Quo vadis, Apple?

(September 15, 2007)

Once upon a time, there was a magnificent computer hardware and software company that revolutionized the computing world two times in a row. That was 1977 and 1984. This manufacturer continued to improve on its once-revolutionary products, but faced some problems in the mid-90s. However, at the beginning of the new millennium, it was back with full force and started a revolution once again, this time in a niche of the consumer electronics market. This turned out so well that the company lately even dropped the term “computer” from its name – which is quite ironic, because the quality, usability and innovativity of all the products dropped significantly since then, only the computer hardware is still on par with the competition.

Even the company’s main software product, Mac OS X, starts to become problematic. The upcoming version, Leopard, looks like it’s going to be Apple’s Vista equivalent: It’s delayed and the most important new features are either of questionable relevance (Time Machine) or are equally questionable visual changes (transparent menu bar, pseudo-3D dock). But that’s nothing against the misdesigns they currently do in the consumer electronics department.

Let’s start with the oh-so-hyped iPhone, which lacks more features than it offers. No 3G. No custom software. No memory expansion slot. Short battery life. No cut’n’paste. No keyboard. Restricted to one network provider. Too expensive. Too large. Only to name a few. At least, the Apple guys didn’t do the mistake of locking it down too much – as of this writing, progress is being made to solve the software-fixable issues. But relying on the hacking community to (partially illegally!) fix the shortcomings of your product isn’t precisely the way to go.

Speaking of locking down the hardware, this is exactly what Apple did with the newer iPod models. After keeping the technical basis of all iPods constant from 2001 on, they introduced a new hardware platform in 2006 with the nano G2. While they were at it, they encrypted the firmware to prevent people from installing alternate, possibly superior, firmware. This didn’t cause a big uproar in the media, though, because 99% of the iPod users typically use the orginal firmware anyway – it just doesn’t suck enough to require a replacement.

This has changed by now. Not only is the firmware of the current models slow as hell, it is also locked down on another, completely new level: You can’t manage your songs using third-party applications any longer, you must use iTunes now. This totally kills the iPod experience for two groups of users, namely the iTunes haters (which is quite a large community, even in the OS X world) and all users of alternative operating systems. For them, the iPod is not an option any longer.

On the other hand, that’s not neccessarily a loss, because there’s no need to buy an iPod anyway. Let’s have a look at the four current models: The classic hard drive iPod has been exceeded by the competition’s offerings for years already. The iPod touch is essentially a even-more-crippled version of the iPhone, except that it comes with the iTunes lockdown, while the iPhone doesn’t. The iPod nano was the ultimate MP3 player for two years, but the competition caught up and Apple seems to effectively withdraw from that market segment by turning the main selling point of the nano – elegance – into the exact opposite with the ultimately hideous 3rd-generation “fat” nano. This leaves the still undefeated (in terms of tinyness) iPod shuffle as the only viable device from the whole iPod range, considering that it likely does not suffer from the iTunes lockdown.

The only Apple products left without KO arguments against them are the computers. However, even these aren’t shiny all the way: Some of them are broken (thermal problems in early MacBooks), some are buggy (flickering backlight in current MacBook Pro), some are crippled (clocked-down graphics chip in current MacBook Pro), some are too expensive (Mac mini). And finally, they are actually not that different from commodity PCs, except that they are the only machines that run OS X legally and without major tweaking. The most interesting device from that range is the Apple TV, which is in fact an insanely cheap PC. Too bad that it needs a serious amount of hacking before it can be used as such – without any modifications, the Apple TV is just a mere media center and streaming client appliance, and not even a good one at that.

I like Apple, I really do. I own multiple iPods and I thought about buying a Mac more than once. (In fact, the main reason why I still don’t have one is space.) But lately, they seem to mess up quite a bit. All products that were introduced this year were mediocre at best. Some were disappointing (iPhone), some were even inferior to their predecessors (iPod nano 3G), and those that were neither of the above, were just boring updates. It seems that Apple had put all its innovativity into the iPhone, at the cost of all the other products. That might even have been a good idea, had it worked out – but it didn’t. The iPhone lives more from the hype than from substantial technical excellence. This is in no way comparable to the launch of the iPod mini, shuffle, nano or the monitor-only iMacs, just to name a few examples. See, Apple, these were products that were both nice and cool and technically sound. Why can’t you do that again?

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