Apple’s Art of Mysterious Convenience

Apple Park building.

Automation and increasing abstraction are what computers are all about. But when does mysterious convenience get creepy and out of control?

Mysterious Convenience

It all started, most recently, with our Charlotte Henry’s report.

This struck a chord with me. That’s because, I believe, computer users are naturally process oriented. That is, action A begets result B. In turn, related action C begets desired, final result D. If we understand the implications of each successive action in a sequence, we get where we want to be with confidence in the result.

But that process can be tedious and is often ripe for abstraction for the sake of convenience. After years of tedium, Apple often figures out a better, easier way to get to the desired result. (A good example is iOS shortcuts. But, there, at least, we as users define the process to our own satisfaction.)

When Apple invokes a mysterious sequence of automation or abstraction for us, we are, at first, taken aback. It’s convenient to be sure, but some may feel as if they’ve lost awareness and control of the process. There may even be competitive or security implications.

I call this mysterious convenience. And Apple is very good at it.

Trade-offs

Security practices are often a trade-off between convenience and absolute protection. Similarly, mysterious convenience. is often a trade-off between understanding and speed of the result. That is, what we lose in understanding, we gain in convenience. The key question, of course, is it too creepy? Is it truly smart? Does it lead to unintended consequences or does it make our lives truly better—without drawbacks?

One example is AirDrop. AirDrop is an incredibly convenient way to move files from Apple device to device. However, I am told by government security gurus, it does not log the origin of a received file. So AirDrop is disabled by some government agencies on their Macs for the sake of security. AirDrop invokes mysterious convenience.

Happy-go-lucky

All too often, Apple has, for understandable reasons, a markedly enthusiastic approach to its mysterious conveniences. that some professionals find unnerving. Naturally, Apple wants us to use its new conveniences, but it’s also up to the users to indicate to Apple when it has gone overboard and lured us into possible, dangerous inattentions.

In the case of redirecting a searched link to Apple News+, conveniently bypassing a paywall, the jury remains out in my view. It’s vaguely unnerving, feels creepy and self-serving, but also a rather sensible handling of a paywall in the face of an existing subscription.

The real danger is that in the eternal quest for new features in Apple’s OSes, the focus becomes prioritized to Apple services revenue rather than new, brilliant, pleasing facilities for operating our devices.

In the worst case, there is a repetition of Microsoftian madness from the olden days and a cynical loss in our confidence in Apple.

3 thoughts on “Apple’s Art of Mysterious Convenience

  • John:
     
    Brilliant terminology, mysterious convenience. It pairs nicely with ‘automagically’. 
     
    It also, for those of us familiar with Arthur Clarke’s third law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, a potentially unnerving reminder that the pace of advancement of our digital technology is vastly outpacing the capacity of any one person to keep proficiently current with all of it, with the result that an increasing proportion of it is ‘magical’. 
     
    That said, this is where a tech company’s (whether tech giant or tech minnow) chief asset is the trust invested in it by the community of users and society writ large. This requires that the company do three things, unfailingly and without hesitation. Consider these the three laws of corporate trustworthiness. 
     
    First, it must be truthful; a near oxymoron in today’s corporate world, but a must for any company that wishes to be seen as a ‘good guy’ in the industry, and appreciates the value of being given the benefit of the doubt in times of controversy. Whether product, service or partnership; the performance of the thing must be as advertised.
     
    Second, it must be transparent about its motives and operations. In a competitive world where technology and IP theft is its own industry, both private and state sponsored, this is a delicate proposition and risks being misunderstood. It cannot be taken to mean that a company unmasks its IP and methods, wittingly or not, by needlessly detailed publication. Rather, it means that a company’s rationale and explanation for a technology or methodology be wholly consistent with its performance, and is free from unsuspected and unpleasant surprises that practically or even potentially violate user trust and privacy (such as accessing and retaining user biometric data without knowledge or consent – looking at you, Zuckerberg – again). 
     
    Third, when it violates either the first or the second law, the company must immediately acknowledge and apologise for the violation, and repair the damage to the fullest extent possible, without being asked, or worse, compelled to do so, and in full conformity with the standards of the first and second laws. 
     
    Opinions will differ as to how well Apple have conformed to those three laws, but it is safe to say that others have fared far worse. Apple should not settle for either a mere relative distinction, let alone for a distinction by default. Rather, they should strive to be the industry leader in all three elements. That Apple can succeed in this without the aid of its user base is naive and a recipe for corruption and failure. This is where informed, pointed and vocal criticism from the user community is essential, and should not be viewed as harmful, hostile or disloyal but their opposite. Invariably, they push companies, no less than the individuals who serve on them, to be better versions of themselves. 
     
    Looking forward to this week’s PD. 
     
    Cheers. 

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