Why Apple Drops Features & How to Deal With it

| Analysis

From time to time, Apple will come out with a new version of OS X or iOS, or one of its own apps, and there will be missing features. Is Apple being obtuse? Are they out of touch? How can our favorite thing be just ... gone? Here's what's happening.

Over the years, Apple has quietly introduced a very capable feedback mechanism, embedded in iOS and OS X. It tracks information about how well your Apple product is working, but most importantly, how you use the OS and Apple's own apps.

It may have been awhile since you installed OS X or iOS, and you've forgotten where those Apple fingers curl into the innards of your Mac or iDevice. On the Mac, it's in System Preferences -> Security & Privacy -> Privacy tab. It looks like this:

OS X: System Preferences -> Security & Privacy

In iOS, the same setting is found in Settings -> General -> About -> Diagnostics & Usage (at the bottom).

iOS: Settings -> General -> About -> Diagnostics...

You can safely turn those settings off if you don't want Apple to track how your product is working and how you use it.

The thing to remember is that Apple is a very resource driven company. Despite its wealth, Apple doesn't provide virtually unlimited resources to its software teams. The belief is that if the product manager and his/her engineers have to make tough decisions about what features to include, they'll create cleaner, crisper code and products. Simplicity is good in a highly technical era, and one of Steve Jobs's mantras was saying "no!" to superfluous stuff. (Called creeping elegance in some circles.) What can we leave out?

And that's where the feedback mechanism described above comes in. If the Apple database says that customers just aren't using a feature, no matter how vigorously it's been touted at keynotes, then don't expect it to survive the next major update. Even if you, personally, love it.

A Personal Strategy

I'm a big believer in having personal strategies and policies. One for backups and one for security. Because of this feedback mechanism of Apple's, I think it's also wise to have a personal policy on the adoption of new features.

For example, does some new feature look suspicious in that it's not something Apple ordinarily does? (Like Launchpad.) Is it part of some questionable new initiative? (Like Ping.) Or is it a refinement of something already in place that makes it better -- and is sound. (Like "Do No Disturb" and "VIP email.")

In this era, features aren't always introduced to make your life better. Sometimes they're introduced due to competitive or cultural pressures For example, better Facebook and Twitter integration.

In any case, it's always good to size up the new features in OS X and iOS with some kind of standard in mind. It may be something as simple as not having time to become an expert. Or perhaps the feature is cool, but doesn't fit into your workflow. So it's really a waste of your precious time.

Being aware that Apple is likely to drop an unused feature by most of its customers and having a strategy for what features are important will do three things. It will keep you from wasting time with useless gadgetry, it'll guide you better on OS enhancements you might want to buy from third parties that have better, personal support and it'll keep you from being frustrated when your favorite new feature disappears into thin air.

 

Comments

xmattingly

Off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of good examples of dropped features that affect me.

Most recent OS versions (I’m currently running 10.6) have dropped RSS news feeds in Mail. A lot of people don’t like Mail, and almost NO ONE cared for the RSS feature… I’m one of those super-rare ones who use it in my daily routine. I don’t like anticipating that next time I buy a new Mac (I’m holding out for the rumored Mac Pro update next year), I’ll have to go to a 3rd party app. But I can live with it.

The second example: In older versions of Safari’s developer tools, you used to be able to drag an image from the resources inspector to the desktop without issue, and now for no apparent reason it changes the file name to “Unknown”. I do graphic design & front-end development for a web business, and this non-feature is absolutely INFURIATING!!!

Getting rid of an unpopular feature is understandable… I don’t see anyone picketing Apple over Ping. But it’s entirely another thing when a business that I pay good money to makes it harder for me to earn my bread & butter.

To paraphrase R. Lee Ermey, in the latter case it’s like getting screwed by Apple without a courtesy reach-around.

DannyG

Right. So if you like an OS feature but, don’t think other people will like it, then you shouldn’t use it because you might have to go back to not using it when it’s eventually removed. (You’ll be kicking yourself when Launchpad is still around 5 yrs later.) Is that what you’re saying?

Way to enjoy your personal computers!  /sarcasm/

wab95

John:

Those are important points regarding the diagnostic and usage data that we send to Apple, and how Apple use these data in future OS updates.

To underline your essential take home point, as I understand it, to begin with, if something is mission critical to your workflow, it probably is not a new feature in the OS or other software, but something that’s been around for awhile.

Nonetheless, if it there is a mission critical feature, then one should treat this as one does backups - DO NOT rely on a single potential point of failure, have redundancy. Look into third party solutions that give you more than one way to get the mission done. If you DO rely on a single failure point, and it goes away, then find the nearest mirror, look into it with your most piercing, steely-eyed glare of contempt, and and pour out your blame.

For most of these features, I find that they are not mission critical, but features that I like and come to rely on. When they go away, it’s a nuisance and I have to learn new tricks, but the work continues. Typically, the OS and the other Apple software (or even third party software - it happens on these as well) are robust enough that I can get the job done, just working differently.

Finally, if the software, or any tool for that matter, is so exquisitely sensitive to a single feature that, without that feature, you cannot get your work done, then it is probably not a good tool you personally, and, before it goes away, you need to find alternatives. This is simply proactive task management and digital health maintenance. Don’t wait for it to break or go away, presumptively intervene with a workable solution, one that is sufficiently robust that it provides redundancy to other tools (e.g. Pages vs MS Word; or SugarSync vs DropBox to replace iDisk), and is robust enough to give you options for your workflow.

Jag120

Finally, I already knew something Melissa knows.  Wow, I thought that day would never come because she knows SO much!!

Lancashire-Witch

As the Apple user base expands I suspect that more and more features may remain under-used because the majority of users simply don’t know about them.  Apple isn’t famous for helping new users find their way around the Apple world.

I spoke to a new iPad user recently who said, “I only do email & internet”; and hasn’t installed any apps - she didn’t know how. The iPad is her only Apple product. She doesn’t use iTunes, iMessage or FaceTime.. doesn’t know if she has an Apple id or not; and so on. But she wanted to know if she could “do Facebook & Skype” on her iPad and hoped to “use it for photos” later. She was thrilled with her iPad and said it was much better than her old PC, which has “packed up”.

I would be concerned if Apple placed too much emphasis on the usage patterns of many (esp. new) users.

 

ibuck

Lancashire-Witch: the majority of users simply don’t know about them.  Apple isn’t famous for helping new users find their way around the Apple world.

Yes, I think Apple could do a better job teaching users, both new and old (somewhat experienced). Perhaps with 1-2 hour, group classes with your device in an Apple brick & mortar store for $10 or $20.

Paul Goodwin

Ironically (for Apple), the fact that they can gather data on how their system is being used wil gather toms of data. But the reality is that the tons of data comes from average users, and probably not the users that “think different” or are the real creators. So in effect, one result of relying on all that data is the potential that it boils the products down to a simple tools for the average user. Not necessarily the outstanding tools we have come to expect. Surely there’s plenty of creative thinking going into their products, but relying on the simple average data to judge a product on features to be deleted can dumb down a very effective app. My case in point is iTunes. It has degraded from a world class music management tool into less of one, and has evolved into a store interface. There’s been so many great features removed, based on user data? I’m not sure what drove those decisions, but if they did use the usage data of millions of teenagers buying music, the data drove it that way…...unfortunately. Sad, but monitoring that data can drive things to mediocrity. I’m sure this is an oversimplification of why the great features were removed, but it’s beyond my comprehension how creative individuals on a design team allowed it to happen unless a business leader held up the data, stated that only 2% of the users are using that feature, so leave it out. Unfortunately the business leader forgot or didn’t understand that the 2% that did use it were the very ones he should have been listening to…...because they DID “think different”.

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