Apple’s 1997 “Think Different” marketing campaign was one of its most memorable ever. Billboards and banners featured huge black-and-white portraits of performers, artists, scientists, and political leaders whose outsider ideas eventually became mainstream. The implicit message was that Apple’s “insanely great” products were for quirky rebels who would one day dominate the world. The photo of Steve Jobs on the cover of his posthumous biography would have fit right in.
The Apple of today is turning its back on that creative class. Apple no longer designs for creators of digital media, who tend to be very demanding about product quality. Instead, Apple builds for consumers—in both senses of the word: people who spend their own money, rather than their companies’, and people who consume digital media, as opposed to people who produce it. Focusing on digital consumption has made Apple wildly profitable, but the company’s products have trended downwards in quality, flexibility, and even reliability.
This became painfully clear last year when Apple released MacOS 10.7 “Lion”—an operating system update that, unlike previous versions, was optimized so that desktops and laptops would have an experience more consistent with Apple’s iPad. Visually pleasing as ever, Lion nevertheless has been deeply frustrating for me and others.
Lion’s most obvious failings are the frequent crashes of its mail reader, calendar program, and PDF Preview utility. These programs don’t crash in most people’s day-to-day operation, but they do crash in many so-called “corner cases” that show up when using Macs on enterprise networks, when connecting to multiple servers from different vendors, or when working with documents produced by many different kinds of authoring tools. These are typical tasks for creative professionals working in fast-paced environments with many individual contributors. The Mac has also become less reliable for developers, experimenters, and hackers.
Meanwhile, Lion broke backwards compatibility with a wide range of previous third-party Mac applications. Now developers are reporting that Apple’s upcoming “Mountain Lion” release will drop support for many computers that Apple was selling just a few years ago—computers that still run great, but which are no longer covered by the AppleCare warranty.
Apple appears to be suffering from growing pains. The company—which declined to comment for this article—seems increasingly overwhelmed by the wide range of products and services that it has created, and is responding (quite logically) by spending significantly less effort on items that appeal to a shrinking percentage of its customer base—a group that unfortunately includes digital creators. The danger is that by focusing on consumption, rather than production, Apple will jeopardize the very essence that first made its products insanely great.