Apple in 2012: Its Own Worst Enemy

Apple is large and still growing. By itself, despite the DNA of Apple’s culture and the legacy of Steve Jobs, that’s going to create problems. In fact, it already has. Apple’s heritage of simplicity has run headlong into Apple’s complex, interactive services, and customers are getting restless.

Wealth and power create problems for companies. It always has, and it always will. Apple’s success was the byproduct of the brilliance of Steve Jobs, and while CEO Tim Cook has professed allegiance to the spirit of the cofounder, he will still have to deal with the absolutes of Apple’s size and influence as a company as he moves into his first full year of control.

Apple is Trying to do Too Much

ConfusedOne of the emerging feelings about Apple these days is that the company is doing a lot, perhaps too much, rolling out a lot of services and technologies, placing a significant burden on its developers, and in the process, creating a debt load for customers. I described the debt load effect in the December 2nd Particle Debris. Briefly, customers who engage too enthusiastically in Apple products and services are finding themselves in time debt with maintenance. And to make matters worse, Apple’s tradition and philosophy of keeping things very simple is running headlong into the complexities of their ambitious offerings and the synergies amongst all their devices.

I was chatting with Ted Landau about this, and he put it succinctly. “There was a time when we could understand the basic operation of our OS and Apple apps without the manual, but if we wanted to understand the nuances, we’d need better documentation. That’s changing.” In other words, something like the Missing Manual series edited by David Pogue would fill in all the details for the curious or the evolving expert, but it wasn’t essential. Now, on the eve of 2012, more and more customers complain that they’re hard pressed to understand how to get the job done efficiently and correctly. There’s no official written guidance, just tech snippets.  Instead, they Google, piecemeal, for how-to articles. To paraphrase David Pogue, the manual that should have been in the box now needs to be in the box, if you know what I mean.

Outward Signs of Growth

Apple prides itself on thinking like a small company. Steve Jobs, it has been said, tried to maintain a start up atmosphere. To that end, resources have been artificially constrained. Also, the Apple executive team is small. Vice presidential power is concentrated at the top so that renegade VPs don’t undermine the company as they have at Microsoft. And yet, Apple’s size dictates complexities that need to be dealt with. One of those is taking responsibility for the whole product.

In older times, Apple’s products were largely self-documenting.Today, the Lion migration and MobileMe to iCloud migration are not. Therefore, an outward sign of taking responsibility for complex services is for Apple to describe, in detail, how the product should work. In general, if there’s a disconnect between the published documentation and the service, the software must be rewritten, not the manual. So far, Apple has had the luxury of ignoring this formal task.

I’m not suggesting something like Microsoft Press, but I am saying that when it comes to ambitious projects and services, Apple needs to publish its own beginner and advanced documentation as a coherent reference. It should be in multiple digital formats, free and readable on a Mac or iPad. The continuing conceit that Apple services are so simple that only knowledge base articles — that clear up nuances — are sufficient will create problems for Apple going forward.

Less is More

For a very large and growing company, it’s hard to do less. Simple products embedded in a growing ecosystem, and their interactions, become complex. Worse, Apple as an influential company feels that it has the vision and power to make things better. As a result, the act of forcing progress changes the approachability and metaphor of the products. That creates difficulty of use whether Apple likes it or admits it. I’m not suggesting a halt to technical advances; I’m suggesting patience and finesse.

One example of that is Apple’s move to Versions and Autosave. Only a company of Apple’s size, dare I say hubris, would take on a project like that. The feeling, or perhaps conceit, is that, over time people will adapt. New customers will never know the old way and thank Apple for its revolution. But it really isn’t much different than the issue with Microsoft and the new ribbons in Office. I worry that the general customer resentment about radical change is perceived as a defect in the customer that must be corrected. Or ignored for the sake of worthy goals.

This is creating a sense of resentment in the user community that Apple cannot ignore in the age of blogs and Twitter. For example, one of our TMO staff members described his wife’s frustration with Versions under Pages in Lion. Save As… is gone and there is no explicit guidance. Lion, out of the blue, changed. Her reaction was “This is not Apple-like.” That is, intuitive operation had vanished. Our staff member continued with his missive: “To her, Macs have always empowered her by allowing stuff to just work in a natural way. This time they had taken power away and made her feel dumb.”

The Dangers of Big

That’s not the only danger that lurks for Apple. Huge companies are paranoid that their growth will come to an end — that their best days are behind them. Smaller companies have a more circumspect view of business. They know that they could go under. Or they know that they have healthy competition that must be respected. Consensus with the community is reqired. Outrageous growth is a pipe dream; it usually requires, in lieu of sheer brilliance, the competition to fail miserably.

Huge companies, on the other hand, don’t worry so much about going out of business as they do about failing to grow. But it’s a mathematical fact that as companies get bigger, a sustained large rate of growth becomes more difficult. Ever more draconian measures are required to sustain it.

A large company will more willingly take on any new project if it thinks that it might add to growth and steal market share from the less worthy competition. Past success invite new adventures. In fact, an insidious chip on the shoulder seeps in: other competitors who are successful are seen as wrongly stealing money that rightly belongs to the large company, if only the larger company could do things a little better. That leads to overconfidence in new ventures. This branching out dilutes focus and places ever more agenda on the core OS and services. For example, look what a behemoth iTunes has become as it’s been asked to bear the burden of ever more functions, services and externally imposed limitations.

The Rebel Base

Eventually, these problems bubble to the surface of the customer consciousness. They begin to perceive themselves as ingrates for objecting to having their lives changed. They blame themselves for being stupid because their e-mail doesn’t get delivered or their sync didn’t work. Or the Time Machine backup failed. Or their document couldn’t be renamed and saved naturally. What used to be a simple, pleasant walled garden risks becoming a prison of complexity, confusion and time wasting maintenance duties. When a customer can no longer work as desired because of Apple agenda, resentment surfaces.

Customers will then find themselves selectively ignoring new services being offered because their ability to cope is too highly taxed. The more Apple tries to grow by engaging in new services, the more customers will back off in order to keep the sum total of complexity on an even keel. Additional Apple initiatives might start to fail.

Aircraft Carrier

Changing Course

Apple is like a 95,000 ton nuclear aircraft carrier. It wants to keep going in the same direction, and it takes a long time to alter course.

Right now, Apple is possessed by the simplicity of its past. That momentum, without introspection, creates the trap that no real effort is required to document new, more ambitious services and their many new interactions and permutations. Technical columnists are placed in the role of proxies, explaining to the customer, with apologies, how this vast array of new products and services works. Apple’s frog is boiled: it slowly loses control of its intimate connection to the customer — especially when it goes into withdrawal from snafus.

Rather than fundamentally cope with customer ennui, projects that never should be approved might get the green light in the hopes that they will fuel growth and cut those nasty competitors off at the pass. In what could be an ironic twist, Murphy’s laws kick in, and customers resist these initiatives. The very thing that Apple wants to avoid is instantiated — a limit to growth. Reconciling Apple’s ambitions with the need to communicate better about its products and services, manage complexity and deal with ever mounting customer workloads is now the challenge for Apple’s CEO and executive team.