Bull Session

Apple Misses the Mark

June 11, 2015          

Episode Summary

The latest and greatest from Apple used to be something to celebrate. At their Worldwide Developers Conference this week, the biggest tech company in the world announced its newest efforts to much fanfare and largely came up short. While the Apple Watch and the newly minted Apple Music streaming service have garnered lots of interest from the tech press, these offerings from Cupertino seem like pale shadows, trailing after the company’s previous glory. In this episode of The Digital Life, we comment on Apple’s innovation drought from a design and UX perspective.

Jon:
Welcome to episode 107 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Greetings Jon.

Jon:
Today Dirk we are celebrating or observing another worldwide developer conference for the biggest tech company in the world and biggest company in the world, which is, of course, Apple. We’ve been taking a look at their announcements for coming products over the past couple of hours. We’re going to react to that from a design perspective.

Dirk, what’s your initial take on the Apple announcements of today?

Dirk:
First, just to sort of correct your framing, I’m certainly not celebrating it. I wasn’t even anticipating it. I didn’t give a crap and as predicted it’s another big yawner of a day. Apple’s jumped the shark. The idea of these events being memorable and interesting and giant buzz-worthy things are garbage. Apple has settled into the same kind of status that Microsoft has had for decades, of a company that has had it’s best acts in the past and is living off of those past glories and is trying to wrap shit with a bow and tell us it doesn’t stink. I don’t know why anyone cares about these announcements anymore. I certainly don’t.

Jon:
I think I have an interest in Apple’s announcements, at least for the time being, just because the majority of my computing life is spent on the Apple hardware and software, for better or for worse. Let’s go through some of their announcements for today. You give a great overview of your general take on things but I’d love to talk to you about some of the specifics.

All right. Apple has got their new software roll outs for both the OS-X El Capitan, which apparently is the next version of the OS-X software, as well as their mobile platform, iOS 9. Now certainly this tends to really approximate, as you said, the Microsoft announcements of the past year or so. There really isn’t a lot of excitement to be taken away from new software roll outs. We’re expecting ongoing improvements from our software and that’s more or less what both the desktop and mobile platforms are offering. Slight improvements, nothing that we haven’t seen before. I guess, to your point, is it worth having an event around new software roll outs? Probably not.

Dirk:
The event itself isn’t the problem. Apple is an organization with a lot of employees, with relationships to outside developers, and they need to have meetings and announcements to communicate things and convey things. The meeting isn’t the problem. The problem is that the world continues to act like this matters. The world continues to act like this is a really big deal and something that we should all be paying attention to and god we so shouldn’t.

Jon:
Yeah. I think it’s a little bit more inside baseball than worldwide announcement as it’s been in the past. I think something telling from this event that typifies this switch from ground breaking innovation to business as usual is that the use of that one more thing line that Tim Cook has adopted from Steve Jobs presentations of the past. When Steve Jobs did it, there was really something mind-blowing at the other end of that sentence or of that intro. Their one more thing today was for the Apple music streaming service, which as delightful as that may be, is really just something similar to Spotify and was anticipated because Apple acquired Beats a few months ago. That one more thing is no longer an innovative one more thing, it’s just, “Well one more thing.”

Dirk:
That’s right. Consistent with Apple’s vision-less execution, in recent years, they’ve taken something that had real cache, that one more thing was exciting. It wasn’t necessarily every time, hint-hint. It was like, “We’ve got something special that we want to do and it’s really going to take your breath away.” They’ve totally piddled that away. Going back to the operating system thing, the one positive that I’ll say for Apple compared to Microsoft of the past, is at least Apple’s not charging for these operating system upgrades. A chunk of Microsoft’s business model was around cranking out these awful upgrades to their operating system and then monetizing people. Ringing our bells with it. At least Apple doesn’t do that. I’m keeping scorn on Apple here today, I want to at least acknowledge that, that they haven’t yet devolved to trying to use the operating system upgrade as some sort of sadistic form of further monetizing us.

Jon:
I agree that that’s better than Microsoft, but Microsoft for the most part, has been a software focused company. Apple makes a lot of it’s money, or a ton of money on it’s hardware. They may be doing the monetization scheme but it’s just when they release their latest and greatest iPhone or iPad. To have an equitable comparison with Microsoft’s ringing our bell’s I’d say we probably have to look more to Apple’s rolling out of their hardware systems, be that as it may.

One thing that I did think was interesting from a technology-innovation perspective, with this slew of Apple non-announcements today, was some of the integrations that Apple is introducing via its Apple watch and some of the other systems. The OS systems that it’s deploying in non-traditional areas like your car, for instance, so they have the VW watch app that allows you to control aspects of your car via your watch. Things like temperature and security and other items like that.

Dirk:
Because Lord knows that reaching your right arm out to change the temperature in your car is such a big hassle, right? It’s much easier to reach over to your left wrist and tinker with a bad user interface.

Jon:
Right. Maybe for New Englanders, if there’s an auto start from your watch where I can heat up the car before I make the walk out to the parking lot. Maybe for us New Englanders that would have something positive to it.

Dirk:
Many car manufacturers already offer that, so what exactly is Apple bringing to the table there?

Jon:
My thought is it’s interesting that software is getting so integrated into these new environments, like your car. We’ve talked about this before on the show that there’s these elements of software being introduces into almost every environment that we walk into now. Be it your office space, the hospital, or even your vehicle. I think this is just the start of the further computerization of the car. This moving box of tech that it’s becoming. I can see this as being Apple’s stake in the ground to dominate that space. While adjusting the temperature and maybe locking your car remotely isn’t’ the most thrilling of features and perhaps has been done just as well with the manual controls we’ve grown used to, I think it’s an interesting step in that direction of trying to dominate another space in our lives.

Dirk:
I don’t see it that way at all.

Jon:
Fair enough.

Dirk:
They’re trying to put lipstick on a pig here. Any features that Apple is going to have that integrate other devices, like cars, with their computing infrastructure are going to be duplicated on the phone device as well as the watch device. VW is going to have whatever their apps are called or whatever the infrastructure is there is going to be a watch version and a phone version. If there’s not then there’s real problems with their business model around how to integrate technology. Given that, the fact that Apple trumpets all of these features around the watch, it shows their degree of desperation around that product. It shows the degree of floundering that’s going on with the Apple watch. It’s crucial that they didn’t announce any sales figures for it. They didn’t have too much to say there. They said, “Everything’s going great, let’s move on.” It’ll be interesting to see where that goes.

The bottom line is, those apps are going to need to be on the phone as well so why are you trumpeting it as this big watch thing? It really reeks.

Jon:
Yeah. That’s a good point. The glossing over of the watch sales figures. That’s a Wizard of Oz moment: Paying no attention to the man behind the curtain. I’m sure they made a ton of money on it anyway, but I wonder if given all the hype, if the watch is really starting to have any market penetration. As you and I have chatted about the use cases for that are a little strange and not quite ready for prime time in my opinion. I’m happy to be proven wrong and I certainly love gadgets but right now I’m gong to go and spend my hard earned dollars on a mechanical watch if I were to buy a watch. I just look at my phone for the time. I’m happy with that.

Dirk:
I know. A watch, really? Who’s buying watches anyway? I don’t know it’s crazy. As we were getting ready for this show, you know I’ve commented on the watch, I was very clear in my disdain for the Apple watch when it launched. I wanted to read some reviews, going into this show, to see what people think. Did I miss the boat on that? I thought the C-Net review captured it perfectly. The bottom line, and there’s little more to it, but the sendoff to it that says, “Makes it feel more like a fashionable toy than a necessary tool.” It’s all right there. It’s a fashionable toy.

It’s a long, long way from being a necessary tool and so long as they’re trying to support an ecosystem that requires both an expensive “watch” and “phone”, it will never change from being a fashionable toy. We no need necessary tools as handheld computing devices like that. Why can’t people see that the emperor has no clothes here? Why so we keep treating this like it’s some serious technology. That goes beyond Apple.

The whole smart watch thing. It’s this stage where they may eventually become some interesting technology that grows or evolves from where these early smart watches are. The matter of the fact is there won’t be a computing ecosystem that requires an expensive phone and an expensive watch for most users. It’s just crazy. It’s going to be one device that is expensive. There may be supplementary devices that are less expensive to optimize the user experience. What’s happening now is it’s poor user experience, it’s terrible business model money grab, and as you can tell I just have very little tolerance for it.

Jon:
Going back to that C-Net review you quoted about it being a fashionable toy, makes me wonder if Apple has really latched on, it’s entire company latched on with this idea of tech as fashion. Certainly they got a lot of play that way with the iPod where the white ear buds were a fashion statement on college campuses across the U.S. Now they’re tapping into that again with all of the different price points for the watch models, including that garish gold watch. I wonder if Apple has truly made its choice to be a lifestyle brand and stopped being that tools/product company that the early geek adopters came to love so much.

Dirk:
I think they’re just totally out of touch. If you go into Whole Foods in Cupertino, CA, you’re gong to find yourself surround by a lot of people who look like they could and would support the iPhone and the Apple watch. You’ll see a lot of those people. You’ll even see people using both of those devices. That’s the bubble that Apple lives in. I’ve been to that Whole Foods, I’m talking about a very specific place here.

If you go and randomly pick 100 towns in the United States. If you had a random generator and you went into whatever is the closest thing to a Whole Foods in those towns. Most certainly it wouldn’t have Whole Foods, right? You’re probably going to end up in more mass market supermarkets and if you observe the people in those places you will immediately realize that there is no market for this beyond the very small-high percent.

Again, what are you creating. The iPhone has penetrated into those markets. You’ll see people who, from a socioeconomic perspective, look like they probably couldn’t or shouldn’t be spending money on that kind of thing, but they are armed with their smartphone. Adding an expensive watch into that ecosystem is just stupid.

Jon:
On that note, listeners remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one l in the digital life and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. Dirk?

Dirk:
If you want to hear more from me or get in touch in ways where I’m not quite so cranky and negative, you can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer or email me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
So that’s it for episode 107 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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