The devil is in the details

Software and hardware are both important to Apple's future. One side is getting shortchanged


A company at the height of its glory releases a new operating system. Some of the things it offers are considered to be copies of what another company already offers.

If it’s 1995, the company is Microsoft and the operating system is Windows 95. If it’s 2012, the company is Apple and the operating system is iOS 6.

Where is Steve Jobs?

Two years ago, the iPhone 4 was released and users quickly experienced issues with the antenna built directly into the case. The furor prompted Apple to publicly apologize for the mistake and offer some quick fix to deal with an offering that wasn’t fully there yet.

Last year, Apple releases the iPhone 4S, with Siri as the primary innovation it presented in the new phone. But Siri wasn’t fully baked and people were quick to take to social networks and tell the world about the disappointing offering.

This year, one of the big innovation Apple was to offer in iOS 6, the operating system powering the iPhone 5, was to be a new map offering, “the most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever” if you’re to believe what the Cupertino giant said. But maps, which replaced a similar offering by Google on previous iOS devices, appears to have some issues.

In journalism, there is a rule of 3s: 3 similar events are generally seen as making up a trend. So it appears that, with the last 3 releases, Apple has had at least one major issue. In the old Steve Jobs days, products weren’t released until they were considered good enough; in the post Steve Jobs era, it appears that this form of quality control may be suffering.

Spit and polish

While calling Apple an inventor may be a bit of a stretch, the company has had, in the past, a great ability at bringing refinement and polish to things that had been introduced in a clunky way by others. When they released the iPod, it wasn’t the first MP3 player on the market but it was the first digital music player that was easy to use; When they released the iPhone, it wasn’t the first smartphone on the market but it was the first polished smartphone experience on the market; When they introduced the iPad, it wasn’t the first tablet on the market but it was the least geeky one with the best overall experience. In each case, what Apple did was take an existing category and polish up the offering so that it presented a new standard for what a decent offering in that category ought to be.

But with the last few releases, the spit and polish has been lacking from the new offerings. Yes, the new antenna on the iPhone 4 was a revolutionary design but no it didn’t work; Yes, Siri looked like a good idea for a better voice-driven interface, but it didn’t work; Yes, Apple’s concept of bringing more 3D resolution to maps is something that looks like it could be better than Google maps, but it doesn’t work.

If those innovations worked, they could be seen as an improvement, a next step in the upmanship between Apple and its competitors but, in those specific cases, they can be seen as a step back. And, more troubling for Apple, they could show some unraveling in what had made Apple great in the past.

Screening and messaging

Another big innovation Apple mentioned with the introduction of the iPhone 5 was a new form factor and a larger screen. But the screen ended up with dimensions that did not conform to any other format known in the industry. Most of the screen industry has gathered around some standard sizes. So most of the larger screens on other smartphones end up being 1280×720 in order to support a 16×9 form factor.

Apple’s marching to the beat of a different drum, however and the iPhone 5 sports a screen that is 1136×640 pixels, a dimension not seen on any other devices in the industry. The reasoning is that your thumb needs to be able to move from one side of the screen to the other. That’s a very valid argument made in a powerful ad by the company.

But the messaging becomes inconsistent when one sees the other ads made by the company to highlight key features of the device. In each of those other ads, the primary use case is two handed, with no thumb really moving around the screen. I’ve put together a composite of the other ads:

iPhone 5 use cases: 2 fingers, no thumbs

iPhone 5 use cases: 2 fingers, no thumbs

Coming from a company that use to put so much care into displaying the right time on slides and in ads, this is an odd oversight.

Apple: the new Microsoft?

There seems to be a cyclical approach to how companies grow. A couple of decades ago, Microsoft went from being a scrappy startup (up until the release of Windows 3.1) to a growing force and market leader (with its high water mark being the release of Windows 95, heralded as a cultural event in itself), to being seen as a power-hungry monopolist (with an eventual antitrust lawsuit won by the government in 1999) and eventually becoming a timid, government-controlled also-ran as a new dominant player emerged (nowadays).

Looking at Apple, we might detect some similarities. In the pre-1997 days, Apple was a scrappy computer maker, seldom gathering more than 10% of the market but always primed for a fight. With the introduction of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, Apple’s rise to power has turned it into a clear market leader, defining where the industry ought to go next and imitated by a myriad competitor. But if you look at the last few iPhone releases, the company is increasingly falling into a legacy trap where defending what has brought it to the top becomes more important than substantial new innovation.

iOS, now in its 6th outing, is clearly sitting at the core of what makes Apple hum and defending it against attacks from Google (with Android) and others (Amazon, with a reskinned Android; Microsoft with a new operating system) is a core priority to the continued success of Apple’s products. And so Apple is working hard to replace those competitors with Apple products. Whereas it once had a friendlier relationship with Google, leading to the integration of YouTube and Google Maps in iOS, Apple is now seeing them as a major threat and thus had to remove or replace their product. This led to the inclusion of Siri as a new way to deal with search, going after Google’s bread and butter, and the removal of Maps, another critical function of most smartphones today.

The pattern that is starting to appear in Apple tea-leaves reading is that the Cupertino company is now focused on two efforts: first, it must protect and extent the reach of iOS; second, it works on optimizing its operational capacity to sell as many devices as possible (the speed at which the company is rolling out the iPhone 5 around the globe is nothing short of impressive and clearly highlights the operational genius of Apple’s new CEO Tim Cook).

But lurking in the distance is the specter of antitrust. Whether it is fair or not, the moves the company is making to protect its existing business could be seen as power-hungry land-grabs when presented under the wrong lens. And the recent flap over maps has that feel.

Hopefully, the leadership at Apple is smart enough to have studied history and learned from the mistakes made by Microsoft. If not, the company could find itself branded as a monopolist and dragged into court with emails taken out of context (I’d expect Steve Jobs “Thermonuclear war on Android” being shown as proof of wrong-doing even if it were nothing more than an angry aside about a competitor).

What next?

So Apple has a few problems on its hands: on the one hand, there’s the immediate issue around maps and how to deal with it; on the other hand, the company has to worry about the signals it is sending in terms of quality as they may lead some customers to sit on the sideline (when quality at Microsoft started dropping, common wisdom became that you didn’t buy a Microsoft product until its 4th iteration); and then the company has to worry about being seen as a nasty monopolist.

The third part limits the company’s options on dealing with maps. Yes, it does have the hordes of cash needed to buy a superior map company (Tom-Tom or Nokia would come to mind) but doing so could be seen as a negative signal in the marketplace, thus forcing the company to do the fixing work on its own, or by tacking on smaller startups to help it with fixing its offering (I’ve already heard whispers that people saw an Apple / Foursquare tie-up making sense).

Attention to details is something Apple has been known for but the trend appears to be in letting some of those details fall by the wayside. Steve Jobs’ obsessive attention to every aspect of the company, from its ads to its software to how the back of its hardware looked is legendary and it’s time for the company to find a way to return to that model of cohesive integration of all aspects of the company.

While it continues to defy what can be done at scale in hardware and will probably continue running loops around its competitors when it comes to engineering feats in that space, Apple must right itself on the software side of the house and pay the same attention to quality there as it does on hardware.

What we’re seeing here is a company where the CEO has a strong understanding of what makes a solid supply chain work but it’s high time for Tim Cook to step out of his comfort zone and focus the same manic energy on software: what made Apple great under Steve Jobs is that its leader understood that software and hardware work hand in hand to deliver revolutionary products and failing to continue in that understanding, the company may find that its best days are behind it.

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.

  • Digitus Mercennarius

    “An obsession with mediocrity.”, now Apple has this disease without Steve. I personally thought the sign would be plastic MBPs instead of the fine metal they use. No one cares about quality, which is also why I can’t hire most CS grads these days – if it crashes once a day, who cares? #lame. Its on Wall St. Too as you wrote – Knight Capital.

    • Tristan Louis

      Indeed… a leveling by digging in from the bottom up instead of building on top of a strong base.

  • Laurent G

    From Laureng_53 : I totally disagree with this article and, as I said before on twitter,, I think that it is very partial !If you want to find a sound opinion about Maps, please refer to Jean Louis Gassée Blog where i think you will find a more balanced opinion. Maps is not perfect, but you can still use google Maps Web app if you prefer and you already have a free turn by turn navigation device with IOS 6 which is a huge improvement over IOS 5. I never expected Maps to be better than Google own very strong offering on day one. Give Apple some time, to improve Maps with customer feedback, mapping corrections, 3D views for all major cities in the world : in one or two years, I really think that Apple will be able to be on par with Google or at least very close.

    Sorry about the Apple fan boys; everything was not perfect with Steve : Mobile me, Iphone 4 “antenna gate”,original iphone limited to Edge are different examples that came to mind. Sorry for the others, the Iphone 5 will be a success and the “attention to details” still exist : look at Iphone 5 reviews from influential bloggers (David Pogue, Walt Mossberg,etc…) and you see that Iphone 5 still has superior industrial design.

    • Tristan Louis

      I do acknowledge that the industrial design and hardware is far ahead of the competition (see my mention of that towards the end of the piece) but for Apple to throw something out in the market and say “wait, it will improve in future versions” seems like a relatively new development to me. In fact, it was because Apple was NOT behaving in that way that it was so different.

      When Microsoft puts a product out, we expect it to be flawed and improving over times. In fact, that’s been a major complaint of Microsoft haters: that the products are not polished by the time they’re released.

      When Google puts a product out, it attempts to excuse its mistakes by slashing a beta icon on its offering so it can take time to polish things up. And Google opponents take the company to task for failing to push out fully formed products.

      So why should there be an exception for Apple on this? What I bemoan here is the fact that the Cupertino giant is getting to be more like its competitors instead of continuing on the path of excellence it was on in the past.

      I buy and recommend Apple hardware (yes, I do) BECAUSE I expect it to work, not because I expect it to be improved at some future date. The premium I pay on a macbook air, iPhone, or iPad is in that quality assurance.