Why is Apple in trouble? Blame the software

Apple keeps releasing beautiful products that are a pain to use. What happened to the company’s user-friendly mojo?

 
Apple watch with crown sproinging out the side

(Photoillustration by Gerrit de Jonge)

Jim Dalrymple is about as dedicated to Apple as it’s possible to be: He’s been enthusiastically covering the company as a journalist and blogger for 17 years, both at Apple-focused magazines like Macworld and on the dedicated blog he co-founded and now makes his livelihood from, The Loop (its name is a deliberate reference to One Infinite Loop, the address of Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.). In the world of technology reporters, he’s a respected voice on the company’s products and strategies—and an unabashed enthusiast too.

“I love Apple,” he wrote in a recent blog post. “I love them because they take difficult problems and come up with innovative, simple solutions. The things they make just work, and we trust them.”

So far, it’s the kind of fawning praise that is standard issue in the Apple-aligned press. But then things go off the rails.

“Unfortunately, my experience with Apple Music has been exactly the opposite,” Dalrymple continues. What follows is an 1,100-word demolition of Apple Music, the streaming service the company unveiled on June 30. It chronicles Dalrymple’s difficulty in loading his music collection into the service in the first place; how it deleted some songs seemingly at random while duplicating others; button presses producing nonsensical results or none at all; and thoroughly broken recommendations. The post was titled, “Apple Music Is a Nightmare and I’m Done With It.”

“Incredibly damning,” tweeted fellow tech reporter Anil Dash. Another, John Gruber, quoted a passage and added a blunt one-word postscript: “Ouch.”

Dalrymple is not alone in his discontent. Apple’s support forums (granted, these are seldom the place to find satisfied customers, but they’re useful for seeing the types of problems users are having) are lively with unhappy listeners bewildered by how to use the service, how to buy music and how to add the music they’ve already bought. Dalrymple’s post drew hundreds of comments, many in agreement with his premise: Apple Music is broken.

It’s not the only product the company appears to be struggling with. The Apple Watch, released for sale in April, has just contributed its first quarter’s worth of sales to Apple’s bottom line. Apple has not disclosed Watch sales figures—either in dollar values or unit shipments—but Wall Street analysts and other dedicated Cupertino Kremlinologists have generally settled on a back-of-the-envelope consensus of slightly over $1 billion. That’s short of analyst targets, which a FactSet consensus estimate pegged at $1.8 billion. BMO Capital Markets guessed the number of shipments at 2.3 million units. During the Q3 results conference call, Apple CEO Tim Cook said only that, “the sales of the Watch did exceed our expectations”—but did not share what those expectations were.

Investors were clearly underwhelmed. Shares in AAPL were knocked down more than 5% the day after it released its latest earnings. That could be credited in large part to disappointing sales growth figures for the company’s cash cow, the iPhone, and declining sales of the iPad. But many observers considered the Watch a bellwether for Apple’s continuing ability to launch new products that redefine whole categories. “A lot of people want to see if Apple can roll out a new product that’s very successful and innovative,” Angelo Zino of S&P Capital Markets told Bloomberg.

Reviews of the Apple Watch have been telling of its limitations: In general, people praise the hardware, and the fit and finish but express frustration with the software. Take the three-and-a-half-star review for the Watch from Macworld: “The Apple Watch is a beautiful object,” writes Susie Ochs, but it’s “definitely the slowest Apple product I’ve used in years.”

Apple partisans point out that version 1.0 of the iPhone also had its share of growing pains—particularly on the software side. Apple revised and refined, and sales exploded. The Apple Watch may yet do the same.

But it’s not just new products on their shakedown cruise that are having problems. Apple’s iTunes—now 14 years old and on version 12—has alienated many users since its latest major release in November, which introduced a baffling series of design choices that prompted industry site The Mac Observer to call it “Apple’s worst software ever.”

And iCloud, the company’s service to back up photos, video, documents and user settings over the Internet, has laboured for years to meet Apple’s “It Just Works” standard without ever living up to expectations (internal frustration with the situation boiled over last fall when Apple insiders talked—anonymously—to reporter Jessica E. Lessin at tech news site The Information about the business unit’s disarray). The iCloud service was further tarnished in 2014 when a security flaw allowed attackers to steal and publicly post nude photos from the accounts of several Hollywood celebrities.

Put together, these incidents throw into sharp relief Apple’s strengths and weaknesses. It has few peers in terms of product design; its operational prowess is unmatched (by one estimate, in the first quarter of fiscal 2015, it produced the equivalent weight of a Boeing 787 in iPhone 6s—every 24 hours). The world has never known a better marketer.

But in software—and particularly in complex networked services like iCloud and Music—there are telling signs of feature bloat and mission drift. Tasks that should be simple have become complicated. Things that should feel easy feel hard. And people who should be the company’s strongest advocates—people like Jim Dalrymple—have become exasperated critics.

None of this necessarily spells doom for Apple; even after its beat down in the markets, it’s still the largest company on earth by market cap and sitting on a cash war chest of US$203 billion. But each of these missteps is a red flag.

In an earlier computing era—not really so long ago—a beautiful hardware device with smartly tailored software to run it was a market-shaking innovation, and no one did that better than Apple: Its combined expertise in hardware design and human interface design were unmatched. But the rise of cloud-based software, like Apple Music, requires triangulating not just the relationship between the user and the computer (whether it sits on your desk or your wrist) but among a Rube-Goldbergian network of services that must work seamlessly and silently in the background. That’s not the foundation Apple was built on. It is making huge investments in all these areas—search, mapping, artificial intelligence, data archiving, streaming media—but the learning curve is steep, and occasional misfires, such as Apple Music, are inevitable. The question is how fast Apple can fix these problems when they arise.

Steve Jobs with iPod in the background

Apple CEO Steve Jobs giving a 2007 keynote. (David Paul Morris/Getty)

Apple is the company that built the greatest comeback story in business on the tiny iPod—which did one thing well and looked great doing it. It was the iPod that Steve Jobs was talking about in 2003 when he uttered the line that has become one of his most defining, and frequently quoted, aphorisms: “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,” he told the New York Times. “That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

The fact that Apple Music is such a mess suggests that Apple has either forgotten the lessons of the iPod, or it remembers—but cannot marshal the organizational discipline to produce its equivalent for the streaming music era. It’s hard to say which possibility is more worrisome for the company’s future.

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