The Five Problems Apple Faces

At Macworld 2010, a well-known Apple writer presented a list of ten problems Apple faces. I didn’t agree with most of the issues cited in that list. Some seemed irrelevant, and some seemed padded, just to round out the list to a perfect 10.

I’ve spent the last month pondering, from my own experience at Apple, the real problems that Apple faces. These are the ones that percolate throughout the Apple culture and continue to crop up. If Apple deals with these problems, it’s just one less thing to get in the way of Apple’s completed transformation from a niche player to a major consumer electronics corporation.

1. Apple is Thin Skinned. Everyone knows that Apple’s relationship with competitors and allies alike is filtered through the psyche of one mister Steven Paul Jobs. Whether is a spat with Adobe over Flash, a skirmish with Intel over Apple’s bypassing the Atom CPU in favor of its own A4, or irritation with Google competing with the iPhone, corporate dealings always seem to take on the subtext of Mr. Jobs’s personality.

Case in point. It’s well known that Steve Jobs dislikes Ivan Seidenberg, the CEO of Verizon. Both men are strong willed, and both men have a vision cast in concrete. Neither is willing to put aside personalities in order for the common good of both companies. Namely, Apple and Verizon could both be making a lot more money if Apple and Verizon could work together. Instead, each is seeking the destruction of the other.

Apple’s prickliness deprives the company of untold business opportunities. I’m not saying Apple should go along to get along, but it does need to think about how and why its corporate thin skin has led to lost opportunities. And those lost opportunities, more often than not, back Apple into a corner, causing yet more problems.

2. Apple Product Documentation Sucks. How? We all know for a fact that Apple’s products are easier and more fun to use, more consistent, and better documented than most of the competition. Even so, the pervasive politic behind Apple’s documentation is that the simplicity of the documentation reflects the ease of use and simplicity of the product. By edict.

That conceit by Apple prevents the staff members who prepare Apple’s documentation from going the extra mile to make sure all topics are properly covered. Apple would rather leave out a difficult section of explanatory text if it makes it appear that the product is simple and a joy to use.

With modern, complex technology that’s seldom possible.

Let’s look at Apple’s support page, nicely laid out with an icon for manuals near the middle. Scan along the top section of images until you see Peripherals, click, and select Airport. Then select “Airport Extreme (Early 2009).” This manual makes it appear that Setting up an Airport Extreme is as as simple as baking muffins.

While the diagrams affirm that one has a choice between 2.4 and 5 GHz modes, when you actually get to the settings, and if you’re lucky enough to find out the “secret” of holding down the Option key on the popup, you’re faced with these options.

Airport Utility

AirPort Utility Settings

Nowhere in the manual does it explain why one would pick one of these settings, what the performance impact is, and so on. This lack of attention to detail drives IT managers crazy, and it’s one reason you won’t find Apple Wi-Fi base stations widely used in the enterprise — except for small business. The manual depicts the device, cool as it is, as being a toy, used by and documented for idiots.

Recently, I’ve documented other examples where additional documentation or some extra effort by Apple would have really paid off:

Unfortunately, because Apple is run as a very lean organization, when a new product phenomenon comes along, like the iPhone or iPad, resources are diverted away from attending to the nitty gritty details of previous technologies.

3. Enterprise Support Often Fails. There is an extensive body of thought on how Apple deals with the enterprise, so I won’t go into detail except to say that Apple marches to the tune of its own drummer, never condescending to the enterprise nor giving up its degrees of freedom by excessive catering to the enterprise.

And yet Apple does sell to all levels of governments all over the world as well as business. What drives those organizations crazy is that priorities within Apple will cause support for their own projects to periodically fail.

A good example is the on-again, off-again support for smart cards in Mac OS X. A few years ago, just when companies and government agencies thought Apple had nailed down the OS underpinnings, a new release of Mac OS X would break something, and it would be impossible to find out when a fix was forthcoming. The same thing has happened with the Common Criteria support in terms of the Basic Security Mode (BSM) auditing subsystem. It would periodically change, break, lose features and become under documented for as long as this author has been working with it. Also, NFS issues were troublesome and longstanding right after Mac OS X shipped.

The key issue here is that the enterprise always takes second place to the consumer side of Apple. That’s okay, but that doesn’t mean that Apple’s enterprise products should also be second class. The enterprise should expect nothing less than long term, consistent excellence. It’s that simple.

4. Failure to Attend Conferences. Apple’s reluctance to at least rub shoulders with others at various industry and technical conferences makes it appear that Apple is both snobbish and fearful that its employees will somehow spill important beans.

As Mr. Jobs has gotten older, I have noticed the recluse in him has extended to the culture of Apple. At one time, Apple attended Supercomputing, all the bioinformatics conferences, SIGGRAPH and two MacWorlds. No more. It takes some time and effort to reach out, and it seems to me that as Steve grows tired, so does the company, pulling within itself.

Apple would have us believe that its retail stores are the best and only ambassadors for its products, but industry and university people aren’t fooled. They see Apple’s unwillingness to show up, work with the rest of the industry, as elitist and contrarian. There are genuine issues to work out with the rest of the industry, but Apple is increasingly a lonely and thin skinned company. In the end, Apple will have no one to depend on but itself. I hope Mr. Jobs’ US$40B war chest helps him when the need arises because no one else will.

5. Tim Cook’s Future. There are several issues associated with Tim Cook. The first is training a successor. If Mr. Cook believes, when the day comes, that he can be both COO and the new CEO, he is mistaken. I hope Mr. Cook has a really great person lined up for the COO position because being CEO is all about more than what he’s doing now.

Secondly, Mr. Cook will have to look deep into his ego to decide if he’s going to be the visible Apple spokesperson. He really should avoid that role as CEO. He doesn’t have the temperament or voice quality to be the visible Apple spokesperson, and if he is wise, he’ll roll up his sleeves and work behind the scenes as a quiet but effective CEO. Meanwhile, he’ll need to let other Apple VPs take on the role of visible spokesperson(s). That’ll be a tough nut to swallow, and it will be threatening.

When the day comes that Tim Cook takes over as CEO, we’ll learn a lot more about his character, honor, humility and judgment. My hope is that he’ll realize that Phil Schiller, Scott Forstall (who’s getting there slowly) and others are much better equipped to speak for Apple, in general. That will be a challenge to Mr. Cook’s authority and self-image as CEO. But, if he doesn’t keep his cool in this regard, Apple is in for a lot of trouble after Mr. Jobs hands over the reigns.

There you have it. Not ten problems, but just five. The first four have been nagging Apple for awhile now, and they keep coming up in the press as candidate items to turn Apple into a whipping boy. The thing is, the problems are easy to solve. The act of solving them would not hinder Apple’s image or freedom to succeed, only enhance it.