Missing Steve Jobs

Troubling signs for Apple in the long run

Much has been written about how Apple is doing fine in the post-Steve Jobs era, continuing on its growth curve after loosing its founder. But there are troubling signs for the company, none of them major in its own way but when combined, they present the image of a company that may be losing what made it great in the past.

As a longtime mac user and someone who’s house is outfitted with more Apple devices than I care to admit to, I worry that we may be 3-5 years away from a return to a less innovation driven company.

The demo king

It is no great insight to say that Steve Jobs was one of the greatest marketers to ever walk the earth. His keynotes were choreographed with the precision of a Broadway show and few details were left to chance. Even something as simple as the times and dates on presentation screenshot were carefully pored over to ensure consistency. This kind of fanatical attention to details is what has long set the company apart from the competition and extended to what was available in the stores right after a presentation. When you looked at a new device, it was always up to date and packed with software that could demonstrate the latest new features.

I first got a look at how something as simple may be an issue back in March when I visited an Apple store in Manhattan to take a look at the new retina display that was touted as the most important feature on the new iPad. Aligned in traditional fashion were a number of the new iPads sitting side by side and loaded with games that were “especially designed for demonstration purpose” as each of the loading screens pointed out when you launched them. I loaded them up and a number of the apps seemed pixelated, the result of not having been upgraded to deal with the new resolution (in all honesty, my visit to the store was precisely over this particular concern as I was wondering what impact it might have on the graphics we were designing at Keepskor.)

I thought that maybe I had a one-off issue on my hands so I switched to a different new iPad, which presented the same problem. I went through all the demo units and didn’t find a single one that had a game that was upgraded to demonstrate the new capabilities. I then switched to photos, another use case that had been presented in the demo and bumped into the same issue. Approached by a friendly Apple sales employee, I asked if they had any of the iPads that could demonstrate the capabilities of the new display. At that point, they fired up an air combat program that was supposed to be optimized and when I pointed out that the 3D rotation seem to show a higher than average level of pixelation, the Apple staffer remarked “you’re right. That can’t be an optimized version.” At that time, I chalked the issue up to developers not being fully ready for the Retina display and didn’t think about it any further.

Fast forward to this past Wednesday, when I walked into another Manhattan Apple store to take a look at the new Macbook with Retina Display. I walked up to the demo machine and was first surprised to see that there were a number of programs that needed to be updated (someone had left the mac App store open on that unit) including iPhoto and iMovie, two programs that apparently take great advantage of the new screen resolution. Once again, I ran through the different demo units in an attempt to find one that could showcase the best of the new platform and bumped into similar issues. I asked the Apple salesperson about the software not being up to date and the answer was “oh yeah, we probably should do that.” I then asked if they had some high resolution pictures on the drive that could allow to zoom in and out to get a sense of the advantage the greater resolution provided but once again, that didn’t seem available.

I then overheard another Apple salesperson talking to a different customer and going “you don’t want to take a look at those since you don’t do video editing.” While one could give the salesperson kudos for steering a customer towards a product that was more suited to an individual’s specific needs, I was surprised that they would keep a customer from even taking a peek at their marquee offering.

When combined, all those observations (which I’ve now witnessed a 4 different Apple stores on 2 different coasts) seem to point to a decline in how much effort the company puts into presenting its latest products.

If only it could sustain what it used to do there in the same way as it sustain the design of the internals of their devices (the photos I’ve seen of the inside of the new Macbook Pro are just stunningly gorgeous, with an amazing symmetry in the ordering of the overall board. Just look at the difference between the old model on the left and the new one on the right:)

Retina Macbook Pro internals

The internal design of the macbook pro looks amazing when compared with previous versions

This is a thing of pure beauty, made even more amazing by the fact that most people will never see it. To pay that level of attention to details in the design of the machine is something truly amazing and to fail at supporting it with the things that are visible to most consumers is a darn shame.

Customers first

Another apparent change in the way Apple is now run as compared to the way it used to be run under Steve Jobs is the balance of operational advantage vs. customer convenience. In the old days, there was a fanatical devotion to the customer that was returned to the company by legions of fans. When balancing a product feature, the question as always been about what’s best for the customer. As Glenn Kunzler points out, the new MBP may be losing the pro part of its name, because upgradeability, a key feature of the product line, is no longer available. In the Steve Jobs day, such thing was a feature. Here’s Steve Jobs presenting the new iMac in 1999:

We don’t think design is just how it looks. We think design is how it works. And we labored a lot on this because our pro customers want accessibility. There’s a lot of great technology inside, but they want access to that technology. To add memory, to add cards, to  add drives. And so we think we’ve got the most incredible access story in the business.

With his usual flair, Jobs demonstrate something that drives the crowd insane with delight. Sure things have changed in the last decade but the Mac Mini can be opened without a tool. And up until recently, a simple lift-up of a couple of tabs on the keyboard used to give one access to a portable mac’s airport card and memory, making it easy to upgrade quickly.

That is now thrown out the window in the interest of a better operational efficiency where everything is soldered on the board and non-replaceable. It makes it cheaper to manufacture as it requires fewer parts to manage.

In the same way, the “all new Airport Express”, which was quietly upgraded this week, tosses out a great feature in the interest of increase operational efficiency. The Airport Express has long been one of Apple’s most under-appreciated product: it functions as a portable wireless extender and allows one to connect speakers and printers easily into a network. The old one looked like this:

Looking at it, it is relatively easy to see the comparison to the power supply available on most Macintosh portable devices. And, lo and behold, the power plug on that is exactly the same component as the one on the mac. It meant that if I packed it up for travel (as a lot of hotels still only provide you with corded service for Internet access), I could just throw in in a bag as a single piece and be good to go. If I happened to be in a foreign country, I could still use the plug adapter from my Mac and not have to worry about carrying extra parts.

Airport Express - original

Old version of Airport Express

The new Airport Express, however, opted for something different:

The new airport express

The new airport express

The thing that jumped at me immediately was that power plug. This means that on top of carrying the device, one has to make sure they don’t forget the power cable specific to the device. As a traveller, this is an extra item that is a bit of a pain. As a manufacturer, it makes sense because the type of cable that would fit such a plug is substantially cheaper that the type of plug the old Airport express used to sport. It’s a small difference but once again a difference that has negative impact on the customer while it has a positive impact on the bottom line.

In Steve Jobs’ own words:

You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.

So when the customer experience is impacted, one would assume that the impact is considered as negating the potential gains made from an operational standpoint. But Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs and his focus has long been operational efficiency. It is this very efficiency that has made Apple a fearsome competitor as it made it very difficult for most companies in the industry to match the company’s capabilities in the space and thus drive amazing products at relatively low price points. Operational efficiency is the reason for which Apple can sell a carrier-subsidized iPhone for $199 and the reason for which you can find iPads starting at lower prices than comparably-powered computers.

But operational efficiency is a double edged sword and when it starts hurting the consumer, it may be hard to handle.

Of course, a lot of these things are in response to consumer demands: the drive to thinner, lighter, less upgradeable devices has not had a negative impact in the market; if anything, the inverse is true. But the combination of small steps in that direction may be starting down a dangerous path for Apple: one where it loses sight of what has made it great and one that opens some opportunities for competitors to come in and nip at portions of their market. Maybe not today, maybe not even tomorrow, but 5 to 10 years down the road, we may discover that those small lessons taught by Steve Jobs and forgotten after he left the company served as the initial cracks that caused more severe problems.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.

  • http://twitter.com/ggirton George Girton

    Thanks for posting the picture of the new airport express. Because of the extra port, It looks like it will be significantly more useful to me!

  • http://twitter.com/lilendian Alvarez Fernando

    One big reason they can get away with having a symmetrical layout inside the new MacBook Pro is that they’ve removed the optical drive and the hard disk drive. Those took up a huge amount of room the old version.

    • http://www.tnl.net Tristan Louis

      It is less about the “getting away” part than it is about the thinking of doing that in the first place. I suspect that PC makers in a similar position may not consider the visual balance as part of their implementation.

      • http://twitter.com/lilendian Alvarez Fernando

        Sure, that’s possible, but my point was that you could argue that even Apple didn’t focus on the “visual balance” in the old MacBook Pro. A huge reason for that was they were constrained by having a large optical drive and a large HDD.

        The visual balance is certainly awesome, but a lot of is most likely due to the fact that is the most ideal layout for the components in the system now that there is a ton more space. Let’s be honest, nobody would care if the internals of the new MacBook Pro weren’t visually striking. Apple just wouldn’t parrot it. Because they are nice, and Apple decided to show it off, now we’re all blown away by it.
        Good on them for focusing on things that market well. Obviously they didn’t focus on the fact that it’s not easy to replace components and that the RAM is effectively soldered to the motherboard, but hey those aren’t important as visual balance.

        • http://www.tnl.net Tristan Louis

          You tie into the point I am making. While they do create beautiful things, it seems that a number of things that Jobs advocated are no longer part of the company’s ethos… and that’s the whole point of the piece. Such a departure from Jobs’ approach may end up hurting the company in the long run.

          • http://twitter.com/lilendian Alvarez Fernando

            Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see in a year what their products look like. I’m guessing a lot of the releases coming out now still had a lot of Jobs’ input.

          • http://www.tnl.net Tristan Louis

            The product will continue to look great as long as Jony Ives is there but the details may change, which is where Steve Jobs excelled and that’s what I’m pointing to: that attention to details appears to have been a casualty of Jobs’ passing.

  • eas

    Meh. I’m not persuaded.

    A screwdriver was necessary to get at your MacBook RAM since the Intel transition. Regarding the new AirPortExpress? The new power arrangement may be less convenient for the minority of people who travel with them, but its brings more flexibility for all the people who don’t.
    As for the Retina MacBook Pro, how is it significantly different from the last model MacBook Air, or the original Air, for that matter. Their manufacturing choices may or may not have helped with operational efficiency, but they definitely result in a lighter, thinner computer, something people will take advantage of every day.
    The state of things at the Apple store is something I’ll have to keep my eye out for next time I’m there.

    • http://www.tnl.net Tristan Louis

      I have 2 older macbooks here that counter your claim. The RAM module is behind the battery. To replace it, you need a coin to remove the battery and then you push an pin-like hole to get the RAM out.

      As for the Retina MBP, you’re right that it is the same as the Air but the reason for the Air to exist is the light effort. The MBP has always been the PRO model, and thus assumed to be more upgradeable (at least, if you believe what Steve Jobs said about what professionals needed).

      As far as the Apple store, please do report back when you go. I’d love to have more data. The stores I went to were in New York and Los Angeles. It would be great to have more data on whether these are isolated incidents or more systemic issues.

  • jacobly

    Note that with the AirPort Express power cable, there is no “Wall wart” power brick–just the power cord since the power supply is integrated in the case of the AirPort Express. And I believe that the cord is actually a pretty standard power cord–just not a standard one for Apple.

    • http://www.tnl.net Tristan Louis

      I guess it is indeed a matter of perspective but if you were worried about the wall wart effect, you could always use the long cord from Apple with the old version of the Airport Express. Now you don’t have a choice.

      As far as standard power cord, not quite the case, the molding on this is specific to Apple (why the electronics industry doesn’t standardize on power supplies has always surprised me and Apple has generally been one of the worst offenders)