Apple's Data Services Are Showing Strain

The Limits of Growth are a Harsh Mistress

When critical articles are written about Apple, they span a broad range from personal, idiosyncratic taste and hubris to full-fledged research articles with serious substance and professionalism. That gulf is enormous.

This week, I saw two of the latter articles, both at The Verge.

These are not smear articles written by bloggers trolling for hits. They're heavyweight, researched articles that point to some significant problems.

Brent Simmons, in his own essay, went on the explain, as a result of those iCloud problems "Why Developers Shouldn’t Use iCloud Syncing, Even If It Worked."

One perspective I have on the Simmons article is that Apple develops its services for its own customer base. Other companies and developers create a more public discourse and create services that are more catholic. It all depends on which ecosystem one wants to be in, but there's no doubt that there's an ongoing tension there.

Back to The Verge articles. One of the problems we see in very large companies is that money and competition trump the sage advice of senior scientists. Apple, traditionally, hires industry experts, but they seldom hire Ph.D. heavyweights, senior scientists, who can call the shots without veto.

Apple is not alone in that practice. It's typical everywhere in America. Managers don't like being told that they don't know what they're doing -- that they're idiots, reminiscent of a Dilbert cartoon. There's constant friction between senior scientists and non-technical managers who have other agendas: power, turf-building, money, prestige and job security. It's why so many technical projects (are there any other kind?) fail in the U.S.

The above two Verge articles describe a too big to fail mentality where there is, apparently, no one in the trenches, a sage, who can call the deep shots and make sure things are done right.

Steve Jobs had a reputation for not putting up with that. In this summary of Mr. Jobs's reaction to the MobileMe fiasco, the Federico Viticci goes on to recount how Mr. Jobs would tell his VPs: “Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO, reasons [for failure] stop mattering. That Rubicon is crossed when you become a VP."

Of course, the technical issues cited above aren't equivalent to corporate disaster and demise -- unless they get out of control. This is just another one of those challenges CEO Tom Cook faces. It's why he gets paid the big bucks.


Tech News Debris for the Week of March 25

The present doesn't typically follow the patterns of the past. On the other hand, when you can uncover key sequences and tied it all together, logically, the indicators from the past have help analyze the intentions of companies. Simon Thomas does that in "Me too! Me too!" as he looks at other companies who are reportedly working on a smartwatch. Good stuff there.

One of the things digital technology is good at is driving the price down of things that previously had a physical presence. eBooks is one example, but education is another. Alternative online education systems like Coursera and Udacity are creating a disruption and perhaps sowing the seeds of a revolution in education. Here's an introduction: "Beware of the High Cost of 'Free" Online Courses." It turn, that links to a paper published by Michael Cusumano at M.I.T. How all this fits in with Apple and education, one the company's core markets, will be something to watch indeed.

Lots has been written about the cancellation of Google Reader, but the one that stood out for me was a straightforward condemnation of the basic principles involved. Plus a comparison to Microsoft strategies of the past. And a discussion about how economic forces and competition virtually force technology companies into devious agenda. "Sorry Google; you can Keep it to yourself," by Om Malik.

I recall a report from the past that said technically oriented customers obtain a special delight from allying themselves with a technology leader. Just what combinations of personality traits drive the selection of the company being loyal to is hard to define. Occasionally, however there's an attempt to quantify this process. Here's one: "Galaxy S III, iPhone Users Not So Different After All," by Ina Fried.

Finally, an observation. The collective ability of humans to create systems that are not comprehensible by any one individual has been here for a few years. For example, a team of 100 engineers can write 5 million lines of code over a few years, but no one programmer understands the whole picture.

I've seen an Army general fail miserably trying to describe a combat model I was involved with years ago. Complex systems are often hard to understand even by its chief architects.

Could it be that the Internet and the vast size and wealth of the major competitors are also beyond the ability of one individual to analyze? We draw charts, we interview the executives, and we look for signposts and try to reason it all out. But there are many failures of the single mind when it comes to opinions about Apple. (As opposed to solid research and reporting.)

The result is conflicting "truths." Predictions that fail. Even conflict amongst observers. One writer, Michael Hiltzik, astutely nibbled around the edge of this with "How Apple invites facile analysis."

It's a sobering thought, especially when you see articles about how Apple is supposedly doomed.


Particle Debris is a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event of the week combined with a summary of articles that didn't make the TMO headlines, technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holidays.


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