[First of all, I would like to say that this is but my very own take, which is not necessarily shared by my colleagues here at 9to5Mac and therefore not an editorial, staff-wise opinion piece. It represents my view and my view only, so try to keep that in mind.]
Up until not too long ago, I used to ask myself a simple question: if I were to pick one company — and one company alone — to rely on for all of my “tech needs”, which one would I choose? The answer would come rather swiftly: Apple.
As a critic (by nature more than profession) I have always seen the vast majority of products skeptically, but that didn’t take from the fact that the Cupertino giant made what I considered to be the best smartphone, the best tablet, the best computers and even two of the most valid operating systems around, accounting for a sweet, unified and well-connected package that would make me feel like I didn’t have to look outside of it. It was Apple’s dream of ecosystem lock-in, essentially.
However, as my view of this universe has got more and more panoramic — especially in the last year of collaboration with the sister site 9to5Google, which has helped me a lot to gain even more direct experience with Apple’s competition — I started to have a feeling that this bubble was somewhat bursting.
And this feeling is something I simply haven’t been able to shake, and one that has brought me, like apparently many others, to think that the well-oiled profit machine Apple Inc. may have lost some of its touch, for what concerns the present and, more importantly, the future…
Apple has long been one of the giants that, thanks to its focus on hardware, managed to surprise and delight me; before I actually got into tech, I fell in love with iPods, which slowly got me into the magical world of Apple products. I remember vividly the day I unboxed my iPhone 5, and just how much ahead of the rest of the tech world that product was bringing me. From its famous introduction to my own unboxing and the first weeks of use, I just couldn’t believe how much I was loving that little thing.
Less than a year later I finally caved in and bought a Retina MacBook Pro, the same machine I’m still typing this very piece on, and again couldn’t help but repeatedly fall in love with my gear — and indeed, if you’re reading this piece right now, Apple’s efforts have played a big part in pushing me towards the lucky place I am in now.
One thing I’m sure of, in fact, is that Apple is still incredibly competent and absolutely fantastic at what it does — say what you say about its products or controversial moves, but there likely is no other company on Earth that has the influence of Apple, and I am actually thankful for their choice of taking the reins and doing things such as eliminating old technologies and springing us towards the future, no matter how inconvenient that transition may be. I do understand the users’ complaints — more on that later — but I also try to fit into Apple’s shoes, and there is a case to be made for doing what they’ve done.
I do not take issue with that. Again, looking at their lineup, it still strikes me how a relatively focussed — albeit expanding — portfolio of products still makes it possible to produce such incredible pieces of hardware: the iPhone 7 could still easily be considered the best smartphone around, the iPad Pros are great machines, the new MacBooks have a lot going for them, the 5K iMac’s display still makes my mouth water every time I go to a store and look at it, and hell, I absolutely love my little 6th gen. iPod touch.
- Apple Store in London’s Covent Garden
I see more Apple products around than any other brand’s — living in central London surely helps with this, but there’s no denying that the company’s reach is enviable, to say the least — and I am fairly sure that a good chunk of its customers are extremely happy with their Apple-logoed machines. And yet, after all this sweet talking, I feel like I have to address the main issue highlighted in the title. And that is: Apple is boring.
And let me get this straight: Apple isn’t just boring by its own standards, but it’s being trumped by other companies too, big time — and often by names you most certainly wouldn’t expect.
A few years ago — two and a half, to be exact — at their annual developer I/O conference, Google announced its new, company-wide design system to rethink not just how the design issue should be tackled within tech, but also how we should actually think of it. Material Design was (and still is) an incredibly ambitious, ongoing project, which for the first time put the search giant into that increasingly important conversation.
While watching the keynote, I was simply stunned. I was very hyped when, just twelve months prior to that, Apple was to reinvent its software design with iOS 7, and while Ive’s introduction video became what I deem to be his masterpiece (because yes, of course Ive’s voiceovers are a thing) it was quickly turned into nothingness, kneeling before the scale of Google’s ambition. Indeed, Apple had long been a tech design keystone in both hardware (predominantly) and software (more or less), but seeing what Google was aiming at made Apple’s new software approach seem childish to my eyes.
And, beware: I say ‘childish’ not because of its execution — an entirely different matter — but rather in its scope. From that moment on I started reading about this upcoming post-mobile “cross war” between the two behemoths: is Google going to become good at design before Apple nails services? Almost 30 months later, I honestly feel like the answer to that question is yes.
Material Design is not perfect, and as Google itself reminds us, it is “never done”, but seeing where the company — and all of its products, starting with Android — was just two years ago and where it is now is, in my opinion, nothing short of incredible. Consistency needs to be addressed, but in this short amount of time the Mountain View firm was capable of doing what many would have thought of as impossible, which is linking the words “Google Design” with “gorgeous”. No, seriously, go take a look.
On the other hand, Apple’s services have done wonders for the company, but none of them has had a truly identifiable “wow” moment in my mind. Their biggest investment, Apple Music, has proved to be little more than just another music subscription service, and both iOS 8, 9 and 10 as well as the last three iterations of OS X/macOS have done very little to genuinely impress and enchant me. If anything, the one thing I was excited about — 3D Touch — is the one I have experienced less, as my go-to iOS device does not support it. All in all, each version of the two OSs has mostly looked like a game of very small and incremental catch-ups to me, which I’ve come to realize increasingly more as I noticed that my usage of iOS and macOS was not being drastically altered.
Which brings me straight to Apple’s stronghold: products.
Remember the question I would ask myself all the time? That question’s changed. Now it’s more like: when was the last time that I was actually thrilled by an Apple product? And, much to my own dismay, the answer is “I don’t know”. It could perhaps be the 2015 12” MacBook, which indeed, for all its shortcomings, had something special to it, but even that would be a choice driven by exclusion rather than absolute, buzz-led certainty.
Have you noticed that I haven’t mentioned the Watch even once so far? Such is its ‘forgettability’, in my view. It’s a product that hasn’t caught my attention at launch and that I still don’t see much agitation around for, not even from Apple itself. It doesn’t really make the case for a compelling device, much less an essential one; something that Apple had always strived for. Perhaps at fault, but when the original iPad came out I did think “Yes, I need this” — or at least “I want this”. It was bold, and ambitious, and beautiful, and new. It was so very Apple. But that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.
It particularly struck me when the iPhone 6s came out: somehow, even weeks after the announcement, my Twitter feed was filled with comments regarding that stupid pink color way more than the decidedly more interesting 3D Touch technology. Did Apple fail to communicate its importance? Or had we all rather become so numb not to actually expect anything from Apple given that it was an “s” model? Honestly, I don’t know. What I do know is that whatever magic used to be there has long been absent outside of Cupertino.
You know who’s actually making great products? Microsoft. Yes — the same Microsoft we’ve all laughed at because of Internet Explorer or the buggy, crappy versions of Window running on that fat, plasticky — and now dusty — black laptop somewhere in the corner of your room.
Or, well, not exactly the same company, to be fair. Much like Google, 2014 saw a watershed moment for the Redmond mammoth, with the arrival of Satya Nadella and his more or less complete overhaul of the tore-apart, losing and clueless firm Ballmer had left behind him. And oh boy, how much have they changed. But just for the sake of tying it in with Apple, I will simply recall the moment that has caught my attention the most: the iPad Pro introduction, and Apple’s essential bequest of the “Pro” part to Microsoft. “These guys know productivity,” admitted Schiller last year. And it’s sad to say, but it was one of the most memorable moments of Apple’s keynotes in recent years. After all, which product inspired its very creation?
Microsoft has also gotten much more aggressive at Apple’s own hardware game, in fact: look at Surface. They may have not cracked it with the first iterations — or, arguably, yet — but the Pro 3 and Pro 4 are fantastic products. Bold, ambitious, beautiful and new, dare I say. Rings a bell? And they almost certainly didn’t stop there. Look at the Surface Book: it may, again, not be the “ultimate laptop” Microsoft claims, but it certainly is a far more exciting one than Apple’s latest MacBooks. And yes, you guessed it — the Surface Studio is again a more far-reaching and inspiring product than the iMac. Microsoft, it appears, is making a way better Apple-impression than Apple is.
It’s now gotten to the point where Microsoft is seemingly addressing those customers that have long prayed at Apple’s altar, and that the company is now neglecting. The MacBook Pro is actually not a “pro” machine, I hear them say. I read that about over 100 times in 100 slightly different ways — which is striking, to say the least. And bear in mind that all those complaints come from people who have actually used and loved Apple products likely much more than I have, and whose criticisms therefore have much more weight.
But yes, even as a “simpler” Apple customer and lover, this saddens me. And as a more seasoned observer, I struggle to see cohesion: Tim Cook said that the iPad Pro eliminated the need for a PC. “No, really, why would you buy one?” he said. But then Apple has come out with three new Pro machines, the simpler of which is remarkably closer to the 12” MacBook than to its more powerful peers. And then the Air has been all but forgotten. Then again, you also have the iPad Pro (two, in fact), with too many overlapping features and price points and not enough uniqueness to make me understand what exactly they want to be. Jobs put the iPad clearly in between the iPhone and the Mac; now everything seems blurry, confused. And this is only one practical example.
Ironically, Microsoft’s ideas of a ‘tablet that can also be a laptop’ and a ‘laptop that can also be a tablet’ make much more sense, because at least they run the same (great) operating system, and most of all know what they want to be. I’m not saying that they are necessarily better devices — that still largely depends on your preference and needs — but trying to look at it just from an external perspective, I see the Surface lineup as the clear pinnacle of the current hardware game. Apple may still be a leader, but they sure aren’t the most forward-pushing innovator they were before.
There is no doubt that Apple is still a company in great shape and with a lot of good going on for it. I am still faithful that something around the corner may at least bring some of that excitement back. There are so many uncharted territories for them, like VR, AR, products like Amazon’s Echo or Google Home — and then god only knows what else, even leaving the rumored car out of the conversation.
But as things are right now, I feel like Apple has, at least partially, lost its way. I don’t understand whether the dissonance between its virtually endless (and growing!) customer base and their business decisions has made it so that enthusiasts simply couldn’t be their main target anymore, but recent products — be it because of their price, compromises or just better alternatives from other OEMs — make me question whether even your average Joe is the ideal one.
Next year’s major iPhone redesign could indeed bring some much-needed fresh air to the game, and I very much look forward to that — and I still hope that much more is to come. Innovation and competition are the best thing this industry has to offer, and Apple can’t afford to compete only at the box office. So please, Apple: stay hungry, stay foolish.