reading this blog post (and why wouldn't you), please take notice. Here's just one suggestion: when your company releases a new laptop with connections that are unusable without dongles, throw a few in with the computer, and keep the price the same as the model it replaces, and please, try to make them reliable, and if they aren't, make sure the service and replacement process is quick and easy.

It's really not that hard to avoid doom.

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Comment 1 (4866) by Derek Ramsey on 2017-12-21 at 09:05:01: (view recent only)

I’d suggest that the decline in Apple’s products began upon the death of Steve Jobs. Back then I owned three iPod touches. These were revolutionary during their time, far surpassing the other MP3 players on the market. They were mini-computers that I could take anywhere and get internet at various open WiFi networks.

I used them extensively for the thing I loved most: playing music. The peak of quality was iOS 6. This was the last release that had been developed during Steve Jobs’ tenure. The music app in this release was and is nearly perfectly designed: white-on-black backgrounds, clear UI with clearly defined buttons, and a perfectly sized high resolution screen to show the album art. The music selection screen let me scroll through my hundreds of artists and albums with ease, showing the album art as well as text.

Then iOS 7 was released. It featured a horrifying dark-on-white color scheme, borderless buttons (with a weird red color), and a redesigned layout that was non-intuitive. Trying to find music involved a lot of extra clicking and was very difficult. I refused to update my devices and they still run iOS 6.
This was the point that they stopped innovating and became followers. At the time I said that Apple was trying desperately to copy the design of the Windows Phone, which was known for its borderless block-based design.

Another thing Apple was known for among audiophiles is the very high quality low-distortion low-input-impedance audio jack. For those of us with high quality headphones, the iPod Touch and iPhone headphone jacks allowed some of the best audio experiences. Now the headphone jack is gone. At this point I don’t see why I’d ever upgrade my iPhone 6 to the latest iPhone.

I probably won’t even buy iPads anymore (I have two of those) because they are so much more expensive and don’t have enough storage as compared to the perfectly capable kindle fire.

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Comment 2 (4867) by OJB on 2017-12-21 at 09:05:22:

Yeah, the old “this would never happen if Steve was still in charge” meme is a common one and maybe it has some truth. I don’t think Tim Cook is the right person for the job. He shows no signs of being a real innovator. As far as the audio port is concerned: it would be interesting to do an A-B comparison and see if you can tell the difference. And the Kindle Fire might be “capable”, but Apple products aspire to more than that.

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Comment 3 (4868) by EP on 2017-12-21 at 12:55:23:

Doomed?... no, The company I'd puy my next computer from? Probably not (I guess I'm the 'swing vote' in the Apple/Windows debate. Been back and forth between both and at times even at both on the desk. Currently, use a Surface but wear Apple Watch, use an iPhone and have an iPad beside the bed, really like the iPhone... meh on Apple Watch and think the iPad is expensive for a device I really spend most of the time watching movies, YouTube and Netflix on).

My feeling is Apple really isn't interested in the traditional computer market, and why would they? (Apart to make Owne, myself and a few diehards happy which is surely reason enough) If you look at the revenue they sell mobile phone handsets and are a media distribution company and do it REALLY well (nearly a Trillon $ well) while dabble in computers and other devices. If I had to put my resources and energy somewhere it probably wouldn't be in traditional laptop/desktop hardware and operating systems etc.

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Comment 4 (4869) by OJB on 2017-12-21 at 12:55:37:

In defence of Apple I do have to say that independent industry surveys always put Apple at or near the top in terms of reliability, so maybe you were just unlucky.

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Comment 5 (4870) by EP on 2017-12-21 at 12:55:53:

PS as for reliability our worst ever experience with one model was with 2 labs of iMacs we brought, the replacement rate was over 120% (Yes some had been replaced twice, faulty backlighting on the screens in most cases). The highest PC rate was 45% for a model where they had a batch of faulty power supplies (We did have a year where we had every motherboard replaced by a PC supplier due to faulty gaps though only 10% actually failed before they replaced the lot, in the Apple case they wouldn't replace them until they failed). I'm always a little sceptical when someone tells me 'x' brand is more reliable. These days parts are mostly sourced from a handful of suppliers and anyone can be unlucky enough to get a bad batch of backlighting tubes or resistors on a motherboard etc... o me it is how that company then respond to the issue that I care about (I.e preempt the issue and voluntarily replace them all or only replace on fail....)

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Comment 6 (4871) by OJB on 2017-12-21 at 12:56:11:

I guess it all depends on requirements. I use my iPad for a lot of stuff every day, and on the rare occasions I forget to wear my Apple Watch I really miss it. Because I have gone all Apple I do find all the parts work together really well. I can continue a text message exchange started on the phone on my computer. I can take a phone call on the Watch, etc. Also, I just like the fact that Macs have a real OS behind them (Unix) when Windows doesn't. Also, the UI of Macs is so much more elegant and easy to use. Again, it depends on what you are trying to do. You work in a very Microsoft-centric world and I don't use any Microsoft products at all. That makes a big difference.

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Comment 7 (4872) by Derek Ramsey on 2017-12-28 at 10:47:14:

This was well-timed. Bloomberg analysts just cut shipment projections for the iPhone X, citing, among other things, lack of interesting innovations.

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Comment 8 (4873) by OJB on 2017-12-28 at 10:50:42:

I think it is really hard to innovate much more than what they already have with smartphones. More likely the unnecessarily high price is primarily to blame. This is what happens when you become a company primarily interested in making money rather than making products. Apple need to avoid becoming just another company, and they really need a better leader than Tim Cook. I wonder if Elon Musk has any spare time to take on the job?

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