The Deliberate, Radical Evolution of Apple

originally titled “Are People Just Opposed to Evolution?” — article in response to “Did Apple Just Give Up?” by Sean Geraghty — more discussion on Reddit

Usually, I read these things, heartily disagree, and move on with my life. But sometimes … I just can’t.

I want to preface this response with some acknowledgements. Apple is definitely different from when Steve Jobs ran it. iOS 7+ is flat. And yes, you can’t use the Magic Mouse 2 while charging it.

Apple Campus 2

DIFFERENT BY DESIGN

The difference between Apple of yore and Apple of today is both a passive result of Jobs’ death, and by active design.

“Among his last advice he had for me, and for all of you, was to never ask what he would do. ‘Just do what’s right’,” Cook Said. — “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

Do not ask “What would Steve Jobs do?”.

That question is a waste of time. Apple cannot be the same without Jobs. Certainly, he left a pipeline of dream products and Cook, Ive, and the rest of Apple will carry out some of that legacy. But Apple won’t be the same. And it shouldn’t. Comparing Apple of today to that of 2011 is futile, and a failed foundation for an argument.

COMPLEX FLATNESS

Regarding iOS 7…

“But then came iOS 7, it was widely criticized by designers and people started to hate on Apple. Now in iOS 9, most of the errors have been ironed out, but it still leaves me feeling a little wanting when I use the interface.”

Let’s agree on something: yes, Apple’s revision 1 products are iffy, full of limitations or sometimes flawed.

iPhone, revision 1, 2007. Speaking of design, look at that chrome bezel…

iPhone 2G didn’t have 3G internet; iPad 1 didn’t have a front camera; Apple Watch 1 is slow; this phenomenon is why Apple TV 4 users had to wait a month and a half before the Remote app worked again for text entry.

And yes, iOS 7 had issues.

But I need to emphasize something else. When it comes to the technology in my personal life, the release of iOS 7 was one of the most amazing things to occur.

Do you need me to state that again?

iOS 7 WAS A DREAM COME TRUE.


More than a fanboy of Apple, I’m a fanboy of sleek interfaces and living with the technology of tomorrow rather than dealing with the technology of yesterday.

“[W]hen Apple moved to gestural-based interfaces with the first iPhone, followed by its tablets, it deliberately and consciously threw out many of the key Apple principles. No more discoverability, no more recoverability, just the barest remnants of feedback. Why? Not because this was to be a gestural interface, but because Apple simultaneously made a radical move toward visual simplicity and elegance at the expense of learnability, usability, and productivity.” — How Apple Is Giving Design a Bad Name by Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini

Emphasis mine, to enforce the fact of how that describes Apple perfectly: deliberately radical without regard for traditions that can be superseded, even and especially when it relates to their own principles.

Sorry, Sean, and Don, and Bruce, but The Future won’t have buttons whose functions can be achieved without buttons, and it definitely won’t look like iOS 6. And you can argue it won’t look like iOS 7–9. But what’s certain, is the future of UI is minimalistic, sleek, simplistic — according to the sci-fi movies we revere.

image from The technology and interfaces of Spike Jonze’s Her.

Where’s the gaudy skeumorphism in HER? In ROBOT & FRANK, does Frank say “cancel”, “go back”, “undo” to the Robot? When John Anderton is swiping through screens in MINORITY REPORT, is there a button labeled “back”? Hell, HAL in 2001 doesn’t even have a physical or digital interface.

You think movies are just the stuff of dreams? They’re not. They’re influential.

Here’s a comedically outdated article about Why Minority Report Was Spot On. (Cars now officially drive themselves.)

To be contemporary, Wired notes Why Her Will Dominate UI Design Even More than Minority Report.

NOT ENOUGH BUTTONS

So we’re lucky the iPhone has one button.

“Android went on a very different path.”

Yes, it did — in turn giving responsibility to someone else in the industry do the opposite. And Apple did.

So, I’m sorry, Sean, and Don, and Bruce, but I don’t need back buttons. I don’t need to be told how to use my device after I learn it. I don’t need things spelled out to get around. Neither does the future. Apple limited users to one Home button and provided the typical button interface for six iOS iterations, for six years.

Today’s devices lack discoverability: There is no way to discover what operations are possible just by looking at the screen. Do you swipe left or right, up or down, with one finger, two, or even as many as five? Do you swipe or tap, and if you tap is it a single tap or double? — How Apple Is Giving Design a Bad Name

The thing is, Apple developed this gestural OS, incrementally taught it to us, and now, it is part of the 21st century technological psyche. Pinching for zoom is natural because of Apple’s initial inclusion of it in a major, popular consumer device. Go try using a laptop (even an Apple PowerBook!) from 2005.

People accustomed to the past who haven’t yet grasped today’s technology, have to seek external resources to learn today’s technology. It’s an identical situation to if I wanted to program a modern application: I’d need a course just to understand what Woz, Jobs, and Gates were toying with as a hobby decades ago. Their straightfoward code is the foundation for today’s sophisticated software. The Back button from half a decade ago is now an intuitive swipe.

In technology, six years is enough time for a paradigm shift to occur and leave the past behind. It was enough time for the flames of RIM and Palm to flicker out. And for what its worth, I really miss Palm; but their corporate structure was bloated and their design outmoded, unable to keep up. For six years Apple gave us a tricycle. We users upgraded eagerly to bikes with training wheels. Finally, Apple pulled off the training wheels.

When we know we’re buying a bike, why would we bemoan the lack of training wheels? Mere nostalgia for the carefree days of the tricycle? Those who need training wheels, I heartily urge get them — they’ll soon graduate to a world of swipes and taps and pressure-based touches that excel beyond most of the dedicated buttons of the past.

PORT IN THE WRONG PLACE

So, the complaints about Magic Mouse 2 confuse me, honestly. (I just replaced my Magic Mouse 1 with it.)

“For instance the Magic Mouse v2, still doesn’t fit your hand properly, it’s still too small and to charge it (well I suppose a built in battery is a plus), you have to plug a lighting [sic] cable into the base… So yeah you can’t use it when you’re charging it… great idea there Apple.”

When the rechargeable batteries died in Magic Mouse 1, could I use it while they were charging? …No.

Magic Mouse and its gestures

Okay. So Apple really screwed up by making it impossible to use Magic Mouse 2 while charging it. Fine! I’ll play along.

Where should the Lightning port have been, then? At the top, mimicking an old wired mouse when plugged in with the Lightning cable?

Let’s take a good look at the mouse in the photo above: there is no space.

This is a mockup by Rene Ritchie at iMore.

In order to put the port somewhere other than the bottom, Apple would have had to sacrifice their design. Haven’t they been doing enough of that? They should have just placed a micro USB port asymmetrically on one side and called it a day. Then you could definitely use it while charging, because that’s what’s important for a mouse. Charging.

By the way, it fits my hand amazingly. Also, as bizarre as it sounds (!), the click is awesome, an improvement from Magic Mouse 1.

Literally, engineers redesigned the click.

TAKE NOTE: This is a current-era, post-Jobs example of Apple’s signature attention to detail. Steve Jobs made sure the inside of the 1984 Macintosh was designed as well as the outside, but he wasn’t around for this click.

The internal lithium battery was custom-engineered to fit the cavity. The redesigned antenna — necessary to deal with the potential interference from an internal battery — was working well.
But one thing was totally unacceptable.
The mouse didn’t sound right. …
The culprit appeared to be the little polycarbonate runners on the bottom of the mouse. “We changed the foot architecture,” says Bergeron, Apple’s VP for Ecosystem Products and Technologies. (Translation: you pound on herkeyboards.) “And it changed the friction characteristics of the sound.”
“When we did the previous mouse we spent so much time dialing those feet, the material, the geometry, everything, so that it sounds good and feels good when you move it on the table,” says Ternus, whose title is VP for Mac, iPad, Ecosystem and Audio Engineering. “But then you change the mass of the product and you change the resonant frequency of the product and all of a sudden the feet that we loved weren’t great anymore. They weren’t what we wanted.”
There are many reasons why Apple is the world’s most valuable company. Tim Cook is celebrated as a supply chain Maester who has internalized the focus on innovation that his predecessor inculcated in the culture. Jony Ive has drawn global raves for making Apple a design icon. Its marketing and branding practices set industry standards. But a visit to the lab where its legacy products — computers — are made suggests another reason.
Sweating the details.
The Inside Story of Apple’s New iMacs by Steven Levy

NOT ENOUGH PORTS

Like the Magic Mouse 2, the complaints about the 12” MacBook also confuse me. Do these people not recognize that this MacBook is not a multi-port MacBook Pro? It just is not — it’s that simple. There is a reason both models are existing concurrently: the infrastructure for The Future (one-port … rather, no ports) isn’t in place yet, and Apple knows exactly where today’s infrastructure is going (in part because, they’re designing it).

1998 iMac G3

Let’s go back to the past to gain some perspective. We’ll look at the revision 1 1998 iMac.

Apple’s controversial decision to omit a floppy drive from its new iMac may have earned it more press than it would have received otherwise. …
Apple’s explanation is that the floppy drive is a dying breed. It’s slow and doesn’t hold a lot of information. If you have a spreedsheet that you have to work on at home, just email it to yourself.
Personally, I think that shipping the iMac without a floppy is kind of a weird idea. … [It] is still rather functional and cheap. Very cheap. — The iMac and the Floppy Drive: A Conspiracy Theory by David Adams on 03 August 1998

You know what’s still rather functional and cheap? CDs and DVDs.

You know what the 1998 iMac had that nearly no one else’s computer had? USB.

You think Mr Adams gave any attention to the revolutionary worldwide effects that niffty USB protocol would have? Nope! He was stuck on his floppy drive, which would not be part of The Future. (“USB” is mentioned twice in the article, “floppy” 16 times.)

With the MacBook, Apple gave us a hint of a full-fledged laptop for The Future, not for yesterday. Besides the electricity part and the intrinsic limitations of a 1.1GHz CPU, it’s fully wireless, and fully functional. (Take a quick guess at what computer I’ve done all this research and writing on.)

Coming up next in The Future, nearly-Thunderbolt-speed transfers without the cable.

Honestly, the only reason any device of Apple’s still has ports is because wireless electricity isn’t developed (yet) and because Bluetooth audio is still iffy. Once those protocols evolve to a higher quality, guess what, the MacBook won’t have any ports. Or the iPhone. Or the iMac. Or the iPad. Effectively, the Watch already has no ports. (They’ll probably leave the Mac Pro alone for another decade, full of holes and all.)

Just as houses can now run from solar energy, and truly-wireless electricity is in development, data will be streaming from our lights in The Future.

Once the infrastructure exists in The Future (and it will, just as the standard of today’s infrastructure didn’t exist 20 year ago), no Apple product will use cables or removable media.

It’ll take a decade for people to quit complaining about no longer having tangling, breaking, get-lost-easy cables, I’m sure.

USB x2, floppy x16.

SUMMARY

Yes, Apple is different. Like always, the iPhone has one button. iOS is minimalistic yet complex. Wireless charging needs to become available last century.

Apple, although perfectionistic, is not perfect. Before Jobs returned, Apple had a flop with the Newton. Even with Jobs (and perhaps because of him), MobileMe failed miserably. Although hard to discern, Jobs wasn’t the reason Apple “was perfect”, it was the culture he instituted. A culture that was raped when he was fired and nurtured upon his return. He was the special perfectionist that motivated people for his ideas. And the glimpse inside Apple of today from the recent 60 Minutes coverage gives us hope that “Jobs’ Apple” isn’t totally dead .

Jobs was the beacon of Apple; but the lighthouse wasn’t torn down upon his death, it was just fitted with a different bulb. Ships react to it differently. Today more ships float toward it, and more ships are discontent that they did so. In spite of this, there are still a lot of ships that head toward Apple, more than in 2011.

I think, as users, what we often lose sight of is how challenging it is to build and design The Future. From the 1998 iMac without floppy to the 2011 Final Cut Pro without baggage to the 2007 iPhone with one button that continues to power over half a billion devices, Apple has no problem breaking the past to give us the foundation of the future. You know why the Blackberry was dethroned, Dan and Bruce? Because a slick multi-faceted, gestural, touch-based OS is the way of the future, not the keypad with all its obvious buttons.

Surprisingly, we’re already so far into The Future that we no longer have training wheels.

Rejoice!

Sean, your critique of the state of Apple inspired a lot in me today. A lot of thoughts, a lot of reflection, a call to ask myself if these devices I use are actually worth it.

To me it sounds like … Apple isn’t for you. As you mention, there are phones with three buttons and UIs that aren’t too MINORITY REPORT. I’m sure there are even bigger mice in the world! But Apple will never make these things. Literally, they currently sell just one mouse.

But for me, what they make is perfect. Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes its design is meh (looking at you, iPhone 6), sometimes my MacBook Pro has been in repair three times for the same graphic issue — but there is still no alternative that comes close. To me, instinctually and personally, the successes — in design, in execution, in branding, in ecosystem — of many other companies pale to the false starts, flaws, and shortcomings of Apple.

Their products won’t be pushed off my desk or pulled from my pocket for ages to come.

By the way, the iPhone smart battery case is still a better design than the JLPGA Powerbook 170.

The JLPGA PowerBook 170 from 1992. This was real.

PS: Sean, nothing against you personally. Your article about your brand design was an informative read.

To quote Dieter Rams:

Good design is as little design as possible.

Methinks Apple’s doing just fine.