By John Gruber
Plan your novel, finish your dissertation, launch a product. You need Tinderbox.
Why do I think Apple has passed its peak? There are a number of signs. The most visible recent one is the Maps debacle. Replacing Google Maps with an obviously inferior experience shows how much Apple has changed. Apple’s success had been all about offering users the best possible experience; suddenly it is willing to give users a clearly worse experience to further its corporate interests - in this case its long-running dispute with Google. We might expect this sort of behaviour from Microsoft, but we don’t expect it from Apple.
On the contrary, for better or for worse, iOS 6 Maps is exactly what we expect from Apple: taking control over its essential technologies, confident, perhaps overly so, in its own ability to build a best-of-breed product. Of all the dozens of “This wouldn’t have happened if Steve were still alive” arguments I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot, the Maps one is the worst. Steve Jobs would have traded in Google Maps for a folded-up map from a gas station at this point, given the competitive situation between Apple and Google and the various privacy-invasive strings Google wanted to attach to desperately needed features like turn-by-turn navigation and vector map tiles.
Steve left Apple towards the end of 2011, and since then we’ve seen a number of missteps, all leading up to the recent executive reshuffle that left Forstall and Browett out in the cold.
Apple was far from perfect under Steve Jobs. But in hindsight, critics and skeptics of the company now see fit to deem his reign flawless or nearly so. Here’s a guy on Yahoo Finance telling Henry Blodget that “Steve Jobs wasn’t wrong about anything ever.”
What you want is to be (1) right more often than wrong; (2) willing to recognize when you are wrong; and (3) able and willing to correct whatever is wrong. If you expect perfection, to be right all the time, you’re going to fail on all three of those — you will be wrong sometimes, that’s just human nature; you’ll be less willing or unwilling to recognize when you’re wrong because you’ve talked yourself into expecting perfection; and you won’t fix what’s wrong because you’ll have convinced yourself you weren’t wrong in the first place. The only way to come close to being right all the time is to be willing to change your mind and recognize mistakes — it’s never going to happen that you’re right all the time in the first place.
Obviously it would have been better for Apple if Tim Cook had never hired John Browett in the first place. It might have been better too, if Cook, through the force of his own personality, had been able to get his other senior vice presidents to work alongside Scott Forstall, as Steve Jobs had been able to do. But Cook did hire Browett, and Forstall was no longer tolerated by his executive peers. So Cook did what you’d want to see done: he recognized a mistake and a problem and took decisive action.
Botched executive hirings never would have happened under Steve Jobs.
Most recent tech startups subscribe to the organisational philosophies embodied at Google: extremely open internal communications, flat management hierarchies, as much bottom-up decision making as possible and lots of collaboration amongst team members. Apple is the opposite. It’s highly secretive, to the point of paranoia. It has many layers of management. Decisions are made at the top and rigidly enforced through micro-management and direction. Apple was built in Steve Jobs’s image, and Steve was all about control - specifically, his direct control of everything at Apple.
At Google, products are built by largely self-directed teams, so there is little consistency between them.
You’re not selling me on the Google org structure, here, Dan.
Maps is the most obvious recent sign of changes at Apple, but there are other, more subtle, signs of a creative slowdown. The iPad 4 launched just six months after the iPad 3 with Retina Display. It doesn’t improve substantially over the previous version, yet has managed to annoy users who just bought an iPad 3. This insipid update is not the sort of magical product launch on which Apple has built its reputation.
So Crow says Apple under Steve Jobs never would have done something like double the performance of the iPad — both CPU and graphics — just before the holiday quarter. But it was Steve Jobs himself who wrote the following in 2007, two months after the iPhone debuted:
First, I am sure that we are making the correct decision to lower the price of the 8GB iPhone from $599 to $399, and that now is the right time to do it. iPhone is a breakthrough product, and we have the chance to ‘go for it’ this holiday season. iPhone is so far ahead of the competition, and now it will be affordable by even more customers. It benefits both Apple and every iPhone user to get as many new customers as possible in the iPhone ‘tent’. We strongly believe the $399 price will help us do just that this holiday season.
Second, being in technology for 30+ years I can attest to the fact that the technology road is bumpy. There is always change and improvement, and there is always someone who bought a product before a particular cutoff date and misses the new price or the new operating system or the new whatever. This is life in the technology lane. If you always wait for the next price cut or to buy the new improved model, you’ll never buy any technology product because there is always something better and less expensive on the horizon. The good news is that if you buy products from companies that support them well, like Apple tries to do, you will receive years of useful and satisfying service from them even as newer models are introduced.
I’m sure there’s some way to argue that the above argument does not apply perfectly to Apple’s decision to release the iPad 4 seven months after the iPad 3, but I can’t figure it out. Back to Crow:
Compare that to the launch of the latest revisions of the iPad and iPhone. They are accompanied by amazing levels of hype: “I don’t think the level of invention has been matched by anything we’ve ever done”, “This is the biggest thing to happen to iPhone since the iPhone”.
Is it just me, or are neither of those slogans all that hype-y? The “biggest thing” is a pun regarding the display size. It’s exactly in line with the marketing slogans of all previous iPhones.
Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone 5 is an excellent product; it’s probably the best smartphone on the market right now.
Just because it’s the best smartphone ever made (agrees Crow himself), doesn’t mean Apple should sing its praises? Maybe I need to brush up on my marketing.
But it’s only an incremental improvement over the iPhone 4S.
Which was only an incremental improvement over the iPhone 4, which was only an incremental improvement over the 3GS, which was only an incremental improvement over the 3G, which was literally just an original iPhone plus 3G.
The iPhone 5 is better, but it’s really not that much better, and iOS 6 has had some decidedly mixed reviews. But you wouldn’t know that listening to the hype from Bob Mansfield, Tim Cook, Phil Schiller et al. The problem with over-hyping is that people notice, and over time it erodes their faith. There are only so many times you can be told that a relatively small increment is “the greatest thing ever in the history of everything ever” before you get jaded. Steve knew how to balance hype and product. Apple today seems much less adept at this.
Right, back when Steve Jobs was around, you could count on guys like Bob Mansfield and Phil Schiller to tell us what was not so great about the new iPhone. Mansfield in 2008: “This plastic case on the iPhone 3G is not as nice as the aluminum one last year.” Schiller in 2011: “Really, the iPhone 4S is just a little faster and we moved the antennas around a little. No big whoop.” (I can’t find a source for these quotes.)
It’s baffling. Apple has a winning formula — perhaps the most successful business formula ever — yet it seems intent on changing it. The company has shifted away from Jobs’s laser-like focus on building the best and most complete user experience, and started putting its interests way ahead of those of its users. It hasn’t introduced a truly new product since the launch of the iPad nearly three years ago; instead it’s making incremental and overhyped improvements to its current lines.
Year-over-year incremental improvement is Apple’s winning formula.
The loss of Steve was devastating — the entire company was built around him and the mistakes we have seen since he left are entirely consistent with a very hierarchical organisation trying to find its way without its leader. I think in hindsight, we will see that Apple’s peak of creativity, innovation and leadership was early 2012.
“Innovation” is the word I keep seeing bandied about regarding where Jobs’s absence is going to manifest itself at Apple. No one is going to argue that design is dead at Apple, that they’re going to start churning out products that aren’t aesthetically appealing. No one, not even the company’s most ardent critics, would believe it. (The more common line is that Apple only cares about aesthetic appeal; the iPhone 4 antenna and iOS 6 Maps controversies lend at least some credence to that — “better-looking but works worse”.) But innovation, that’s something that many feel might be attributed solely to Jobs, and it plays directly into our utterly unreasonable collective desire to see Apple pull an original iPhone level of novelty and innovation out of its hat every single time Tim Cook or Phil Schiller takes the stage.
But no Apple product has ever been universally hailed when it launched. Crow says Apple “hasn’t introduced a truly new product since the launch of the iPad nearly three years ago”, but when the original iPad did launch in 2010 it did so to a chorus of skeptics who deemed it no more than “a big iPhone”. Even the original iPhone was laughed at — literally laughed at and mocked — by competitors.
Long-term, the verdict is out. Jobs has only been gone for a year. Apple has yet to do a Big New Thing without him. The retention of talent remains their biggest risk, and Forstall’s departure highlights that. But in terms of innovation-without-Jobs so far, I’d say going from the original slow chunky iPad in April 2010 to the retina super-fast iPad 4 and svelte iPad Mini today is a pretty brisk clip. Two and a half years later Apple offers two very different iPads that both completely blow the original one away — and the original one is now almost universally hailed as a landmark innovation in the history of personal computing.