Missing Steve Jobs

Much has been written about how Apple is doing fine in the post-Steve Jobs era, continuing on its growth curve after loosing its founder. But there are troubling signs for the company, none of them major in its own way but when combined, they present the image of a company that may be losing what made it great in the past.

As a longtime mac user and someone who’s house is outfitted with more Apple devices than I care to admit to, I worry that we may be 3-5 years away from a return to a less innovation driven company.

The demo king

It is no great insight to say that Steve Jobs was one of the greatest marketers to ever walk the earth. His keynotes were choreographed with the precision of a Broadway show and few details were left to chance. Even something as simple as the times and dates on presentation screenshot were carefully pored over to ensure consistency. This kind of fanatical attention to details is what has long set the company apart from the competition and extended to what was available in the stores right after a presentation. When you looked at a new device, it was always up to date and packed with software that could demonstrate the latest new features.

I first got a look at how something as simple may be an issue back in March when I visited an Apple store in Manhattan to take a look at the new retina display that was touted as the most important feature on the new iPad. Aligned in traditional fashion were a number of the new iPads sitting side by side and loaded with games that were “especially designed for demonstration purpose” as each of the loading screens pointed out when you launched them. I loaded them up and a number of the apps seemed pixelated, the result of not having been upgraded to deal with the new resolution (in all honesty, my visit to the store was precisely over this particular concern as I was wondering what impact it might have on the graphics we were designing at Keepskor.)

I thought that maybe I had a one-off issue on my hands so I switched to a different new iPad, which presented the same problem. I went through all the demo units and didn’t find a single one that had a game that was upgraded to demonstrate the new capabilities. I then switched to photos, another use case that had been presented in the demo and bumped into the same issue. Approached by a friendly Apple sales employee, I asked if they had any of the iPads that could demonstrate the capabilities of the new display. At that point, they fired up an air combat program that was supposed to be optimized and when I pointed out that the 3D rotation seem to show a higher than average level of pixelation, the Apple staffer remarked “you’re right. That can’t be an optimized version.” At that time, I chalked the issue up to developers not being fully ready for the Retina display and didn’t think about it any further.

Fast forward to this past Wednesday, when I walked into another Manhattan Apple store to take a look at the new Macbook with Retina Display. I walked up to the demo machine and was first surprised to see that there were a number of programs that needed to be updated (someone had left the mac App store open on that unit) including iPhoto and iMovie, two programs that apparently take great advantage of the new screen resolution. Once again, I ran through the different demo units in an attempt to find one that could showcase the best of the new platform and bumped into similar issues. I asked the Apple salesperson about the software not being up to date and the answer was “oh yeah, we probably should do that.” I then asked if they had some high resolution pictures on the drive that could allow to zoom in and out to get a sense of the advantage the greater resolution provided but once again, that didn’t seem available.

I then overheard another Apple salesperson talking to a different customer and going “you don’t want to take a look at those since you don’t do video editing.” While one could give the salesperson kudos for steering a customer towards a product that was more suited to an individual’s specific needs, I was surprised that they would keep a customer from even taking a peek at their marquee offering.

When combined, all those observations (which I’ve now witnessed a 4 different Apple stores on 2 different coasts) seem to point to a decline in how much effort the company puts into presenting its latest products.

If only it could sustain what it used to do there in the same way as it sustain the design of the internals of their devices (the photos I’ve seen of the inside of the new Macbook Pro are just stunningly gorgeous, with an amazing symmetry in the ordering of the overall board. Just look at the difference between the old model on the left and the new one on the right:)

Retina Macbook Pro internals
The internal design of the macbook pro looks amazing when compared with previous versions

This is a thing of pure beauty, made even more amazing by the fact that most people will never see it. To pay that level of attention to details in the design of the machine is something truly amazing and to fail at supporting it with the things that are visible to most consumers is a darn shame.

Customers first

Another apparent change in the way Apple is now run as compared to the way it used to be run under Steve Jobs is the balance of operational advantage vs. customer convenience. In the old days, there was a fanatical devotion to the customer that was returned to the company by legions of fans. When balancing a product feature, the question as always been about what’s best for the customer. As Glenn Kunzler points out, the new MBP may be losing the pro part of its name, because upgradeability, a key feature of the product line, is no longer available. In the Steve Jobs day, such thing was a feature. Here’s Steve Jobs presenting the new iMac in 1999:

We don’t think design is just how it looks. We think design is how it works. And we labored a lot on this because our pro customers want accessibility. There’s a lot of great technology inside, but they want access to that technology. To add memory, to add cards, to  add drives. And so we think we’ve got the most incredible access story in the business.

With his usual flair, Jobs demonstrate something that drives the crowd insane with delight. Sure things have changed in the last decade but the Mac Mini can be opened without a tool. And up until recently, a simple lift-up of a couple of tabs on the keyboard used to give one access to a portable mac’s airport card and memory, making it easy to upgrade quickly.

That is now thrown out the window in the interest of a better operational efficiency where everything is soldered on the board and non-replaceable. It makes it cheaper to manufacture as it requires fewer parts to manage.

In the same way, the “all new Airport Express”, which was quietly upgraded this week, tosses out a great feature in the interest of increase operational efficiency. The Airport Express has long been one of Apple’s most under-appreciated product: it functions as a portable wireless extender and allows one to connect speakers and printers easily into a network. The old one looked like this:

Looking at it, it is relatively easy to see the comparison to the power supply available on most Macintosh portable devices. And, lo and behold, the power plug on that is exactly the same component as the one on the mac. It meant that if I packed it up for travel (as a lot of hotels still only provide you with corded service for Internet access), I could just throw in in a bag as a single piece and be good to go. If I happened to be in a foreign country, I could still use the plug adapter from my Mac and not have to worry about carrying extra parts.

Airport Express - original
Old version of Airport Express

The new Airport Express, however, opted for something different:

The new airport express
The new airport express

The thing that jumped at me immediately was that power plug. This means that on top of carrying the device, one has to make sure they don’t forget the power cable specific to the device. As a traveller, this is an extra item that is a bit of a pain. As a manufacturer, it makes sense because the type of cable that would fit such a plug is substantially cheaper that the type of plug the old Airport express used to sport. It’s a small difference but once again a difference that has negative impact on the customer while it has a positive impact on the bottom line.

In Steve Jobs’ own words:

You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.

So when the customer experience is impacted, one would assume that the impact is considered as negating the potential gains made from an operational standpoint. But Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs and his focus has long been operational efficiency. It is this very efficiency that has made Apple a fearsome competitor as it made it very difficult for most companies in the industry to match the company’s capabilities in the space and thus drive amazing products at relatively low price points. Operational efficiency is the reason for which Apple can sell a carrier-subsidized iPhone for $199 and the reason for which you can find iPads starting at lower prices than comparably-powered computers.

But operational efficiency is a double edged sword and when it starts hurting the consumer, it may be hard to handle.

Of course, a lot of these things are in response to consumer demands: the drive to thinner, lighter, less upgradeable devices has not had a negative impact in the market; if anything, the inverse is true. But the combination of small steps in that direction may be starting down a dangerous path for Apple: one where it loses sight of what has made it great and one that opens some opportunities for competitors to come in and nip at portions of their market. Maybe not today, maybe not even tomorrow, but 5 to 10 years down the road, we may discover that those small lessons taught by Steve Jobs and forgotten after he left the company served as the initial cracks that caused more severe problems.

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