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Diminishing tech returns

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Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 14.28.09It struck me, as I spent two nights this week trying to sort out my daughter’s problems with her new Apple Music app, that Apple have been releasing a lot of stuff recently that doesn’t work that well.

When I worked for an IT company, we always used to joke about ‘upgrades’ making things worse, and computers being rubbish. The problem for the industry has always been that it relies too much on making stuff obsolete as quickly as seems reasonable (to them) and refreshing/recycling their product cycles. When you depend on your existing customer base for the your future income and profits, you’re always going to be making things steadily worse.

Tech always follows this pattern. Things start off basic, with few features. Then, for a few cycles things might improve as ‘missing’ features are added and the usefulness and functionality of the hardware/software improves. But then, always, a tipping point is reached and the platform is in trouble.

PageMaker was good up to version 5, I seem to remember. Then PageMaker 6 was worse, and then it died, to be replaced by InDesign. InDesign itself is so long in the tooth that it’s too hard for new users to learn properly. Long-term users probably hate and resent it by now, too. Photoshop probably peaked around CS1. The current version, again, is just too hard for a new customer to pick up and use effectively. Think about that: you’re only making something for people who have been using it for years, and who can take on board new features or simply know enough to ignore them.

MS Word peaked around version 5. Apple Pages peaked two or three versions back. iMovie peaked at version 2. iTunes, christ, it’s been so long since it was any good, I don’t even remember.

First computers got to complicated, and they gave us smartphones, which were simpler. Software written for mobiles had to be small, efficient, and fast. But then the hardware kept ‘improving’, so the software got more complex, with more features, demanding more and more of the hardware. So then they introduce the Watch, which gives us a smaller, simpler platform again. But there’s a problem, a perception that even these simpler platforms are starting out too complex.

I’m not sure it’s entirely true of the Watch. I mean, there’s a whole lot of web sites depend on publishing how-to articles and FAQs and reviews, and they have a stake in making things seem a little bit difficult. So I haven’t got a Watch and couldn’t say, but I do know how disappointed I have been in recent years by the following:

  • iMovie – which took a turn for the worse, threw away loads of features (I guess Apple were trying to do the right thing) but just became a lot less useful. This was mainly because Apple have tried to make iOS and MacOS versions more or less identical.
  • Pages – which went from being a fast and efficient word processor and page layout app to being half-crippled for the same reason that iMovie was
  • Aperture – which was better than Photoshop for virtual darkroom duties, but has now been discontinued
  • Photos – which replaces the terrible iPhoto and Aperture, but does less than the latter and is (again, I say this) intentionally crippled so that iOS and MacOS versions match.
  • Various upgrades to the Mac itself, which have created loads of niggles. Slow discovery of WiFi; Mail refusing to send; printers disappearing and reappearing; Airplay, which barely works and means I’ve wasted £ on speakers I never use.
  • And now iTunes/Music, which have fucked things up in bizarre ways. For example, my star ratings have disappeared from about 25% of my tracks; artwork has disappeared; my daughter’s phone kept logging into my Apple ID (how?) and downloading my playlists to her phone (older, with less storage). Twice.
  • Family sharing, ha ha.
  • iCloud, ha ha.

I could go on. Some of the problems don’t even get that much publicity, and I think I know why. People now expect their tech to be complicated and barely functional. All the new users Apple have gained in recent years have come from platforms where this was how things were. But for long-term Mac users (a smaller niche), the way things are now is much, much worse than it ever was.

The case of Photos, and even iMovie, were instances where Apple was trying to do the right thing by users, and strip things back to the basics, trying to make things easier. When it comes to Music, however, they’re glomming on new features and complicating the interface and user experience.

Music discovery and music consumption are in fact two separate things. Mixing them together creates a poor user experience. The nice thing about iOS was in fact the way that the iTunes store, with its fairly useless music discovery tools, was completely separate from the Music listening app. But the new Music throws in your face the frankly terrible curation going on in the iTunes music store when it comes to new music discovery. It reminds me of my old job, a few years ago, when I had to step in to stop the purchasing department from creating new product categories for almost every new product they put into the database – mainly because they didn’t know enough about stuff to know what it was or what it did. In the case of music, different employees are obviously categorising music in different ways, so that the same artist doing the same sort of thing will ends up under Blues, Country, Singer-Songwriter, or Folk, depending on, I guess, who is inputting the data. Or maybe the problem is at record label level.

Anyway, finding new stuff is not easy. And human curators who know less than you do are not going to help.

For a few years, it looked as if Apple might succeed in the Jobsian project of turning computers into appliances. But recent events have sent things off the rails. There are lots of things to love about Tim Cook’s Apple. I love his activism, his focus on diversity, his robust response to dickhead analysts and shareholders. But. We’ve taken several steps backwards from the computers-as-appliances goal. And this is not the first blog entry I have written rueing a recent Apple ‘upgrade’.

5 responses to “Diminishing tech returns”

  1. Peter Obermeier Avatar
    Peter Obermeier

    That is a quite pessimistic view and meaning to me that all products/software will finally fail.
    Ok, this cycle is true for nations and for every single person. But what can you do? Complain, make it public and hope the companies are listening? Apple is famous dropping software and changing hardware all the time.
    15 years ago I have bought Photoshop and there was a CD for Windows and one for Mac.
    The Windows version is still working on newest PCs, but was never working on my 2009 iMac.
    Nevertheless I am happy with my Apple products, even I see your points.
    I know it is difficult to find topics to write about. Good that Apple is helping you a little bit.
    Please continue to write about it and do not forget to share music / artists you have discovered.


  2. RFM Avatar

    @Peter, thanks for the comment. Sorry for writing so much about Apple. I used to work for the UK’s biggest Apple dealer, and have opinions! I think Apple are the only company who are brave enough to completely abandon technologies and software that are doomed. But I do think the pace of development in the last few years has been driven by marketing and not technology. Apple’s focus on the consumer market, which they have clearly cracked, mean they care a lot less about the concerns of productivity professionals, who are much more conservative about upgrades.


  3. rashbre Avatar

    I still use Apple for most ‘non work’ things and it is comparatively well-behaved compared with my Windows world. My professional working world (i.e. many people in it) still use Windows 7 as the baseline, with only limited use of Windows 8, which is itself about to be replaced. I think that paints its own picture.

    As well as my ‘work machine’ Windows 7 (Thinkpad), I use a Window 8.1 HP laptop but although it came with Windows 8 installed, it always takes an age to re-boot and will suddenly stop working until it ingests heaps of service packs.

    The Macs here are still much better behaved, hardly ever needing re-boots and generally quite snappy too.

    I think you are right about some of the software though. The model is to attempt to simplify (a good thing) but not when it is at the expense of useful functionality. The dumbing of FCPX and Photo are a couple cases in point. I moved to Lr from Aperture (works a treat) and have kept the old FCP Studio for tricky video moments.

    I suppose Apple is catering for consumer level users increasingly working from tablets and phones so that the usability model needs to change as well.

    In my professional world we’ve been talking about ‘consumer led systems’ and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and I suppose this is what we are getting. Roll on HAL9000.


  4. RFM Avatar

    @rashbre Obviously, you’re right about the Windows world. My once-a-year use of Windows for exam marking means I use Windows 7 and put up with the initial 100-or-so updates, followed by about 15 others every few days for about three weeks. At work, I couldn’t even tell you what version of Windows they’re on. I try to use it as little as possible, bit I’m genuinely shocked at how long it takes to log in and launch software. Where I work, my MS Outlook treats every single launch as if it’s the initial ‘onboarding’ launch. I literally have to run through the whole set up each time I want to check work email. On some PCs my log-in can’t print. On others, the email doesn’t work at all. I have to remember which ones are which. So much for hot desking.

    The thing about Apple software – it is relatively stable, but some of the recent WiFi and Mail problems could be temporarily alleviated with a reboot. But that’s not the kind of knowledge regular end users tend to have. So they struggle along, wondering why it takes so long to connect to WiFi etc.

    I’ve also been thinking about the forthcoming iPad split screen feature (and possible iPad Pro). This seems like an example of taking something simple and complicating it for the benefit of a few power users. I might be one of those myself, but I also think about the problem of explaining these type of features to other people (as a teacher or friend) and get the hives.

    That was the frustrating thing about the iMovie changes. We all complained at the initial ‘dumbed down’ version, but it did eventually have a decent feature set (which appeared if you checked ‘show advanced tools’ in the Preferences). But the most recent ‘iPadded’ version is so cut back that it is more or less useless – especially as a teaching tool. It’s designed to do everything automatically, which is not what students need.


  5. Peter Obermeier Avatar
    Peter Obermeier

    Apples customer base has changed a lot. You see it in the Apple software. The mainstream user is interested in simple things which are unique and are looking great.
    The first iphone is good example. It could not sent text messages, but had a great internet browser, an unique voice box, Youtube player and a great touch screen.
    Ok, meanwhile all these features are very normal and it is much more difficult for Apple to invent/implement new features, but every year they find some.
    The young Apple Macbook Air users are not interested to invest time in AppleScript and Automator, they want to have quick and cool results.
    When they try to download games which are much better and faster on PCs, then I am asking myself if they better have bought a PC. In Germany the business world and schools are working with Microsoft-PCs only. If you have a Mac then you better install a virtual Windows mit Excel/Word or buy Excel/Word for Mac and download the Office suite for iPad.
    I have done all these and still using Numbers for iPad, because I can strictly separate my private world and my office world.
    If you cannot do that, then you better keep away from iPad and Co. That is only true if your company is not having any special apps. If your company is working with apps like Salesforce dot com and you can manage all your work with these apps, then you are fine.
    A few months ago I have almost bought a MS-Surface Pro, but then realized that none of my favorite apps are available. Have bought an iPad Air 2 with LTE and 128GB, even I am convinced the Surface pro is a great tablet. Ok, the need of Anti-Virus software and always having a feeling you are not save, was one reason to buy an iPad again.


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