On January 17, 2017 in Tech

On Apple

Much has been said and written about the current state of Apple over the past weeks, months, and even years. Things are not perfect, but there are not enough reasons to switch.

  • Apple

Much has been said and written about the current state of Apple over the past weeks, months, and even years. Things seem to have gotten more intense since the release of the new MacBook Pro in November. My perception is that a lot of people think this year will finally reveal some future the company has chosen for itself; as the “old” Apple with that unique soul and care for products like the Mac or as the “new” Apple, expanding horizontally and producing all kinds of nicely designed but not as innovative/powerful mass market consumer products.

I have been a very happy Apple customer ever since I got my first iPod nano for Christmas in 2005. Since then I have owned four iPods, seven Macs, one Cinema Display, both an Airport Extreme and an Airport Express, six iPhones, two iPads, an AppleTV, an Apple Watch, and a pair of AirPods. I have been following Apple-related news and rumors and listened to Apple related podcasts. And after all that, I must admit I feel some of the pessimism over the company’s future creep into my own thoughts.

Among the pieces I have read on the topic over the past months, I think Chug von Rospach’s was the best at analyzing what is currently going on. I can totally identify with the “niche users” Chug describes

The problem? This group is fairly small and have needs living well towards the end of the bell curve. They are, effectively, a niche within the niche that the Mac now finds itself in. Apple seems to have made business decisions not to support this group. Why?

In the following, I am going to take some of the topics Chug addresses and add some of my observations, some of which I have not seen mentioned anywhere so far. Bear with me, this is going to be a long one.

Missing Shipping Dates and Not Meeting Demand

But over the last year or so, we’ve seen a number of products announced with shipping dates that were pushed out, and out, and out, or met by small shipments that woefully struggled with demand. Last year it was the pencil, and now, we’re seeing a similar challenge to ship with the AirPods.

Personally, I do not care too much about Apple having to postpone products. Sure if they have to postpone more often it is a sign that either their planning or their execution is lacking. But if they miss a release date once or twice a year, I do not care. What I do care about is the extremely limited availability of products once they are released. Last year, I bought the iPhone 7, the Apple Watch Series 2, a 15” MacBook Pro, and a pair of Air Pods. Every single product was backordered several weeks despite me making the purchase within minutes (iPhone 7, MacBook Pro, Apple Watch) our hours (Air Pods) of availability. How is it possible that for basically any new product Apple keeps struggling with demand? They should be able to handle this by now, no? With the MacBook Pro I made the mistake of choosing wire transfer as payment method, because it was a pre-order — my money would surely arrive way before any shipments would get prepared, right? — and I thought the delivery estimate of 2–3 weeks in the store would be accurate (this was in line with the actual launch date). What then happened was just frustrating. First, the confirmation e-mail showed a shipping estimate of 4–5 weeks. When the shipping date approached, my delivery estimate was pushed back another week and finally it was set for December 22nd. Meanwhile, friends, who had ordered via credit card later than me, were getting their new MacBook Pros. What I take away from this is that Apple kept prioritizing orders, for which they had yet to receive a payment, over mine. I understand the business logic. But I always thought Apple to have some moral high ground. This is simply not what I would have expected from them. They should be better than this.

Languishing and Discontinued Products

Apple has products it’s let languish without any significant update for long periods of time.

There are many examples for this in Apple’s product line: the Mac Pro, the Mac mini, the Airport line of routers, the Thunderbolt Display, and — at the moment — even the non-pro versions of the iPad, iPad Air and iPad mini. Before November, the MacBook Pro would have been on that list.

I do not understand how Apple can leave these products this unattended for such a long time. People rely on them. It is simply embarrassing that the Mac Pro, which Phil Schiller announced with “Can’t innovate anymore my Ass” is still being sold without any hardware updates in more than 1000 days. Heck, until recently Apple was still advertising this computer with performance gains in Aperture, the company’s long discontinued professional photography Application. Double the embarrassment. Why don’t they just acknowledge these problems? I bet, if they were more open about this, people like me would totally understand.

Reminder: The current Mac Pro page brags about the performance with Aperture, a program that Apple retired 2+ years ago: pic.twitter.com/woJHb50kkE

Brian Stucki (@brianstucki) October 27, 2016

Same goes for the Airport routers. These were really great routers once. Apple has not updated them in years and by now there are much better products available — performance-wise. Rumor has it, Apple is going to discontinue them, too. Chuq notes

Now, to be fair, I think it makes sense for Apple to stop making WIFI devices; the market is established and there are good products in there, unlike when Apple stepped in and started selling them.

I disagree. While alternatives such as Eero(http://eero.com) and Google Wifi exist, these are not yet available in most markets outside of the US. In places like Germany you still have to buy ugly, potentially nightmare inducing, routers from PC companies or an AVM FRITZ!Box, a product so German and boring I never even considered buying it. Yes, there is Ubiquity, but their offerings are more for the professional market.

Linksys routers on Amazon

So yes, Apple should continue making their routers, in particular if they want to maybe finally establish HomeKit as a real thing.

The Nickle-and-diming

This was not part of Chug’s piece, but I think it’s worth discussing, as it has popped up in other discussions. Apple opponents have often argued, Apple products are overpriced and you could get equally good alternatives for much less money. While this has always been true when looking only at specs, Apple’s products turned out to be comparably priced when considering all their features, bundled software, and low cost of maintenance. In particular the last point is so significant that IBM apparently saves $273 — $543 per Mac compared to a PC. Mac users like me were thus willing to pay the seemingly higher price. We knew we were getting a significantly better product.

With the most recent MacBook Pro update, I am starting to get a bit frustrated with Apple’s pricing model, however. These machines are more expensive than they used to be. According to BGR the new line of MacBook Pros has seen price increases between between $200 and $300. In Germany, where Apple is also adjusting to the depreciation of the Euro against the Dollar, the price increases were even bigger. The 15” base model is apparently €500 more expensive than its predecessor (this includes the VAT of 19 percent). That is quite a lot of money. But there is more. You will end up spending $50-$150 on Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C dongles — I am 100 percent convinced going Thunderbolt 3 only was the right decision. But wait, there is more. Apple found a way to charge you more for the power adapter. A lot of people tend to buy an extra power adapter for their MacBook. It is very convenient to have one for home and one for work or travel. The 85W MagSafe 2 Power Adapter costs $79. It includes the MagSafe cable and an extension cord. With the new 87W USB-C Power Adapter, this is a different matter. You have to buy three separate items to match what is in the box with the old adapter; the power adapter itself (still the same $79), the USB-C cable connecting to your MacBook to the power adapter ($19), and the extension cord ($19). So the new power adapter comes in at an extra $38 compared to the old MagSafe 2 version. Considering all these extra expenses, the new MacBook Pros come in at a significant premium compared to their predecessors. Some people have made fun of Mac users, who spend $2,800 on a new computer and then complain about $100 extra for adapters. It’s simple not just that. All things considered we are talking up to $500 or even €700 added to the usual cost of upgrading to the latest hardware. Why does Apple keep raising prices? Yes, they are a publicly listed company. Yes, a lot of people are still paying these prices. But at some point this simply looks greedy. Apple could have included adapters and cables in the box with this already much more expensive MacBook Pro. That would have been the right thing to do. We have seen the same behavior in the past. The iPod and iPhone used to ship with a dock, remember? Then someone found out it would help the company’s profits to remove these “extras”. This time this is happening on a much bigger scale, though.

Products Losing Their Soul

One reason a lot of people became Apple fans and fell in love with products like the Mac and the iPhone was their soul. Apple would always put some extra effort into their products; add some nifty or playful little feature. Some examples of this are

  • the Mag Safe connector by itself and the charing indicator LED on it,
  • being able to configure AirPort routers via an app, rather than a web interface,
  • the battery indicator pre-retina MacBooks used to have,
  • the sleeping LED light of pre-retina MacBooks,
  • the seemingly first inline microphone and remote not requiring a special connector on the iPhone’s headset,
  • the various connectors on the Thunderbolt Display,
  • the asymmetrical fans in the retina MacBook Pros, or
  • the pairing mechanism used by the AirPods.

But a Mac fan like me sees this list and notices all the delightful features and products that have been removed or discontinued without an adequate replacement. I remember getting my first MacBook Pro and keeping connecting and disconnecting the Mag Safe connector. To me, coming from an Asus notebook, this was magic. Likewise, you could buy a Cinema or Thunderbolt Display and have this amazing screen that opened a world of possibilities for your MacBook with just a single cable connecting the two. Back then, nobody else provided features like this. Now we have USB-C and you can get similar solutions from regular PC vendors. Probably this is why Apple stopped producing their own displays. Other products were deemed good enough.

That’s the thing, though. People used to fall in love with Apple products, because they were never just good enough. With the AirPods Apple has kind of shown they are still capable of delivering true innovation and magic. But why should “old” products loose all their magic, their soul? Why does Apple seem to be caring less about putting a smile on people’s faces when they notice a magical little feature? Apple needs to get this back! It is the differentiating factor making people passionate about the company.

Why There Still Is No Reason to Abandon Ship

Like Chug, I do not think all is lost. By far not. And despite a lot of posts about people trying Linux or going back to Windows have been popping up, I feel switching is not a viable option. First, other hardware simply is not designed as nicely. Turns out, I do care how my computer looks and feels. Secondly, I do not want to buy a laptop, then try to get Bluetooth, Wireless, and what not working and probably fail in some instances. And what about a consistent nice UI where all apps at least have a similar design language? What about all the awesome apps you can find on macOS, that happen to come with an iOS, even an Apple Watch companion? The Omni Focuses, the Tweetbots, the Reeders, the Sketches, the Towers and the 200 other amazing apps made by indie developers? Am I supposed to settle for ugly UIs and webapps? I just do not think Apple’s hard- and software have gone even 10 percent down the hill at whose end I will switch to Linux — yes, at this point I would only consider Linux. A colleague of mine uses Windows 10 for web development. Basically every time we make a change to the build tools of a project, it will fail on his machine. We will spend hours trying to fix it, eventually finding some obscure workaround or finding that a reboot will fix things. Seriously? 😳

So, I feel the pain and I wish things were a bit different for the hardcore Apple user, but there is a long, long, long way to go before I would even consider another platform. And who knows, maybe we will see another “Can’t innovate anymore, my Ass!” from Phil in 2017!?