Will Apple Become an Innovator Again?

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It’s a question that runs through my mind every time that I consider purchasing a new Apple device. That’s also a mode that I find myself in much less often these days. I’m certainly not stating that I won’t buy any more Apple products or that I even dislike the ones that we already have in our house. It’s my interest in Apple as an innovative company that is waning.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t even bother commenting on whether or not a company is innovative. It’s a very competitive business that struggles to compete with the expectations of consumers, technological advancement, and the simple goal of making a profit.

In the case of Apple I think this question is deserved. They’re good at building hype and now they’re having to deal with a failing interest in the hype. As many have often said, Apple has settled for being evolutionary rather than revolutionary of late. In some cases, they even seem to have simply “jumped the shark” (for example, the new Mac Pro design).

In my case, I’ve had several reasons to lose faith in the progress of the Apple product lines. They’ve adopted a new philosophy of rapid OS updates that offer relatively few features but those features are often not supported on older devices. I understand not supporting every machine in existence but I had a hard time understanding why my wife’s MacBook Pro wasn’t given AirPlay support while small devices such as aging iPods were. Thunderbolt ports are largely a waste of a good spot for a USB 3.0 port – relatively few devices have Thunderbolt support and the cost of the devices is prohibitively high for most consumers. I’m perplexed by the lack of a stand-alone Thunderbolt to USB 3.0 adapter. I am aware of several expensive Thunderbolt docks, but I have no interest in spending $300 or more just to add USB 3.0 capability to my system, especially since I don’t have a need for the other connections that are provided with such devices.

The handling of software purchases feels like a step backwards. Unfortunately, Apple isn’t the only one guilty of this and I fully expect all large companies to eventually sell software the same way. I’m just not excited about having software purchases tied to an account. It’s already created difficulties at home and also at work where we use some Macs. The Adobe scheme is frustrating as well. This reminds me of the early 1980s when software was only capable of running on a specific platform. My purchase of an Android tablet further illustrates this problem. I had to purchase Android-specific versions of apps that I had already purchased for iOS. I’m finding myself purchasing more digital content these days but also left with the realization that when I can no longer use the software I will not have anything that can be resold later on down the road.

The default configuration in Mountain Lion regarding software that can be installed is also disappointing. One must change an option in order to be able to install software that was acquired outside of the Apple store. My view of this is that they’ve chosen to take the lazy way of helping users avoid malware. It also seems somewhat similar to the problems Microsoft created when it installed Internet Explorer as the default browser in earlier versions of Windows. These choices push non-informed consumers into specific ecosystems. The App Store is easy to use and there are many excellent apps available but it is not, and should not be, the only way to acquire software for Macs.

Using an Android tablet was like experiencing a kind of freedom once again. Sure, this device is now more vulnerable to malware (it’s the first time I ever installed an antivirus scanner on a mobile device) but there’s something to be said about having options and there are plenty of options available in the Google Play shop that go beyond the offerings of the Apple App Store for iOS (this is both a good and a bad thing).

I’m also amazed by the degree of control available in the Android OS. It makes iOS look like an OS for children. Android, on the other hand, is more akin to an actual personal computer.

Since the iPhone 3GS was released I’ve lost interest in each new iteration of the iPhone. I currently have an iPhone 5, and I do like it, but it’s not something to write home about. The main reason I’ve chosen to stick with an iPhone is simply because I can use it to play my iTunes purchases without having to cart around an iPod.

I don’t have any hate for iTunes itself. In fact, I’ve never had a problem with the original interface. I don’t care for the new one but it’s not too difficult to make it look somewhat like the old one. Unlike many, I’ve never felt locked into the iTunes environment. I’ve been converting purchases from DRM formats to non-DRM formats for years, long before iTunes started offering non-DRM formats. I used perfectly legal methods to do this and I can easily shuffle my music around because most of it was convert to MP3 format a long time ago. iTunes is fine. In fact, I think it was even better when it was less cluttered.

The exclusion of Blu-Ray drives on Macs was an annoyance for some time. Granted, the industry is shifting away from disc drives now, but that wasn’t the case a few years ago (and much of this shift has more to do with portability than with practical data usage concerns). Even now I prefer to use Blu-Ray discs (with an external Blu-Ray burner) to create long-term backups of my data. Time Machine backups are fine but if one doesn’t check on the backup drive it’s entirely possible to end up with a bad backup drive and not realize it until the primary system drive has died (this would have happened to me if I hadn’t checked my drive a couple of weeks before the iMac drive died).

Ultimately, over the past few years I’ve looked at iOS, OS X, and product updates and just thought “meh” and then moved on without much more thought. There was a time when I was very interested in iOS updates and somewhat interested in the other stuff but lately they just seem like minor revisions. Sure, Retina Display is nice but it’s not worth purchasing a new device to have. Siri is, at best, somewhat useful when I’m driving but it does some very stupid things on a regular basis (like constantly locking my screen even though it can’t complete some operations when the screen is locked and as far as I can tell this behavior cannot be changed).

There’s an odd cycle that Apple itself has largely created. It’s the idea that devices and computers are very disposable items. None of these devices are inexpensive and for a company that’s concerned with the environment they seem obsessed with convincing consumers to buy new devices.

Perhaps it’s because I’m from a group of generations that still refuse to see these things as being disposable. When I began using computers they were items that we took care of, upgraded, and kept for several years (usually no less than three to five years). Of course, the tech didn’t change in the same way, but the cost overall was much more of a concern and upgrades and software purchases were more important than complete system replacements.

I don’t hate Apple. I’m not going to stop using their products or replace our Macs with Windows systems at home, at least not any time soon. But I have absolutely no interest in the hype. I want to see actual innovation rather than be told by marketers that something is innovative. Most companies don’t make their mark by creating new technologies, they make a splash by mixing existing technologies in a way that consumers find attractive. Apple has succeeded at this several times but right now they seem to be adrift.

A UI update is not a big deal. The fact that iOS7 has new icons, colors, etc is almost laughable. This is another way in which I feel like software has taken a step back. In the late 1990s we started to see more and more software programs that supported skins (a.k.a. themes). Apple doesn’t support this capability in iOS or OS X yet it hypes up a UI changes to seem as though they somehow offer ten times more value than they actually do.

Perhaps what irks me the most is that I once perceived Apple as being a company that was very customer-oriented. Current trends feel more like Apple has shifted away from the concerns of the consumers and more toward forcing customers to accept whatever trend they think is best or is “the next big thing”. To put it simply, many of us supported a company that seemed to be interested in what consumers wanted back at a time when it was struggling. Now that Apple has grown, and is sitting on piles of cash, it seems less interested in providing consumers with meaningful product updates. If I was interested in minor hardware updates I’d simply go back to using a custom-built desktop computer that can be upgraded instead of needing to be completely replaced just to acquire minor improvements.

My interest in Apple is waning. They seem to be banking on mobile devices over their computer systems, which I think is another mistake. Apple has saturated the market with iOS devices. The company may experience an alarming drop in iOS device sales over the next couple of years as consumers grow tired of frequent upgrades. If Apple finds itself scrambling to ramp up desktop/notebook sales they may discover that they alienated too many customers and they’ll have to work very hard to reclaim the market share they once had.

Meanwhile, other manufacturers are pushing forward and taking risks while Apple offers piecemeal updates once a year that typically require a hefty investment to fully benefit from.

Updated 10/28/2013: Meh…

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