Problems with Apple

Apple TV has overheated againI will fully admit that a Twitter debate about Apple products is possibly the most First World thing in existence, but…here we are. Today I spent some time debating with a number of my library friends on Twitter about the relative merits of the Apple UI and whether or not it is superior and/or better in an objective way than it’s competition for the average user. One tweet in the stream that particularly caught my eye and made me feel like I needed to respond more fully was from Jenny Levine (@shifted):

@griffey I used to think that because I haven’t seen blog posts or other pieces you’ve written that note/address Apple issues & problems.

I decided to poke around a bit. As it turns out, Jenny is right…I haven’t written much here about Apple’s shortcomings. So, I decided to list, once and for all, the Things that Bother People About Apple & Their Products (complete with why I don’t think they are a big deal):



The lack of ability to load apps on to iOS devices outside of the App Store

WWDC 2010I would love to be able to load apps directly onto my iOS devices outside of iTunes, whether for testing or just because I want to use an app that doesn’t fit into Apple’s licensing terms for entry into the App Store. Of course, I can do this…I could jailbreak my phone (and I have, whenever I wanted to test something non-Apple approved). There is a very good reason that Apple doesn’t allow this by default: the average user benefits from having a controlled ecosystem for their mobile device. It ensures stability, battery life, consistent interface, and (mostly) prevents malware. It has been suggested that the proper course of action here is for Apple to bury a “let me sideload” option deep in the Settings somewhere, and let people choose to open their device up if they want. However, having jailbroken my phone a half-dozen times, I will say: I have consistently reinstalled to the stock OS.

Apple Hardware is Expensive
Apple's two most recent handheld computersThis one comes up every time I talk about the iPhone or any other piece of Apple hardware…Apple is largely perceived as considerably more expensive than its competitors. First off, this is a relative value proposition, placing unsure values on things like build quality and discounting the cost of software completely…neither of which is a fair comparison.  Apple systems come with the iLife suite built in, some of which can be adequately mirrored by free software on the PC side (Picasa) and some of which really don’t have a good free analogue (Garageband). Windows Movie Maker is better than it used to be, but it’s not really in the same class as iMovie, when you get to actual usage.

But my real issue with this point is: So What? If I argue, as I did today, that Apple puts together a better user experience than any of the other PC makers, what difference does it make that they are more expensive? It’s probably the case that a Lexus dealership puts together a better user experience than Lying Larry’s Used Cars does, even though both sell things with four wheels that move you around. I don’t have a problem with Apple products not being price-competitive with generic PC makers. That’s not what I’m concerned with, and has nothing to do with why I think that they are a better user experience than Generic Windows 7 PC #47 (although in all fairness to Microsoft, Windows 7 is a HUGE improvement on everything they’ve done before).

People hate AT&T
Not happy with AT&T right nowLet’s be clear: people in certain large cities hate AT&T. San Fransisco, Chicago, New York, and more are under-towered for the number of users that are attached to them, but in many cases this isn’t AT&T’s fault. AT&T would LOVE to spread towers over every inch of San Fransisco, but they can’t because SF won’t let them. The converse of this problem is that in many rural areas (like mine) AT&T is literally the only option…where my house is, the only provider with a tower anywhere even close is AT&T.

I wanted to get an Android phone for my last upgrade, and almost certainly would have bought a Droid or an Evo, except that I can’t use either of them in my house. But I don’t blame Verizon for that, or Motorola for that matter. If it made economic sense for Verizon to have a tower in my area, they would…it’s ridiculous to think that corporations wouldn’t move into a profitable area if they thought there was profit here. But there isn’t, so I have exactly one option for carrier where I live: AT&T. And I don’t think anyone would seriously dispute that the best phone on AT&T is the iPhone…they are beginning to get a few decent Android handsets, but 6 months ago it was a wasteland.

I wish that Apple devices were less expensive, and I wish that Apple would allow OSX to be installed on non-Apple hardware, and I wish that Jobs didn’t hate buttons quite as much as he appears to. I really hate the arbitrary rules in the App Store process. I despise their use of DRM. But I do believe, strongly, that even with the problems, Apple devices are almost always better designed, more elegant, more thoughtful, and just straightforwardly more usable than the competition. There are a lot of people that disagree with me, and I’m sure I’ll hear why in the comment on this post. But I think there is objective proof that the public agrees with me…take a look at Apple stock over the last five years. Apple is, by market cap, the largest technology company in the US right now, and the second largest company, period. They could, in theory, overtake Exxon-Mobile in Market Cap…which is insane.

I also admire Apple because they are one of a very, very few technology companies that have consistently changed the fabric of the technology landscape. Apple changed personal computing with the Macintosh, and they changed media consumption with the iPod, and they changed mobile computing with the iPhone…and it’s possible that they’ve now changed personal computing again with the iPad. I defy someone to name another company that’s had such an effect on the landscape of technology over the last 30 years. Microsoft is a great business, but Apple is a revolution engine. Do I wish they did some things differently? Absolutely. But I also think that nobody else comes close to them for usability and user experience.

8 thoughts on “Problems with Apple

  1. I so agree with your conclusion I could have written it myself (but didn’t, clearly, to my dismay). I’ve used Apple products since the very first Macintosh (which I had access to at my university — not that I could afford such a thing at the time. I had an early PowerBook (the 145), which Apple awarded me as part of their “Network Citizen Award,” and I worked off a full desktop setup by teaching Internet workshops to Apple staff in Cupertino in the 1990s. It took me many years to be able to afford to buy an Apple computer, but I certainly did when I could. The fact that their design, fit and finish continues to lead the industry is simply a plain fact. The first Kindle was a design abomination in comparison. What I continue to find astonishing is that so few other companies can come close to Apple’s design chops. You would think by now someone would be able to pull it off. But apparently not.

  2. I think you’re underestimating how important cost is. On a very powerful level, it doesn’t really matter to me whether Apple’s products are better because for the most part, I can’t afford to buy them. This isn’t a minor issue, this is a major issue.

    That being said, my girlfriend has an iPhone, while I have a Droid (MyTouch). From what I’ve seen, her phone is a little flashier and smoother in operation than my phone, but I’m extremely happy with the Droid OS and the apps I’ve downloaded. I love that I can plug my phone into my Windows PC at work or my Ubuntu laptop at home and drag and drop files onto and off of my phone. Droid just works, and the OS is available on more than just one brand of phone, which I like A LOT.

    I like to dis on Apple a lot on Twitter, but honestly, I think they make good products. I don’t particularly like Apple as a company, but I don’t think it’s some evil entity. Apple’s fine, but it’s not for me, and I’m not usually as impressed with their products as Apple fans seem to be.

    I will say, though, a corporation’s stock isn’t necessarily an objective measure of how good the company’s product is, just how profitable people think it is. You mention them possibly overtaking Exxon-Mobil in market cap–does this mean Exxon-Mobil is objectively one of the best companies in the world?

  3. I have an unreasonable amount of love for my iPad and I think it’s the best item I’ve purchased this decade after my camera. However, I disagree that the “average user” benefits from Apple’s complete imperial control over the app landcape. The very term “jailbreak” is symbolic of what it forces users to do if they want to play around in the larger world. I would argue that Windows users have absolutely benefited – overall – from a diverse software ecosystem.

  4. Extremely well-said, man. I was Apple resistant for the longest time, because my perception was that it was for a niche market/user. However, I’ve softened my stance. I own an iPhone, & I’m typing this response on my iPad. I think now that it was simply a matter of exposure. Once I had a chance to look at someone else’s iPhone, I decided I wanted one. From there, I pretty much knew I’d like the iPad from the day it was announced.

    Your last paragraph was what made me think the most & want to respond. You’re right, they do seem to be more in the business of revolution moreso than Microsoft & others, & I suppose that does exempt them somewhat from making a product or service that is all things to all people. Like you, I hate DRM. I also generally feel priced-out from many of their products & loathe iTunes. What I take great pleasure in, though, is that I quickly discover that for everything I dislike, there’s apparently someone else out there who feels the same way, and has the smarts to have created some type of workaround for me to use..!

  5. Sorry to doublepost but I did want to say that I think Apple has done WONDERS for the market in making people realize that design isn’t an add-on. Even Lenovo has started to make strides in making computers more pleasant to use – we have one of their original tablet notebooks and to hold it in your lap you would think it was designed by one of those religious orders that practices mortification of the flesh.

  6. Thanks for putting this together, Jason. I hope I didn’t sound attack-y on Twitter, because that’s not how I meant it. I love our discussions. :)

    As you can probably guess, though, I’m still going to disagree with you. I think Apple makes design decisions that you take for granted that aggravate the average user. For example, why the proprietary cable on the iPhone when they could have helped standardize on mini-USB? Why no right-click button on Macs when that would clearly help users? And don’t even get me started on the VGA dongle-thingy-that-everyone-forgets-at-home. My technophobic aunt wouldn’t know what to do with the apple icon in Mac OS, nor would she understand the command key. Best for n00bs? I don’t think so. Better than some other systems for some people? Sure.

    As an overall experience, Apple products work really well for some people. But the problem I see the most with fanboys is that they make the mistaken assumption that everyone thinks like they do. “If I think the interface is easy to use and has better features, everyone must think so.” Josh is a good example of someone with some technical knowledge who doesn’t agree, and that’s okay. So am I, and I know a lot of other folks who just prefer other features than you do.

    And after all, if Apple truly is designing the best experience for the average user, why deliberately price their products in a way the average user can’t afford? I think Apple fails to understand that the average user cares more about the cost of the data plan than having the highest number of pixels on a screen.

    This is another point where I think you underestimate how non-fanboys feel about this issue. You say yourself that you honestly don’t care about cost, and that’s fine. But I don’t believe that’s how most people feel. I realize you’re giving your opinion here, but it’s the statements that imply “best for everyone else’s purposes” that I think cause those misunderstandings.

    As for the AT&T piece, if you want to talk about a revolution, Apple blew the telecom one big time by limiting the iPhone to AT&T. That’s more my complaint than the crappy networks in big cities. Apple could have opened up all cell carriers but instead chose its traditional path of high-end, expensive monopoly. That’s their choice, but we don’t all have to agree that its the best one they could have made. So while they’ve innovated in some areas, they’ve hurt innovation in others. Like any company, they’re good and bad but I’d hardly call them the best, certainly not for everyone. Ask your friends on Ping how they feel about that “best” or “innovative” label. ;-)

    I’ll also reiterate what Josh said. Using market cap as a criterion is a little crazy. By that measure, Microsoft was a better company than Apple until this year. Is that really the point you want to argue? I sure don’t, least of all because I don’t see how that can be considered “objective.”

    If you want to argue it is, then let’s talk about how quickly the Android OS is catching up to iOS. If it overtakes Apple in the smartphone market, are you prepared to acknowledge that more people think Google is a better and more innovative company than Apple? You made a prediction earlier this year that the $99 iPhone would blow everything else out of the water but it hasn’t, so I would counter-argue that a lot of people *disagree* with you, too.

    I think the second-to-last paragraph started out to be your strongest (well, except for the market cap detour), and I wish you’d fleshed out some of the additional “and another thing” pieces, because I think that would help address the “blind fanboy” label. This post still comes across as “yay Apple, best company ever,” rather than as a balanced critique. Each of your main points above still ends with a “but Apple’s still awesome and right and releasing unicorns into the world.”

    It’s great that you love Apple and its products and that they work so well for you. It’s great that there’s more competition in general. Why fight an unwinnable war about “best?” As Josh said on Twitter, “Yay diversity!”

    Should I be booking a room for all of us at Midwinter? (Wait, that didn’t sound right….) Josh, we can stream you (and anyone else) in.

  7. Someday I’m going to learn not to hit submit late at night. I just want to retract my statement that using market cap is a little crazy. That’s attack-y and not really what I meant, and I know you’re not saying the flip of that argument. I’ll just say I think that’s a bad measure of “best,” and that maybe there’s no way to declare a “best” about this kind of thing.

    Rather than argue about Apple vs everyone else, my original reason for jumping into the discussion on Twitter was to provide one perspective about why there may be a perception you’re a “blind” Apple fan boy. Despite my own issues with this post as critique, I want to note that in our face-to-face discussions, you’ve been more direct about some of Apple’s failings, so I think that perspective is just missing from what others may read online.

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