Exploring Apple’s Software: Mischievous Fumbles

| Particle Debris

Unlike hardware, which stands on its own for inspection, there is hardly any better place for a company to be up to mischief than with its software. Lately, Apple has been fumbling some of its software efforts. Let's take a look.


We all know how Apple loves to build hardware that delights us. We can touch and hold something beautiful, an object d'art , like a MacBook Air or an iPad Air, and marvel at its design, feel, heft and aesthetics.

All too often, however, in specific instances, Apple's software doesn't enjoy that finicky attention to detail that bring a smile to our eyes. There are some potential reasons for that.

First, Apple is inundated with customer complaints about this and that. For eample, lost work. So the product managers decide on autosave and mangle the old "Save As...". While it works for newbies, Apple's base has people who object to being dictated to. User options would solve that, but that's a problem because it 1) affects the new feature adoption rate which is monitored and 2) makes the software more complex.

Deciding where the world is complex and needs some flexibility is an art. For example, I was setting up my iPad Air with email from the "other" group and had a really hard time. It was buggy, crashed, and didn't seem to offer the initial flexibility I needed for a special SMTP server port. Assuming the SMTP port, for simplicity, in the "Other" category just isn't going to deliver a great experience. (I never had this problem in iOS 6.)

When it comes to a new software rollout, product managers know that adding too many (developer) cooks to the stew just complicates and shows things down. As we saw with the iWork rollout, simplicity has always been Apple's key to a good point zero launch in the past. As other companies have found out, however, that doesn't always work because the customer base is large and diverse. (With iWork, Apple had to backtrack anyway.) As they say, there's never enough money to do it right the first time, but there' always enough money for the fix.

Another issue is that ever present concession to politics. The worst example of this lately is the loss of direct sync of contacts and calendars to a Mavericks Mac in iTunes. It's just gone. You can only use iCloud for that in Mavericks. The only rational rationale that I can think of is that Apple wants to demonstrate popular usage of iCloud. But when Apple's agenda conflicts with user delight or, in this case, judicious security, then we have what I call mischief.

Software delight isn't always about simplemindedness and removing things that previously worked. Sometimes it's about avoiding frustration. A little complexity, if it makes things go better, can bring delight -- the perception that Apple has thought of everything possible, gone the extra mile to deliver satisfaction and a smile.


Tech News Debris for the Week of November 4

I discovered one of those rare and delightful essays that delves into a company's strategies and the idiosyncrasies of the CEO. No, not Apple. This time it's T-Mobile. You will want to read this: "T-Mobile's Wacky Plan to Trash the Wireless Business Model."

If you're going to write, in the tech world, about human emotions, feelings and reaction to a company's marketing, you have to do it with style, tact, and good sense. Not every blogger is equipped to do that, and that's why I appreciated this article by Chris Matyszczyk: "How Google is beating Apple in the fight for emotions."

What's the difference between market share and installed base? How do you read an article that says that Android is dominating iOS? It's time for a tutorial, and an excellent one at that: "Why an 80% market share might only represent half of smartphone users."

I have written that Apple's decision to make iWork free isn't the end of Microsoft. However, that doesn't mean that its impact isn't worth exploring in detail. Gregg Keizer, who does solid work, has some perspective that mirrors my own but adds additional nuances. "Apple puts the ball in Microsoft's court."

In this article, the title is intended to be lurid, but I found it fascinating anyway because of the competitive position Amazon has taken. And Mr. Ulanoff is a solid tech journalist. Anyway, you have to hand it to Amazon: the company has a consistent vision for its tablets. "Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 Is the iPad Air's Nemesis.". Of course, what Mr. Ulanoff glossed over is the restricted environment of the Kindle Fires, but then, that's what some people want.

As in the case above, it's always fascinating to see exactly how various companies elect to compete with Apple. It's not just a matter of product design. There are a vast number of elements when it comes to how a company competes, execution being just one. Galen Gruman explores all this in the case of Samsung. "Can Samsung become Apple? Only if it executes well."

Finally, for some R-rated humor, I refer you to how Google employees feel about the NSA.


Football fumble via Shutterstock.

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Regarding Apple’s software fumbles, I again must say that no bigger fumble exists over the look of iOS 7. And just a few simple tweaks could make it much better.

For starters, Apple should take a cue from the cursor in OS X. The cursor arrow is black, with a thin white outline, and a subtle drop-shadow. As a result, the arrow shows very clearly against both light and dark backgrounds. Compare that to the thin white text in iOS 7, which is almost unreadable on light backgrounds. Why not use a thin black outline around the text (like I believe they did in pre-iOS 7), or a slight drop-shadow, just to make the text “pop”? Without some such solution, text in iOS 7 is style over substance, an interface element where design considerations obviously outweighed end-user considerations.

Likewise, folders in iOS 7—those flat round-corner squares, completely blend into the background as well. A thin outline or drop shadow would be a great fix here, too.

The Mail and Music apps are so white as to hardly have any visual distinction between the interface and the main content. The “stick-man” buttons with no fill color are often hard to see. Its again style over substance, and I think a huge step backward from a usability standpoint. The Mail interface in iOS 6 was a thousand times better.

I honestly think of iOS 7’s visual design as akin to The Emperor with No Clothes: People why like it, I truly believe, like it because they think they’re supposed to like it. I just hope for a bit more depth in iOS 8. Getting rid of fake green felt and leather trim is one thing, but making text hard to read, buttons hard to see, and interface elements all but non-existant is about the most un-Apple thing I can imagine.


Someone at Apple has their head screwed on backwards…...
but they claim it’s a feature.

I “swear” at iOS everytime I use it and don’t use my iPhone for anything much more than phone calls and camera.
I’m on my MacBook Pro all day pumping out work.  Just leave my Mac OS alone—I don’t need no sticking iOSification!


@ mrmwebmax ~ Talk about a hijacking!
You’ve made you position on iOS 7’s design abundantly, and repeatedly clear. How ‘bout giving the rest of us a break, huh?

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Biggest disappointment for me was opening up GarageBand yesterday to whip up a spur of the moment podcast. This was the first time I’d fired it up since upgrading to Maverisk (“Mavericks” + “asterisk” until they get the kinks out).

Layout changed completely. Could no longer drag a “.mov” audio file in without GB assuming it was a “movie”. Popup windows left all over the screen as I repositioned a sound clip in a track. No more MP3 export. Now have to export m4a, then use Audacity to convert to MP3. It’s truly a disaster. My podcast partner (who is not very tech geeky) and I will lose quite a bit of ground in what had become a polished routine centered around GB. Oh, and for all this disaster, they couldn’t get rid of the silly brown bars at the side of the GB window.

I really do appreciate where Apple is trying to go with the software now, after misfiring on both iOSification and cloud centricity. But I also see why they went the “free” route. I’d be steaming mad had I paid for this “upgrade” right now.


Bosco ~ You can’t go back to an older version from a previous installer?

Paul Goodwin

At least Apple left the old versions in the Application folder. There used to be a coffee commercial that quoted an early 20th century coffee magnate that went something like: “As John Arbuckle said in 1903, you get what you pay for”. I’d gladly pay for great software.

Paul Goodwin

iJack. The new one doesn’t delete the old one.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I tossed the old versions of GB and iWork. I really didn’t expect Apple to throw up all over itself with GB. I’ll be more careful in the future and maybe dig up previous GB from backups.

Paul Goodwin

John. I certainly agree that lately Apple isn’t striving for that finicky perfection with their software. And Brad, you’re correct about them throwing up on themselves. There’s been too much of that in the past 6 years or so. It seems to me to have started about the time they mucked up the original iMovie (in 2006?), then Final Cut Pro, then iTunes 11, now iWork and GarageBand. I can’t comprehend how what they are doing is striving for excellence and the best user experience. The one good sign here was that they allowed the users to keep the older versions. I suppose some day the method in their madness will become apparent. But dumbing down apps on the Mac (the creation machine) to make a more consistent user experience on the consumption machines (iOS devices) sure does seem ass backwards to me. I guess Rome wasn’t built in a day, so I haven’t given up hope, but I’m sticking with OS 10.8.5, iTunes 10.7, and the last generation of iWork and GarageBand until they mature the new ones.

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