By John Gruber
Flatfile: Never format messy spreadsheets again.
Think Secret “senior editor” Ryan Katz filed an interesting scoop yesterday, “Aperture Future in Question as Apple Axes Bulk of Team”:
Apple recently asked the engineering team behind its Aperture photo editing and management software to leave, Think Secret has learned. The move, which resulted in the departure of several engineers while others were transferred to different projects inside Apple, raises questions about the future of Aperture, Apple’s most heavily criticized and bug-ridden pro software release in recent years.
Sources familiar with Apple’s professional software strategy said they were not surprised by the move, describing Aperture’s development as a “mess” and the worst they had witnessed at Apple.
Intrigued, I did some digging. I’ll note up front that my sources aren’t first-hand — i.e. I don’t know anyone directly involved on the Aperture team. That said, my sources at Apple confirmed the basic gist of Think Secret’s report. First, that even by the standards of 1.0 products, Aperture’s development did not go well. A little bit late is one thing; nine months late — which according to my sources is how late Aperture 1.0 was — is a disaster. The term “cluster fuck” is not generally used to describe minor hiccups.
The second is that the original Aperture development team — both management and engineering — has been dispersed. Note though that I chose the verb dispersed very carefully. Think Secret’s headline claim that the “bulk of the team” was “axed” is not accurate. Katz’s much less sensational in-article description, “The move, which resulted in the departure of several engineers while others were transferred to different projects inside Apple,” is more or less the same thing my sources told me.
It’s up for debate how much of it was an outright disbanding, and how much was good engineers leaving the team (and in some cases, leaving Apple) in disgust. But given that the Aperture 1.0 development process went so poorly, it was pretty much inevitable that the team was going to be restructured.
As a rule of thumb, it’s a bad sign when Apple releases a .1 update to a major application, as they did earlier this month with Aperture 1.1. Apple (as well as other big-ticket app developers like Microsoft and Adobe) shoots for a development schedule that goes from from one .0 to the next one, interspersed only by relatively minor .0.x bug fix updates.
Think Secret is right that major portions of Aperture need to be rewritten, but they’re wrong that Aperture’s future is in any way “in question”.1
The development process might have been a disaster, and the product may not be all that it was intended to be, but the product itself is clearly not a disaster. Just read James Duncan Davidson’s first-hand account of using Aperture to manage his workflow while shooting 2000 images at the ETech conference earlier this year:
But, even with its rough edges, I decided to give it a try at January’s Emerging Telephony conference. And the results were spectacular. Even as I cursed the UI slowdowns when working with the huge images from my Canon 5D, the overall rate of my work accelerated. For the first time I was able to keep up with the flow of the pictures I took and usually posted images from the conference within 2-4 hours of when they were taken instead of the 24-48 hour lag that I saw when using other workflows last year.
Is Aperture perfect? Not at all. It’s definitely a 1.0 product. There are a lot of places in the UI where the performance needs to be tweaked. There are too many places where the response feel of the application is just aggravating. The ultimate RAW conversion quality at 100% isn’t quite there. But for what I’m doing in the heat of the moment during my conference photography, it’s kicking some serious ass.
The user interface and interaction model of Aperture aren’t just good — they’re innovative. I think Aperture is at the leading edge of UI design, especially with regard to the ways it takes advantage of today’s larger displays. And it just plain looks cool.
It’s generally easier to fix an app with a great UI suffering from performance problems than an app with great performance suffering from a terrible UI.
Word within Apple is that Steve Jobs himself is enormously enamored of Aperture. There’s no question what Apple is going to do with Aperture: they’re going to fix it. The questions are just how, who, and when. And with Adobe breathing down their necks with Lightroom, my guess to the last question is “as soon as possible”.
Update 1: And as for the who, we now know at least one answer: Blake Seely.
Update 2: This follow-up article contains additional information and corrects several errors in this article, and is based mostly on information from a source on the original Aperture engineering team.
One thing this story reinforced for me is that I don’t like Think Secret. Or, rather, what occurred to me while reading and thinking about this story is why I don’t like Think Secret: I hate the way they write.
This Aperture story is both factually interesting and a legitimate scoop. Few people outside Apple know anything at all about the company’s development projects. (Even people inside Apple generally don’t know much about development projects other than their own.) But let’s face it — it’s gossip. And gossip ought to be fun; not necessarily funny, but fun.
Rather than aping the dull, ponderous, “strain to appear ‘objective’ at all costs” journalism-ese dialect of mainstream news outlets such as the Associated Press, Think Secret (and this goes for Apple Insider as well) ought to be aping the style of tabloid journalism. That’s what made MacWeek’s Mac the Knife column so beloved — it was written with a knowing “we know that you know that this isn’t important, but we also know that you know that this is fun” tone. Nick Denton’s assortment of Gawker-branded weblogs show how gossip can be done well on the web.
Unlike, say, The Onion, wherein the use of mainstream journalism-ese is part of the gag, Think Secret just comes across as dull even when they’re serving up a juicy scoop.
And therefore so too is wrong Robert X. Cringely’s idea that the Aperture team shake-up has anything at all to do with his conjecture that Apple wants to buy Adobe. And even if Cringely is right that Apple might buy Adobe — and even though this is just pure conjecture on his part, there is some logic to the idea — he’s certainly wrong that “Apple’s Aperture photo touch-up program could die so PhotoShop [sic] could reign supreme.” If Apple were to buy Adobe and replace Aperture with an app from Adobe, it’d be Lightroom, not Photoshop. Calling it a “photo touch-up program” shows that Cringely has no idea what Aperture actually is. ↩︎