Why Apple Products Will Now Stop Failing

Wednesday Oct 31st 2012 by Mike Elgan
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Apple CEO Tim Cook cleaned house this week, and transformed the company in the process.

And just like that, the old Apple is dead, and a new Apple is born. I believe you’ll see massive changes to Apple products by next summer.

Apple had to re-create its products to correct a recent string of failures, which I’ll tell you about below.

The reason transformation was necessary is that Apple makes a tiny number of products compared with more diversified competitors, such as, say Google or Samsung.

If, say, the iPhone were to fail in the market, Apple’s business would be catastrophically damaged. If, on the other hand, the Galaxy S III were to fail in the market, neither Samsung nor Google would be significantly affected.

Google gets most of its revenue from online advertising, and Samsung is diversified across an incredible range of products that includes refrigerators, weapons, insurance, oil refinery construction, boats and the list goes on and on. Plus Samsung also sells dozens of other phones.

But Apple can’t afford a single mistake in its mobile products -- the entire company depends on the overwhelming success of iPhone and iPad.

And no other company in the industry puts so much control over product direction and design in the hands of such a tiny number of executives.

The link between people and products is so close that the only way to fundamentally change the products is to change the people at the top.

Look at the now-iconic iPhone design, for example. Every unusual thing about the hardware of that phone -- the flat front and back, the circular buttons, the Home button, the two colors, the metal rim that doubles as an antenna -- all of it had little to do with a corporate culture per se, or the preferences of users as they voted with their dollars. The iPhone is the iPhone mainly because of personalities and preferences of two people: Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive.

Yes, many other employees made huge contributions. But if either of these men had not been involved, the iPhone would be a completely different product.

How Silicon Valley’s Most Successful Company Has Been Failing

The iPhone 5 is a marvel of hardware engineering. It’s so thin, so light and so sophisticated in its design that contract manufacturer Foxconn has said that it’s the most difficult device to manufacture that they’ve ever built.

And yet pundits, reviewers and experts -- not to mention millions of users -- are conspicuously unimpressed by the phone. Why?

The reason is that the iPhone’s software has not been keeping up with the evolution of its hardware.

On Android phones, the most exciting advancements are taking place in software, not hardware. And it’s in software where Android is overtaking iOS products.

For example, users are blown away by Google Now, which is Google’s voice assistant technology. Siri, on the other hand, has been getting slower and less reliable since its integration into the iPhone 4S a year ago.

Apple used to offer Google Maps as a built-in, standard feature of the iPhone. And the experience of using it was amazing. Then Apple replace Google Maps with a Maps app of its own, and now the experience of using the default Maps on iPhone is far worse than it was on the iPhone four years ago.

Not all iOS software is getting worse. Some of it is simply standing still. Most of the apps on the iPhone appear to be cast in amber, without any real improvement over the years. And Apple even introduced a new app called Podcasts, which is non-intuitive and under-featured -- if graded on a curve along with other podcasting apps available in the App Store, it would get a C-.

But the strangest and most unexpected software failure with iOS is horrible design. Specifically, horrible skeuomorphic design.

What the Hell is Skeuomorphic Design?

Skeuomorphic software design is when something on screen is “decorated” with fake versions of real things. There’s even a blog dedicated to mocking the tasteless horrors of skeuomorphic design.

Apple’s own iOS apps are heavy with skeuomorphic designs.

The Find Friends app is decorated with what’s supposed to look like sewn leather. The new Podcasts app actually has a reel-to-real tape playing as you listen. The Compass and Voice Memos apps show big quasi-realistic looking respective compass and microphone. The Note apps looks like a yellow legal pad. The Game Center app has a green felt texture with wood trim. The iBooks app looks like a wooden bookshelf. And so on.

Some people don’t mind skeuomorphic design. But there’s no question that it clashes with Apple hardware. It’s as if Apple contracted out the design of its apps to a local teenager.

On the one hand, you’ve got hardware design minimalism rooted in the Bauhaus school, and on the other you’ve got software design that’s the polar opposite -- decorative, arbitrary and cheesy. While its hardware looks like it’s from the future, iPhone apps look like they’re from the 90s.

The unacceptable design of these apps has become obvious, as small startups keep innovating and improving the design of third-party apps.

How to Fix the Software: Put the Hardware Guy In Charge

Apple CEO Tim Cook announced several executive changes this week. The biggest of them was putting industrial design chief Ive in charge of not only hardware design as before, but he also now “provides leadership and direction for Human Interface software teams across the company.”

Apple’s hardware guy is now in charge of software design.

The man in charge of software used to be Scott Forstall, who it is rumored was essentially fired for three reasons. First, he was said to be overly ambitious, as well as “abrasive and combative.” Second, he was not only primarily responsible for the disastrous Maps debacle, he refused to apologize for it. And finally, he had a love skeuomorphic design, and insisted on building into Apple products.

And that’s what’s so interesting about Ive’s new authority over software. Ive apparently hates skeuomorphic design.

Ive is the kind of designer who obsesses over matching form with function, and stripping away extraneous elements. You’ll note that the iPhone and iPad have one button on the front, for example.

iOS software is about to change radically.

So What Does Jony Ive Software Look Like?

The current Notes app on the iPhone and iPad is a perfect example of tasteless and decorative skeuomorphic design. But look at a new app from web hosting company Squarespace called Note. This, I believe, is what Jony Ive software looks like. Stripped of decorative elements -- stripped of all interface, actually. Beautiful typography, gesture centric.

Squarespace Note’s colorless minimalism is one approach Ive could take with software. Another is to use color for conveying information. A great example of this approach is with an app called Solar.

As you can see, these apps -- tasteful, minimalist, modern, functional and beautiful -- stand in diametric opposition to Apple’s current lineup of cheesy, cluttered, antiquated, clumsy and ugly skeuomorphic apps.

In addition to taking apps in this direction, I believe Ive will create uniformity between apps -- I predict they’ll all share interface elements that Apple will likely patent, and that will transform the look and feel of the iPhone and iPad overall.

The “Ivification” of Apple software is going to upgrade Apple’s most important products, and make the experience of using them something totally different.

I’m very optimistic about this change at Apple, and look forward to the company competing with superior design in software, and not just hardware.

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