Managing transitions and expectations

Recently, there have been increasingly loud voices criticizing Apple's software quality, and some concerns whether Apple has abandoned the »pro« market. Articles and blog posts centering around these themes seem to ebb and flow in regular intervals.

While I do think there are often good particular reasons to make any one argument, it is not very productive to look at them in isolation. For instance, is Apple abandoning development of Aperture a sign that Apple no longer believes in serving the »pro« market? Or is it just one incarnation of a larger issue inside the company?

Moments of transition

With the announcement of Windows 10, Microsoft has embarked on a journey from a desktop PC-centric approach to a world where for each person you have several devices. And interestingly, also another major piece of Microsoft software is going through a chrysalis with some awkward consequences. I'm speaking of Office: it was Office for the iPad which showed the way. Based on a common core with all other versions of Office, it showed off the new design language Microsoft intends to use. Also a lot of their other pieces of software are rewritten so that one universal app works across all devices.

That sounds familiar, doesn't it? Just like Microsoft Office is going through an awkward phase, also Apple's office suite is going through a similar transition: it cut features on the desktop version in favor of starting afresh with a codebase that is shared amongst the iOS and OS X apps. There are other victims of this period of transition, Apple's iPhoto and Aperture come to mind. Here, the motivation is not so much to use a shared codebase, but rather a tectonic shift in the philosophy. iPhoto and Aperture were born in the digital hub era where the personal computer, the Mac, is in the center of your digital life and contains »the truth«. With the introduction of iCloud, Steve Jobs pronounced the end of the digital hub and put the cloud in its place. Step-by-step Apple has been busy updating existing apps such as iTunes to take care of »the cloud«. Clearly, at a certain point in times it would have been iPhoto's and Aperture's turn. While I don't think it was wise to cancel Aperture before a similarly powerful replacement was ready, more on that below, at least on the grander scheme of things the direction makes sense.

From simple to complex

From a glass half-empty perspective, people on the desktop are sacrificing functionality in favor of a platform they may not even use. Apple's focus primarily lies on iOS rather than OS X, and this is clear evidence of that. An optimist would counter that this is a chance to re-evaluate old pieces of software with old code bases, and to make them more user friendly. Microsoft and Apple took the opportunity to start from scratch.

I find this trend quite interesting, because it reverses the direction in which features have usually flown: in the past, professional, complex apps were often the starting point for simpler, less powerful apps. Photoshop gave birth to Photoshop Elements. Apple derived Final Cut Express from Final Cut Pro. iPhoto eventually inherited the database format Aperture was based on.

Nowadays, more powerful desktop software is reimagined after having to design software for tablet and phone operating systems. Microsoft Office for Windows 10 is based off on Office for the iPad. The restrictions force software designers to reevaluate their decisions, and they often find that simpler interfaces are more appealing than being overwhelmed by choice. I see this as a huge opportunity to make desktop software more user-friendly, and the personal computer as a whole more humane.

Cross-device interoperability

The trend also goes to people having several computers. Even thermostats or lightbulbs are based on computers. So a lot of efforts are going into integrating them seamlessly between devices. Microsoft will allow you to stream XBox One games across all your Windows 10 devices, meaning you can continue to play on your Suface or PC in case someone else wants to watch TV. Apple's Continuity features enable users to »move« tasks across devices. The lines between the different computers are blurred. And most of these features are relying on the cloud. This is the major push behind all these moves.

Managing software transitions, managing expectations

Apple has a mixed track record when it comes to software transitions: they have excelled in some (e. g. migrating from classic MacOS to OS X and from PowerPC-based Macs to Intel-based Macs), more recently, their record was much more, ahem, mixed. The first botched transition was that of Final Cut Pro to Final Cut Pro X. While I am not a video editor, and I am not fully qualified to judge, it seems to me that a major flaw was Apple's management expectations. I am fairly certain that if Apple had renamed Final Cut Pro X into Final Cut Xpress and announced that future versions of Final Cut Pro will be based on it, the reaction would have been much more calm. Instead, a vocal part of the Final Cut community got their pitchforks out and flailed Apple. Also with Aperture, I think it was a big mistake to half-heartedly continue development of one of the most popular paid apps on the Mac app store, and discontinue it before a suitable replacement is ready.

Lack of light tower apps

What is really disconcerting to me is the scarcity of Apple light tower apps, meaning apps where Apple shows off what in their view a good Mac app should look like and fulfill a need. A long time ago, these light tower apps were the iApps on the consumer side as well as pro apps such as Keynote, Final Cut and Aperture. I don't think the significance of these apps can be understated for people who switched to the Mac before it became en vogue to do so. These apps were revved regularly, and often in lock-step with the OS. However, the UI of many of these apps got worse (the most glaring offender here is iTunes, but also iPhoto got interface elements which seem very un-Apple-y).

And it's not just the Mac which seems to be suffering, it is iOS, too. Right now, iOS hardware seems overpowered for the type of apps iPads and iPhones need to deal with. For comparison, an iPad Air 2 from 2014 is roughly as powerful as a 2011 11" MacBook Air. iOS also seems to have all the plumbing to make it very powerful. What is missing are Apple apps which take advantage of this. They've tried with iPhoto for the iPad, but it is safe to say that this experiment has failed. If Apple subscribes to the vision that iOS devices will supplant traditional PCs for most tasks, they need to give us apps which do things for which right now you still need a PC.

Software quality issues

While I don't subscribe to the hysteria that Apple is doomed, I think software quality across the board is an issue: it starts with bugs in the OSes but continues with rare updates to popular apps. Hardware-wise Macs are best-of-breed, and Apple has consistently anticipated trends correctly. So the obvious lack of finish on its software products is even more glaring. From the outside it looks as if Apple is constantly redlining its software team, so that major pieces of software (including consumer-grade software such as iPhoto) are no longer updated on a regular cycle. It's part of the failure of its software division to keep up with the growth of its hardware division. According to me, Apple's biggest challenge is not to enter new markets, redefine other categories or some such, it needs to bring its software to where its hardware is.