Simpler Apple Apps Shouldn’t be Simple-minded

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” — Alvin Toffler

“Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.” — Richard Feynman

Some of Apple’s new OS X apps are exhibiting an interesting tendency. Instead of a brilliant user interface to deal with technical complexity, there is the removal of functionality. However, simpler isn’t always better.

In times past, we were all amazed how Apple would take complex computer technologies on our Macs, distill them down to the essentials and wrap a beautiful, unambiguous user interface (UI) around the app. The brilliance was that we learned by doing instead of remaining confused. This was in contrast to Microsoft. We made fun of Microsoft for user interfaces that were laughable, ambiguous, confusing, unproductive and ugly. As a result, nothing really worked right. Apple’s approach is why we’re attracted to the Mac OS.

Lately, however, Apple seems to have taken a different approach with some apps, even OS X. Instead of making things clearer, thanks to a deep understanding of user interface principles, Apple has been achieving a cleaner UI by removing features. One wonders if the loss of functionality allows Apple to suppress annoying complexities, leaving the users to rest assured that all is well with their Macintosh life.*


Recently, I saw this tendency when I reviewed Apple’s AirPort Utility 6. But this isn’t the first instance of that tactic. This happened before with QuickTime, iMovie and Final Cut Pro 7/X. In OS X Lion it has appeared with AutoSave and the hiding of the user’s Library folder. In Safari, it has appeared in the suppression of Cookie detail and the glossing over of invalid certificates.

What’s Going On?

There are several good reasons why Apple ships some new OS X apps with features removed.

  1. Apple product managers look closely at the feedback mechanisms built into OS X. When features are seldom used, it’s hard, by virtue of Apple tradition, to justify engineering resources to continue to implement those features in new versions of the app.
  2. Apple may be looking forward to the day when iOS is the only OS available to the user, and so there’s an effort to bring the two code bases into coherence. That means making OS X more iOS-like, what Ted Landau calls iosification.
  3. Apple managers believe that by removing features from apps, in the spirit of Steve Jobs, they are making apps cleaner and life better for customers.
  4. A variation of #1. When developing a major revision of an app, say, converting from Carbon to Cocoa, it is a good practice to keep the new app simple at release. That minimizes bugs. Then, in time, older features are brought into the new version in response to customer complaints and demand. After all, why include functionality that no one is lobbying for or that no one uses? I see that happening with Final Cut Pro X, but the tradition goes way back.

These may be reasonable approaches from Apple’s point of view, but I don’t think they serve the customer well. The reason is that these rationales leave the customer wondering what Apple is up to and when it will make things right. Is Apple dumbing down its products to appeal to a larger, less technically adept audience? Or is Apple becoming callous, believing that some of its customers can just darn well wait until it gets around to adding essential features back in?

It goes without saying that complexity breeds confusion and simplicity breeds clarity. However, clarity can also come from hierarchy, organization, concise language, visual cues and metaphor, and gradual disclosure.

Backing Into a Corner

For example, in the new AirPort Utility (AU), we are now confronted with three versions of the app. AU 6, which ought to be the single best app for Lion and Snow Leopard, instead only works on Lion. And it’s missing major features that version 5.6 has — which is also Lion-only. And if you’re using Snow Leopard, you must use version 5.5.3.

Apple has backed itself into a corner. If, for example, the two Lion utilities were named AirPort Utility and AirPort Utility Pro, then a few customers might download the Pro version and burn themselves. That might lead to unwanted support calls, but it also leads to customer education.

If Apple comes out with a version 6, as it did, then presumably everyone will rush to that, thinking it’s better (it isn’t) and forget about 5.6. Experienced users must learn why 5.6 is better. (Just one example.) Customers spin their wheels, and the simplicity of the new app translates into complexity in understanding the three OS X apps.**

A third, preferable approach might be to figure out how to have just one AirPort Utility that gracefully helps the novice user set up an AirPort Extreme for the first time, yet has an Advanced Mode that caters to more demanding users. Yes, that would be hard work. Instead, the customers who may have legitimate requirements to have a Snow Leopard and Lion mix have three apps to deal with, and the highest numbered version isn’t most capable version.

AU 6Did this UI require Lion?

Learning is in Apple’s DNA

But is it in the apps? Novices, when they stumble on advanced functions in any app, are inspired and sobered. They realize that they have something yet to learn. However, they may not use an advanced function because the app has failed, by virtue of a poor UI, to make it comprehensible.

Then, by eliminating what appears to be under utilized functionality, Apple unwittingly fools new customers into thinking that they know everything about a technology. That betrays Apple’s statement that education is in its DNA. How far is far enough when it comes to dumbing down apps in order to appeal to customers who really don’t want to learn anything?

A few years ago, I was chatting with a computer science college professor who complained about his freshman. They felt that because they could operate iTunes and write a report in MS Word that they were computer experts. The professor knew he had a long, hard journey ahead to open their eyes.

In the past, when Apple was always trying just a little harder than the competition to bring simplicity, coherence and yet power into our computing life, we felt that because we could actually accomplish something cool, the world was ours. Learning could be fun.

Simplicity, taken to extreme, deprives us of technical wonder and learning and humility. It ruins our imagination.


* There is a mountain of literature devoted to the concept that simple choices engender customer confidence and satisfaction. Simplicity is why we use the iPhone instead of feature flip phones with 300 page manuals. This is well understood, but it’s not the focus of this essay.

** It’s almost like a law of conservation of complexity. Supress it here, and it pops out there.


Teaser image credit: Shutterstock, Equations on a blackboard.