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Intelligent Machines

Review: Bad Apple

As the company caters less to the demands of artists and other creative professionals, the quality of its products is slipping.

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.

For example, over the past 18 months, Apple abandoned its Xserve rack mount server; eliminated support for smart cards and other kinds of token-based hardware security systems; released a version of Final Cut Pro in June 2011 that was optimized for consumer use and lacked critical functions used by professionals for eight months; removed “power user” features from its online offerings; and removed critical functionality from the Macintosh graphical user interface on both Lion and Lion Server.

Taken one at a time, each of these decisions made good business sense. Most of Apple’s customers—the digital consumers—weren’t using these products and features. Apple clearly can’t be all things to all users. But in each of these cases, the company avoided the extra effort required to satisfy creative elites, catering to the mainstream market instead. This strategy is sure to be profitable at first, but in the long run, it will rob Apple of the very differently thinking content creators and software developers who made the Mac great.

Many of what we think of today as Apple’s most innovative products were not cooked up in some secret Steve Jobs laboratory; they were developed by people whose companies were acquired by Apple. What we now call Final Cut Pro was acquired from KeyGrip in 1998. Siri, the AI at the heart of the iPhone 4S, was created by a startup funded by SRI International and acquired by Apple in 2010. Even Apple’s multitouch technology was bought from Fingerworks in 2005.

Apple certainly has the money to keep acquiring innovative companies. But the Mac, iPhone, and iPad make up an ecosystem that was powered by the creative class—a class that Steve Jobs attracted by making products that he personally wanted to use. They came to the Mac because they shared his demanding standards and aesthetics. The machines his company is building today are aimed at a decidedly different market segment. In the long run, this will endanger, if not destroy, the Apple ecosystem.

Simson L. Garfinkel is a contributing editor to Technology Review and the author or coauthor of 14 books on computing, including Building Cocoa Applications, which explained how to develop applications for MacOS 10.1.

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