By John Gruber
One thing became abundantly clear after analyzing Apple’s recent earnings report: Jeff Williams is doing a phenomenal job. As senior vice president of Operations, Williams is tasked with making sure the Apple machine is well-oiled and in tip-top shape, not only capable of producing more than 100 million iOS devices in a quarter, but building flexibility into the system to handle annual hardware updates that would make most hardware companies quiver with fear. I considered Jeff Williams as Tim Cook’s successor before Cook finished his first day as CEO, and I feel even more confident about that today. Regardless of what the future brings, people need to start watching Jeff Williams because he is executing at levels that few are able to achieve.
A few thoughts about this.
First, in terms of iPhone operations and considering nothing else, Jeff Williams has clearly done an amazing job. Apple sold a record 74 million iPhones last quarter, and though the company doesn’t break that down by models for competitive reasons, everyone knows that a huge chunk of those were the brand-new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. They were supply-constrained on both models, particularly the 6 Plus, but only by a few weeks. Operationally Apple did an incredible job meeting demand for iPhones — they sold more than ever but were less supply-constrained than in the last few launch quarters. For context, in 2008, Apple sold a total 10 million iPhones for the entire year. All credit to the hardware, software, and product marketing teams for the fact that 74 million people wanted to buy an iPhone last quarter. But the credit goes to Williams’s operations team that there were 74 million units available to sell.
Second, iPhone manufacturing is not Williams’s only responsibility. He’s in charge of all operations, and company-wide, operations seems to be going as well or even better than they did while Tim Cook was COO alongside Steve Jobs. And, Williams is overseeing the team creating Apple Watch. No pressure there.
As for Williams being CEO material: I have no doubt he’d be considered, but at this point any CEO succession planning on Apple’s part is in the context of an emergency. They should be prepared, and I’d bet they are, but Tim Cook is only 53 years old (Williams is 50) and isn’t going anywhere. I don’t think Apple would even look outside the company. There is an Apple Way of doing things — codified, documented, and taught to employees as they move into management through the company’s Joel Podolny-led Apple University. The company attributes its profound success over the last 15 years to the Apple Way — and rightly so, I say. I doubt Apple’s board would consider an outsider as CEO until and unless the company falters significantly and loses its way.
In the meantime, I’d guess that the current short list of Cook successors would consist of (in alphabetical order) Eddy Cue, Jony Ive, Phil Schiller, and Williams. All of them long-time Apple leaders. (After a few more years, Angela Ahrendts would certainly be considered. But at this point she’s still too new to the company.) I think Ive is the least likely of the bunch to want the job, but he certainly has the respect within the company.
Again, this whole exercise is highly speculative. I expect Tim Cook to remain at the helm for the next 15 years, maybe longer. I think he loves leading Apple, and, you know, he seems to be doing an OK job of it. What makes this speculation fun is that at the moment, at least from our perspective outside the company, there is no clear Number Two being groomed.
While we’re speculating, it’s worth noting that if Cook does remain CEO for the next decade or longer, by that point, the rest of Apple’s current senior leadership team will be in their 60s and fabulously wealthy. So if for some reason Tim Cook needs to be replaced in the next few years, his replacement will almost certainly be someone already on Apple’s leadership team. But a replacement who isn’t named until Tim Cook’s retirement in, say, 2030, will likely be someone we don’t yet know — someone who’ll rise through the company’s ranks between now and then. ★
I’ve noticed over the past year that Siri is getting faster — both at parsing spoken input and returning results. I use iOS’s voice-to-text dictation feature on a near-daily basis, and it’s especially noticeable there. I’ve been using a Moto X running Android 5.0 the past few weeks, so today I did a side-by-side comparison between Siri and Android’s Google Voice Search, asking both the simple question, “What temperature is it outside?” Both phones were on the same Wi-Fi network. Siri was consistently as fast or faster. I made a video that shows them in pretty much a dead heat.
My point here isn’t “Siri is better than Google Voice Search”, or even “Siri is as good as Google Voice Search”. Once you get past the superficial level, they’re different enough that it’s hard to make a blanket one-is-better-than-the-other comparison. I’d even agree that Google Voice Search is better at many complex queries, and, further, that “What’s the temperature?” is a very simple question.
But: it’s a question I ask Siri almost every day, before I get dressed, especially during winter. I want to know whether it’s going to be just plain cold, or really fucking cold. When Siri debuted in 2011, it was often (usually?) relatively slow to parse your spoken input, and slow to return results. Your mileage may vary, but for me that just isn’t true any longer. Siri has also gotten much, much better while on cellular networks. Part of that is surely that LTE networks are maturing, but I suspect part of it is Apple’s doing as well.
Nor is my point about which service presents the information in a more attractive or useful layout. My point here is simply this: Siri is noticeably faster than it used to be. Even just a year ago, I don’t think Siri could have held its own with Google Voice Search pulling information like the current temperature or sports scores, but today, it does. Apple has clearly gotten much better at something everyone agreed was a serious weakness. Two years later, I don’t think “Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting better at web services” feels true any more.
After I posted that video to Twitter, DF reader Steven Op de beeck made an overlay showing his results in Belgium. Outstanding Siri performance.
Here’s a Storify collection of just about every response to my “Just me, or is Siri getting a lot faster?” tweet.
My 2010 piece for Macworld, “This Is How Apple Rolls”, on the company’s pattern of steady, iterative year-over-year improvements to its products, seems apt.
I think this is a case that shows how important first impressions are. Quite a few of the responses I got on Twitter were along the lines of, “I don’t know, I gave up on Siri years ago.” No product or feature is ever perfect when it debuts. Quite the opposite, brand-new products/features usually debut needing numerous obvious improvements. But, ideally, they should debut on the right side of the “good enough to engender affection” line. The original iPhone had no third-party apps, EDGE networking, and lacked copy-and-paste. But we loved it. Siri, I think it’s clear in hindsight, debuted on the wrong side of that line. It’s harder to change a negative perception than it is to create a positive one from a blank slate.
Lastly, a rather obvious but important observation: Improvements to Siri across the board — reducing latency, improving accuracy, increasing utility — are essential to the success of Apple Watch. And — given the previous note on first impressions — it’s pretty important that Siri integration on Apple Watch work well right from the start. Apple will find itself in a deep hole if voice dictation via Apple Watch gets saddled with an “Egg Freckles”/”Eat up Martha” reputation. ★
I think a lot of us have lost our spirit, and that’s a problem for Apple. Apple may not think so — its financial statements would argue that it’s in great shape — but it’s being buoyed by an excellent run of hardware releases and a certain amount of inertia. Eventually, though, it runs the risk of becoming another Microsoft, with users who do more complaining than praising. When a company’s best users lose their spirit, it loses their leverage.
Every company’s downfall is different. Microsoft didn’t have a major update to 2001’s Windows XP until 2006’s Windows Vista, which was rejected by its customers. The “fix”, Windows 7, didn’t ship until 2009. I can’t help but wonder whether Apple’s recent focus on annual significant-but-not-hubristic (read: Longhorn) updates to Mac OS X is an attempt to do the opposite of what Microsoft did to lose its edge with Windows. The annual schedule keeps OS X from stagnating, and keeps Apple from biting off way more than it can chew, leading to a years-long death march that never actually ships. (See also: Copland and Pink from Apple’s own history.)
But in avoiding the problems of stagnation and hubris, it feels like Apple has run into a different problem: nothing ever feels settled and stable. If the pattern Apple has established the last two years holds, by the time the loose screws get tightened in iOS 8 and OS X 10.10, we’ll be getting developer betas of iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 at WWDC. And as Guy English has keenly remarked numerous times, the annual schedule means that by now — that is, January — a lot of engineering talent in Cupertino is being directed to next year’s OS releases, leaving less talent on the task of tightening the remaining loose screws in last year’s.
Apple’s decade-ago development schedule for OS X now seems downright leisurely.1 10.0 was a glorified public alpha — more of a proof of concept than a usable OS. 10.1 followed just a few months later in September 2001. 10.2 shipped in August 2002, 10.3 in October 2003, and 10.4 (Tiger) slowed things down by not shipping until April 2005. That schedule was close to annual, but in those years, Apple was just picking low-hanging fruit. Mac OS X was incomplete, inconsistent, and slow when it debuted. Those first few years were about making it more complete, consistent, and fast. It’s fair to say, in hindsight, that 10.4 Tiger was the first good release of Mac OS X, the first one that truly delivered on the promise of a union between Mac OS and NeXTStep.
And then 10.5 (Leopard) didn’t ship until October 2007, after having been promised for June of that year. That was the time Apple issued a decidedly Jobsian “Hotnews” post acknowledging that Leopard — which even if it had shipped on time would have appeared more than two years after 10.4 — would be delayed an additional four months because Apple had pulled engineering resources to work on the original iPhone release.
It was then another two years before we got 10.6 (Snow Leopard), which Apple proudly marketed as having no new features. That’s not true, of course — Snow Leopard had plenty of new features, including significant new technologies like Grand Central Dispatch, Apple’s solution to parallel computing. But it really was true that Snow Leopard didn’t introduce many new user-facing features. It was exactly what Apple billed it as: a shoring up of the OS’s technical foundations. It was then another two years before the release of 10.7 (Lion) in June 2011.
So from April 2005 through June 2011, Apple released only three major updates to Mac OS X, one of which had “no new features”. Again: an almost leisurely pace by recent standards. But this led to criticism that Apple only cared about iOS. Predictions that Apple would soon enough abandon the Mac were common.
It’s a hard balance to strike. When Mac OS X releases were roughly biannual, we complained that Apple was neglecting it. Now that the releases are annual, we’re complaining that they’re going too fast.
Guy English, earlier this week, regarding Marco Arment’s argument that “We don’t need major OS releases every year”:
Sure, it’s a pain in the ass for us at times. But “we don’t” is starting to echo through the people for whom iOS devices were a revelation. These devices made people believe in the magic of technology again. Now? I hear a lot about planned obsolescence and buggy software.
“No! I know these people and I swear that’s not at all their intent!”
That really only goes so far.
The worst thing is that it’s seldom anything big, onerous or serious. It’s just weird little things that don’t work that add up to create the impression that “computers” are incomprehensible.
I don’t regret upgrading from iOS 7 to 8, or from Mac OS X 10.9 to 10.10. I definitely don’t want to switch to Android or Windows. But I’d like to think that a year from now, I’ll be running new versions of iOS and OS X that don’t do much more than what today’s versions do — instead, that they just do those same things more reliably and consistently.
My hope is that the reliability issues we are seeing in iOS and Mac OS X in recent releases are largely the inevitable result of Apple going through numerous transitions simultaneously. Extensions, XPC, iCloud Drive, Continuity — these things require coordination between all three of Apple’s platforms (mobile, desktop, cloud). That what we’ve been seeing the last few years is this decade’s equivalent of the first few years of Mac OS X — rapid development and flux that precedes an era of relative stability and a slower pace of change. Let iPhone, iPad, and Mac settle in — and let the rapid change and flux flow through Apple Watch, CarPlay, a new Apple TV, and whatever else comes next. ★
iOS has always been on an annual schedule, with .0 major releases accompanying each new iPhone generation, but even there, some of those iOS releases weren’t very ambitious in terms of new features. Apple was busy picking low-hanging fruit — iOS 3’s biggest feature was Cut/Copy/Paste. (Seriously, we went two years without Cut/Copy/Paste — crazy, right?) ↩