Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why I'm somewhat apprehensive about Apple's reshuffle

Though I'm not as pessimistic about the Apple executive shuffle as the markets and Joy Of Tech, I'm apprehensive regarding the future of Apple's products.

Jony Ive is a great industrial designer, but Human-Computer Interaction is not Industrial Design. And some of the design decisions in recent hardware (meaning Ive's decisions) seem to ignore realities on the field. Take the latest iMac.

The new iMac doesn't have an optical drive; some pundits (and, I think, Phil Schiller on the Apple event) say that's a normal evolution. After all there aren't floppy disks on computers any longer and Apple was the first to drop them. And look how pretty the tapered edges of the iMac are.

Floppy disks existed as part of a computer-only ecosystem. CDs, DVDs, and BluRay Discs are part of a much larger ecosystem, which includes dedicated players and big screen TVs, production and distribution chains for content, and a back catalog and personal inventory for which downloads are not a complete alternative. (Some movies and music are not available as downloads and people already have large collections of DVDs and BluRay Discs.)

Using floppy disks as an example of change, implying that it is repeated with optical drives, shows a complete disregard of the larger ecosystem and willful ignorance of the difference between the earlier situation and the current situation.

For a laptop, the absence of an optical drive may be an acceptable trade-off for lower weight; for a desktop, particularly one that is a "home" desktop with a HD screen, the lack of a BluRay/DVD/CD drive is a questionable decision.

But look how pretty the tapered edges are, here in the uncluttered Apple Store retail shelves — oops, those computers will be in cluttered real world environments, where the necessary external drive (what, no BluRay drive yet, Apple?) will add even more clutter.

But, on the empty tables and antiseptic environments of "minimalist" designers' imagined world, that tapered edge is really important.

In the rest of the world, there are scores of people who like watching really old movies (available on DVD, not as downloads or streaming — except illegally), new movies in 1080p discs with lots of special features (i.e. BluRay discs that they can buy cheaply in big box stores), or their own movies (which they already own, and could rip — in violation of the DMCA — for future perusal, as long as they want piles of external hard drives); or maybe they want to rip some music that isn't available in download format, say CDs they bought in Europe that aren't available in the US yet.

So, using a decision that is not isomorphic at all (dropping the floppy disk) as a justification, Apple ignores a big chunk of the value proposition (consumption of media that is not available via digital download) on behalf of elegance. And, perhaps some extra iTunes sales — probably too small to make a difference on the margin.

What will this type of philosophy do to software? As Donald Norman wrote in this piece, there's nothing particularly good about fetishizing simplicity. Even now, many power users of Apple products spend a lot of time developing work-arounds for Apple's unnecessary rigid limitations.

Steve Jobs's second stint at Apple had the advantage of his having failed twice before (his first stint at Apple and NeXT), which tempered him and made him aware of the power of ecosystems (not just network effects). This is a powerful learning experience for an executive. Jony Ive hasn't failed in this manner.