Wednesday, October 03, 2007

OT: Apple - Deja Vu?


Many years ago, I owned a Mercedes Benz 450SL Roadster. This was the top of the line Mercedes at that time. I remember reading a review about the car in Road and Track magazine and how they gushed about the car. Except for one item: Fixed steering wheel position. The review pointed out that all of the other cars competing in this class had adjustable steering wheels. R&T asked Mercedes about this and the response was (paraphrased): "We have calculated the optimum position for the steering wheel. It does not need to be adjustable".

Now, today, if we look at the specs for the 2008 Mercedes 600SL, we find this:

4-way (tilt/telescoping) power steering column position-linked to driver's seat memory.

Now, one might wonder why Mercedes has, at some point, lost the ability to calculate the correct position of the steering wheel. The answer, of course, is that they didn't. What they came to understand was that this was a feature that their customers wanted. So, being in the business of serving the needs of their customers, they changed this stance and gave the customer what they wanted.

I don't think that any of us wants to tolerate something that a product has as a feature when that feature (or lack thereof) does not meet our needs. We will go along our merry way looking for the product that does not impose the particular quirk upon us and as such better meets our needs. It's just common sense. And this brings us to Apple.

This morning, I read an editorial by Christopher Breen over at Macworld (you can read it HERE) entitled "Is Apple on the wrong path?". This article really struck a chord with me. I have talked about Apple before here on the blog and I have mentioned many times that I am anything but an Apple fanboi. I prefer to think of myself as technology agnostic. Use the tools that are best suited to the task. Period. But, it was not always that way for me. So let's program the wayback machine for 1982 for a few moments.

Ahhhh, here we are. I am hacking away happily on my Apple ][+. I am a huge fan of Apple. I love the products. I love the openness of the system, the fact that Apple publishes the source code to the monitor and prints out the schematics to the machine. This is hacker heaven. Hacker, in the original parlance meant someone who was a hard core computer geek. Not like today where it implies criminal activities. Around this same time, the Apple Macintosh is gestating somewhere in the bowels of Apple. Jeff Raskin, a brilliant computer scientist, has a vision for a computer that is the equivalent of a toaster. A computing appliance, if you will.

This is really the first time that any company takes the idea of "ease of use" and seriously tries to apply it to a computer. For me, as a hacker, this type of machine is the antithesis of what interests me. I have no desire to be insulated from the inner workings of a computer. To me, the computer is it's own little universe, just waiting for me to explore it. Let's fast forward to 1984 and the introduction of the Mac. I am now programming the IBM PC since the jobs for writing software for it are much more plentiful than the Apple ][. And IBM had also taken a very open approach to the design, much like the Apple. I had been following the Mac's development as much as I was able to through the press. A few days after it started showing up in stores I went to the local Computerland to check it out. I thought it was interesting. I had seen a GUI on the Lisa prior to the Mac and I had read a lot about this new user interface paradigm.

I thought that the idea was really slick but looking at what kinds of things the computer had to now do just to produce a simple UI, I presumed that the machine would be daunting to develop for. One of the things that most fascinated me was the mouse. While that original mouse was not particularly ergonomic, it was still a very interesting way to interact with the computer. About this same time, Microsoft released Word for the IBM PC and along with it, a mouse. I bought this package and I was a HUGE fan of it. I loved the fact that whatever you saw on the screen was what printed - Italics? You saw it on the screen - Boldface? Same deal. This was at a time when word processors were all text based and what you saw on the screen were special codes to delineate ares of text for bold or italic or what have you. But the text itself was still just normal text - You did not get to see it in bold or italic.

This combined with a 2 button mouse was a great combo for me. And, while right-mouse click context menus were still a few years away, the addition of the right button just seemed right. When I looked at the Mac and asked why it had only 1 button, I was told that this was done to keep the machine simple. So as not to confuse the users. How arrogant, I thought. I merrily went on my IBM way. Now, this kind of thinking - Where the producer of a particular product thinks that they know best and they are too arrogant to admit it was a mistake and correct it, is a huge pet peeve of mine.

It was this kind of arrogance that turned me off of Apple for a long time.

In recent years, Apple has been producing decent products. Correcting errors that they made in the past. Why, they even have a mouse now that supports a right click! But, even that seems to have been begrudgingly put into their Mighty Mouse product. Apple is on a roll right now. They are finally making some inroads to the corporate world.

Their stores (that were vilified in the press when they opened) provide a great experience for the customer and have made Apple a very nice profit. The switch to Intel was a HUGE plus for the products. The way that Apple implemented Rosetta and VERY quickly ported existing apps over to Intel as well as providing great tools to 3rd party developers has been an amazing success story.

With the addition of things like Parallels, VMWare Fusion and Boot Camp that all allow users to run Windows on the Mac, the level of acceptance of this platform is at a record high. Add to this the iPod, iTunes and the iPhone all doing record business and you have an amazing success story. But, at the edges of this story is the scent of that arrogance that once turned me off to Apple.

Steve - You don't always know what is best for the user. When the user base decries one of Apple's blunders, listen to them. Respond to it. When you were interviewed about the iPhone price drop in one of the trades, you basically said "Too bad. Suck it up". You followed this by offering a $100 rebate the following day. The ideal situation for this would have been for you to offer that rebate in that initial interview.

Now, as to all of the belly aching about 3rd party applications and iPhones getting bricked, I don't agree with the people that are whining about it and even suing Apple over it. You knew what the terms were when you bought the iPhone. However, Apple does need to move quickly to allow these 3rd party applications to work in a sanctioned fashion on the iPhone.

It's what your customers want. Time to do the right thing.

UPDATE: It appears that Apple is making a token effort to appease the dev crowd on the iPhone. Gizmodo has coverage HERE. This is not enough, in my opinion. They need to roll out an actual SDK for developers and quit screwing around with crap like this.


modifoo said...

Very well put, indeed.

modifoo said...

…just wanted to add another bow of the (virtual) hat; I just saw on your profile that "Living in Oblivion" is (also) one of your favourite films.

So, you've done low budget productions too, eh? ;)

B-Scene Films said...

It's the best kind to do! It makes you work to overcome issues and it gets your friends off their respective couches and puts them to work!