Asking Apple To Do The Impossible

On December 28, 2015, Nilay Patel wrote an article for The Verge entitled: Apple’s Year In Beta. The sub-title was “Everything Needs More Focus And More Time.” (All quotes, below, will be from the article unless otherwise attributed.)

(I)t is surprisingly easy to make the argument that everything on Apple’s huge list of new products and features this year sucked a little bit. ~ Nilay Patel

Easy? Yes. Fair? Maybe not.

Straw Man

All of Apple’s products this year were just fine…. And that’s really the issue. We’re not used to Apple being just fine. We’re used to Apple being wildly better than the competition, or sometimes much worse, but always being ahead of the curve on some significant axis. ~ Nilay Patel

Wildly better? Always ahead of the curve?

A “Straw Man” argument is an informal fallacy based on refuting a position that no reasonable proponent would actually make. It’s easy for Apple to disappoint Nilay’s expectations when Nilay sets his expectations so unrealistically high. If Nilay thinks Apple’s successful products are always wildly better than the competition, it’s no wonder that he would tend to be wildly disappointed in Apple.

Take a gander at some past Apple products:

– Apple III
– Apple IIe
– Apple Lisa
– Apple IIc
– Quadra 700
– Powerbook 100
– Centris 610
– Newton
– Macintosh TV
– Pippin
– Performa
– eMate 300
– Power Mac G4 Cube
– Apple Mighty Mouse

You’d have to look far and wide to find anyone who reasonably considers any of these Apple products to be “wildly better” than those of the competition. Further, products such as iCloud, Maps, and iMessage — which are now considered to be critical to Apple’s ongoing success — were all severely criticized in their time. Even Apple’s most successful products — the Macintosh, iPhone, MacBook Air and iPad — were severely panned when they debuted…and long afterwards too.

Nilly’s premise is correct: Apple is sometimes (not the hyperbolic “always”) ahead of the curve. However, the implied conclusion is incorrect: Apple’s products are not admired because they are ahead of the curve, rather, they are CRITICIZED precisely because they are ahead of the curve.


(W)hat we got in 2015 was an Apple that released more products than ever, all of which felt incomplete in extremely meaningful ways — ways that meant that their products were just fine, and often just the same as everyone else’s.

I would go so far as to say every new Apple product or feature released in 2015 was essentially in beta. Apple released a lot of big new platforms that, by themselves, weren’t nearly complete. ~ Nilay Patel

Yeah, here’s the problem with that argument: “Incomplete” is not a valid criteria for critiquing tech products.

Name me a significant new tech product that didn’t feel incomplete when it first appeared on the market.

(Crickets chirping.)

The original Macintosh? The original iPod? The original iPhone? The Original iPad? The original MacBook Air?

The Kitty Hawk? The Ford Model-T? The steam engine? The printing press?

None of these products felt “complete” when they debuted.

The contention that a product has to feel complete at birth is all backwards. Tech products don’t feel complete when they debut. On the contrary, the closer a tech product is to becoming “complete”, the closer it is to becoming obsolete. “Complete” comes at the end — not at the beginning — of a tech product’s life cycle.

Killer App

Apple needed — expected, really — its vast army of dedicated and passionate third-party developers to come up with killer apps for things like the Apple Watch and iPad Pro. ~ Nilay Patel

Nilay goes on to say that the Apple Watch, Apple TV, Apple Music and iPad Pro are all new platforms in search of a killer app.

Why do we continue to think that new platforms immediately — or ever — generate killer apps? It was years before apps such as Uber and airbnb appeared on smartphones. And even those two industry altering apps don’t truly fit the definition of “killer apps”. In the nineteen-eighties, people bought desktop computers in order to get Lotus 1-2-3, but no one buys a smartphone in order to get the Uber or airbnb apps.

Truth be told, there probably hasn’t been a true “killer” application since Lotus 1-2-3. It turns out that when it comes to smartphones, the killer feature is — well — the killer feature is the smartphone itself.

To get a sense of what I mean, just consider the first iPhone, which introduced a new platform with two incredible killer apps: the Safari browser (which was revolutionary in 2007) and Maps. The next iPhone introduced the App Store with a laundry list of additional killer apps, and you know what happened next — the entire tech industry turned upside down. And eventually Apple introduced iMessage, a platform-level feature that creates and reinforces an extraordinary amount of value if everyone you know is an iPhone user — those blue bubbles mean something in the culture now. ~ Nilay Patel

Hmm. Most of those examples are system features, not apps, right? But what the heck, I’ll play along.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim that Apple’s newest products feel incomplete at inception and then support your position with examples of products that weren’t nearly complete at inception themselves.

The examples Nilay provides resoundingly disprove his thesis. The iPhone was not complete when it appeared, Maps was considered a joke as recently as last year, the App Store, sans apps, appeared a year AFTER the original iPhone did, and iMessage did not show up until June 6, 2011 — FOUR YEARS after the iPhone was introduced. Who’s to say that Apple’s newest platforms won’t mature in a similar fashion?

Not to go all biblical, but if you are building an argument on the twin premises that a new platform needs to be mature at birth and needs to have killer apps, then you are “like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” ((Matthew 7:24-27 English Standard Version))

Change The World

And that’s really the story of Apple in 2015. After years of promising investors new products, the implication over and over again was that the iPhone changed the world, and it would happen again with another new product. And while the company delivered on dazzle and hype — sometimes far more than usual — the products themselves often felt searching, waiting to be imbued with reason. ~ Nilay Patel

Say what now?

First, I assure you that the implications Nilay is projecting onto Apple occurred only in his fevered imagination. In no way, shape or form did Apple imply “over and over again” that they were, in 2015, introducing a world changing product that would eclipse even the iPhone.

Second, the iPhone is big deal. A really, really big deal. Expecting ANY product to be the next iPhone is asking a bit much.

Third, try to remember that in 2007 we didn’t know that the iPhone was going to become the juggernaut that “The iPhone” became. Let’s give Apple’s new products a little time to grow before we prematurely declare them to be mere iPhone wannabes.

One of the mantras of modern business is to “under promise and over deliver“. If Nilay thought Apple literally promised to change the world in 2015, then it is no wonder that he also thought Apple under delivered on that promise. How could he feel otherwise? It would be nigh on impossible for Apple — or any company — to meet those kind of inflated expectations.

Asking The Impossible

There are no right answers to the wrong questions. ~ Ursula K. Le Guin

If you’re asking why Apple’s new products aren’t “wildly better than the competition”, why they’re “incomplete”, why they didn’t inspire the creation of “killer apps”, why they didn’t change the world; then you’re going to get the wrong answers.

A critic is some who never actually goes to battle, enters the battlefield after the fighting is done, and shoots the wounded ~ variously attributed to Tyne Daly and Murray Kempton

Apple Watch has been on the market for 8 months, Apple Music has been on the market for 6 months, the iPad Pro and the newest iteration of Apple TV have been on the market for a mere 4 months. No new platform can create a robust ecosystem in that short amount of time. It’s impossible. However, the impossible is precisely what Nilay expects — nay, demands — of Apple.

We shouldn’t be asking why Apple’s new platforms and platform enhancements haven’t ALREADY generated significant new ecosystems. Rather, we should be asking whether Apple’s new platforms are broad enough and strong enough to support robust future development. My short answer to that question is that some products look promising and others do not. But it’s still far too early to know for sure.

Expecting Apple to introduce platforms that are mature at birth is asking too much. Apple can’t do the impossible. They’re only capable of doing the improbable.

Published by

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?

56 thoughts on “Asking Apple To Do The Impossible”

  1. Good article. Sad that Apple continues to engender so many pundits to lose their marbles and spew such nonsense.

    “The Kitty Hawk? The Ford Model-T?”

    If by Kitty Hawk, you mean the first powered airplane, it was never actually given a name, but it’s referred to in histories as “The Wright Flyer 1” or “The Wright Flyer 1903”

    1. Thank you for your kind comment.

      I think there are many serious questions one can ask about Apple’s new products. I’m not at all sure that they will all succeed. But I do think that things should be kept in perspective and that analysis is enhance by asking the right questions.

      Thomas Berger said that: “The art of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.”

      Another anonymous saying is that: “Knowledge is having the right answer, intelligence is asking the right question.

      Finally, and on a more serious note, Thomas Edison was reputed to have said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.”

      I think that far too often we have all the right answers to all the wrong questions.

    2. You’re right about the Kitty Hawk. The Kitty Hawk refers to the town, not the plane. I even looked it up before I used it, but the various references to Kitty Hawk all had a picture of the Wright Brother’s plane associated with them. My bad.

      I think I’ll leave the entry as is, and let viewers recognize my intent via your comment and this response.

      Thank you for correcting me. I don’t like being wrong, but I’d rather get it right than remain blissfully ignorant. 🙂

      1. How kind of you to say ‘intellectual’ instead of ‘pedant’, but we all have been pedants in our own moments of weakness.

      2. You’re full of it. Googling “name of first airplane” or “1903 name of first airplane” pulls up several pages that specify it was called the “Wright Flyer” and not a single one that says it was called the Kitty Hawk.

        (Proud to be an effete, impudent, intellectual snob, and I have the badges to prove it.)

  2. Hey! Happy New Year. I missed you.

    There’s one thing you can’t deny. Apple charges premium pricing for premium products and ultimately IT services (you know, ‘the experience’). If this doesn’t generate the highest expectations, then nothing does.

    1. Thank you for your your kind thoughts, Klahanas

      I would say that Apple’s past successes, more than their high prices, have created the high expectations that you refer to in your comment. But there is a big difference between high expectations and unrealistic expectations.

      I too have serious qualms about the products Apple introduced in 2015, and those products are absolutely open to criticism. But you can’t ask a baby to be born in the first trimester, you can’t ask quarterback to win a Super Bowl in in the first quarter of the season and you can’t ask Apple — or anyone — to create a mature software platform in only 4 to 8 months.

      Well, one CAN ask for those things — but one shouldn’t because they’re unrealistic.

    2. Or Apple charges reasonable prices for generally good products. I don’t see the premium I paid for my iPhone, I could have got a cheeper phone but it wouldn’t have been as good, I could not have got a better phone for less so where is the premium?

        1. Part of the trouble is that you seem to let the prices of other products inform your expectation of the price of the product in question. And that the relative price ratio determines the relative outcome…

          For example, you see the ASP in Android land is ca. 200 bucks, therefore, you seem to think you should pay, say, 400 for a “premium” product. You seem to expect that 400-dollar product to deliver “twice the value” than the 200-dollar one. Then you extrapolate upon that further, and seem to expect something that costs 600 to deliver ‘three times’ the value (whatever that means, as though we can measure that).

          Rather, it seems evident that 400-buck Android devices (such as increasingly poorly selling Android Galaxies) just aren’t delivering on their basic expectations, whatever those expectations may be. Hence, the ASP of Android devices going down and down and Samsung suffering alongside other Android OEMs and losing profitability.

          Rather, iPhones are holding their value: so, a valid conclusion is that they are, to a large degree, delivering on the expectation of purchasers. No-one is sitting there saying, “my iPhone better measurably deliver ‘three times’ the value of a phone costing one third the price”. The iPhone simply meets expectations in a way that many Android phones do not. Either iPhones do, or they do not, broadly meet the expectation of their users to deliver value; and either tens of millions of people are purchasing them (and re-purchasing them), or not.

          In other words, most iPhone users would say that they are getting something that they feel they can’t otherwise get at any price (a third the price, half the price, two thirds the price, whatever), and the iPhone delivers the extra value they expect to justify that cost. That might be “security”, that might be “privacy”, that might be “ease of use”, that might be “continuity” with other Apple devices, that might be “easy updates”, that might be “support”, etc.; or a combo of things.

          “Your mileage may vary”
          Just a couple of the above things over the three-year life of a phone certainly does “justify” an extra 200-400 bucks to most iPhone users. What that “killer” value is for individual users certainly might vary user to user; but the fact that some justifiable value exists is pretty invariable across the whole iPhone user base. I simply don’t accept that most purchases of the tens of millions of iPhones per quarter are due to an affectation of lifestyle, overhype, “lock-in”, etc.

          1. Any measurement, whether it’s subjective or objective requires a reference point. I personally set my expectations based on what the market offers ‘in a class of device’. Other considerations such as lock-in and censorship impact that decision.

            Personally, other than the original iPhone, I do think Apple’s products are grossly overhyped. Aspirational marketing. This influences expectations as well. Calling the original iPad ‘magical’ was almost offensive to me. All computers are ‘magical’, less capable ones less so.

            Apple needs to back up the position which they put themselves. They put themselves on a pedestal. Otherwise, it’s just snake oil.

            Example: Yesterday, hell did indeed freeze over as I bought an iPad Pro for myself. It’s my first personal iPad, and I have 45 days to decide whether to keep it. The specific reasons, in importance, are:

            a) The pencil does indeed seem to work well. On a scale of 100, I give the Pencil an 80, the SP Pro a 70. This is the main reason why I got it, and it what it will be used for.

            b) I was given an Airplay speaker for Christmas, which I love, but Android doesn’t do Airplay well. Now, I prefer WiFi to Bluetooth, but to use the proprietary implementation of WiFi is best served by the proprietary device.

            Compared to the pricing of a Wacom Cintiq, the iPad Pro is competitive. See what I did there?

          2. Since you’re a picker of nits, a 100 point scale permits the equivalent of two decimal accuracy, using integers only, over a 10 point scale. 🙂

          3. Actually, a scale of 100 only permits ONE decimal level of accuracy over a scale of 10.

            2016 is shaping up to be a banner year for picking nits.

          4. Yes, I should have said significant figures. Up to two on a 10 point scale (integer), up to three on a 100. It’s been a while since kindergarten….
            Oh wait! I never went to kindergarten! 🙂

    3. As Steve Jobs said, the market (not pundits) decides whether Apple made the right choices (features, launch timing, etc) for its products. Certainly there are some who buy and then are disappointed (and for some, buy again and are disappointed again). So some will say that repeat buyers (or repeat-repeat buyers) are the better (or best) market measure. (For the new 2015 products, I don’t think we’ve reached the point of repeat buyers yet since the products are still in the 1st generation.)

      So the debate looks to be this: What does the estimated 8m Apple Watch sales in 9 months say about the product? What does the reported 6.5m paying/8.5m still in trial Apple Music subscriptions in 3-4 months say? etc.

      1. Couldn’t tell you for sure, but having a captive audience helps. Having rabid evangelists, both pundits and customers, helps. Mindshare matters!

  3. Name me a significant new tech product that didn’t feel incomplete when it first appeared on the market.
    He’s not saying that about “new tech products” though, but about all of Apple’s 2015 products, including very mature lines.

    I’m curious, is there ever something about Apple you dislike or find imperfect ?

    1. You evidently didn’t read the second last para in John’s article:

      “we should be asking whether Apple’s new platforms are broad enough and strong enough to support robust future development. My short answer to that question is that some products look promising and others do not. But it’s still far too early to know for sure.”

      1. You evidently don’t parse the difference between

        “this doesn’t look promising ” = maybe it there’s no market for it, maybe it’s not good, maybe the tech/busi environment is harsh


        “I don’t like this product” = I personally find this product inferior or not good/useful/nice

        There IS one. Actually there are several. And there are plenty of products I like that I don’t think look promising, and plenty of products I think have a very promising outlook that I don’t like.

    1. Thank you for the warm welcome, Observer. But I can’t help but be a stranger, since there are few people stranger than I am. 🙂

      1. Seriously, keep writing.

        Did you know Steve Wildstrom? He was one of the best and I am so sorry he’s gone. He should have been with us another 20 years at least.

        1. Yes, I knew Steve and met him once at WWDC. As you may know, he had a brain tumor. He fought hard to make a fully recovery and I’m so sorry that we lost him this year.

  4. The iPhone was severely panned by Steve Ballmer. He was such a dummy he made Microsoft miss mobile….one of the bigger tech —-ups of all time.

  5. Isn’t it amazing how Apple’s innovations and successes are always in the past? How every new thing Apple does only portends doom and failure?

    No other tech company has such a dismal record of constant failure. Apple has never done anything right–until time passes–then, suddenly, everything they’re doing NOW is bad, and those things they did before were so great.


    Thank you, Mr. Kirk, for eloquently dismantling the premise-contradicting nature of these lazy critical arguments. Always a fun read and looking forward to more.

  6. Spot on! I am surprised that N. Patel exhibited such selective and defective recall. The iPhone certainly was not a ‘complete’ product when it first came out in ’07. To demand that the Apple Watch, which is a much bigger departure from anything Apple has done before (iPhone had the iPod to build upon), be ‘complete’ in its first iteration is foolish.

    1. I think that Nilay was correct to have questions regarding Apple’s new products. I certainly have qualms.

      However, criticism should be relevant and realistic. Criticizing Apple for not introducing four separate mature platforms in 2015 is like criticizing quintuplets for not graduating college on the day they were born. I’m not saying that all four of Apple’s quintuplets will grow up to be winners, but I am saying that we should allow them to grow up before we start labeling them failures.

        1. In would take an article, and probably a series of articles for me to articulate my qualms regarding Apple’s new products. Let’s just focus on the 4 new platforms that Nilay highlighted in his article:

          I have no doubt that the Apple Watch is and will be a success. However, there are a lot of Apple Watch features that seem to go underused. It’s probable that Apple got parts of the Watch right, but may have a bunch of misses too.

          It’s too soon to tell about the iPad Pro. It might be a success or it might be a flop. Only time will tell. But even if the iPad Pro is a success, it will be competing in the much smaller arena of tablets/hybrids/notebooks and desktops, not the much, much larger arena of smartphones

          I have serious questions about Apple Music. I have no doubt that Apple’s support will make Apple Music a viable platform but I’m not at all certain that Apple created a formula that will succeed in capturing most, or the most important sector, of the online music market.

          I think Apple TV is in for a long slow, tedious slog before it can be called a success. This is more due to the nature of the TV/Cable market than anything else.

          1. My take on these four products/platforms, whatever we want to call them, is that they’re all good in the sense that they should exist and will serve a portion of Apple’s customers, and each fills a significant role in the ecosystem. Of course they all need work and will improve over time, that is obvious. But each one is the right idea, it’s simply the details that need work. The potential here is enormous. I said about five years or so ago, if you think Apple is big/successful now, just wait five years (in response to some typical Apple doom comments). The same applies today.

          2. The point of which product will succeed on its own merit or not is partly moot because Apple needs to be present in each and every segment since they allow their customers to access their conetent only on iDevices (with the exceptions of iTunes on Windows and Music on Android).
            iPhone users must buy an iWatch if they want a smartwatch, must buy an aTV if they want to watch their iTunes movies, must buy an iPad Pro if they want a larger tablet or a pen with their apps and content. That’s a huge captive market piggybacking on iPhone, working out how each product is successful on its own is almost impossible.
            Reciprocally, Apple must offer those products to its iPhone users, or risk losing them to an ecosystem which does. The tunnel effect that makes Apple users unaware that they’re mostly getting warmed-over 2 year old Android innovations might wear thin at some point anyway.

          3. “The tunnel effect that makes Apple users unaware that they’re mostly getting warmed-over 2 year old Android innovations might wear thin at some point”

            I’m sure that will happen Any Day Now ™.

          4. Yes, because the bulk of people who purchase consumer computing devices are tech-aware people like commenters on this site who religiously keep up to date on all the latest developments out there and are ready to punish laggard products by switching over to the competition as soon as a product falls behind the tech curve. /s

          5. Ha! Yes, exactly. Consumers are always going to leave Apple in droves Real Soon Now (patent pending).

  7. The iPhone is the internet in your pocket. It will be hard for anything to beat that for a long time. Using iPhone as the standard every new Apple product needs to live up to is a bit much. But we all know Nilay was looking for page views not thoughtful discussion.

    1. The iPhone, and mobile in general, is ‘part’ of the internet in your pocket. This suffices for most, but can be stifling.

    2. It’s worse than using the iPhone as the standard. A mythical iPhone that was ‘complete’ at day 1, was the standard insisted upon.

  8. Great to FalKirk back in action and at his best to start the New Year.

    Apple’s biggest problem in the mind of pundits and wall street is they created the greatest consumer product of all time – the iPhone. There is only one greatest product, and to constantly complain that everything since is lacking, is simply to ignore the fact that there is only one top dog.

    The one question I try ask everyone who writes or chats about Apple, it’s finances, or it’s products, etc. is “compared to what”? It gets rather easy to take an FalKirkian machete to their statements one they give you a realistic frame of comparison.

    1. And those pundits and wall street consistently failed to recognize, from the beginning in 2007 to the launch of iPhone 6, that the iPhone was (and still is) the greatest consumer product of all time.

      They are now most likely still in the exact same state, as they fail to recognize that the Apple Watch is someday going to be declared the second greatest consumer product of all time.

  9. This is a terrific column debunking the comments that someone should know better if he’s leading a gadget blog company. My take on that his column written for controversy to create traffic and lots of discussion. It certainly did that, but at a cost of the author’s credibility.
    I remember the first iPhone that had so many problems that it resulted in more returns than sold units. Many returned multiple phones to get one that worked. And then after all of that we still suffered with dropped calls that AT&T blamed on Apple and Apple blamed on AT&T.

    Thanks for setting the record straight.

  10. There is one “killer app” for the iPhone!

    It is called iTunes.

    That alone causes millions of people to buy Android phones instead of Apple..

    1. Chortle, chortle. I’m laughing so hard my laugh bone hurts. You’re a funny person. I’m sure millions of people read your insight and bought Android phones ‘cuz you’re such a funny person.

      Only to discover the “killer app” for Android is Android. See! I’m as funny as you now!

  11. Apple has succeeded beyond any other company in creating a “nation” out of its linked product ecosystem, and its challenge is not to the world at large but meet the expectations of Apple Nation year by year. The iPhone 6 success was nothing but pent-up demand for a large phone by loyalists who don’t want to consider anything but another iPhone, and were thwarted for a couple of years, while they looked at Samsumg, etc. at the water cooler. Apple’s recent disappointments have not bothered “the world” but the Nation.

    1. “The iPhone 6 success was nothing but pent-up demand for a large phone by loyalists who don’t want to consider anything but another iPhone”

      I doubt it. You need to go a little deeper than just making the assertion.

      Pent-up demand by loyalists probably accounts for only a mediocre launch that would just barely equal previous years. “Success” is probably down to some 30% of sales being sales to those new to the platform (ie a lot of Android switchers who didn’t buy what Samsung had to offer).

  12. Patel and other critics rewrite history all the time. They inflate the praise Apple received at its product intros in the past, so they can now put down what Apple is doing in the present; intentionally overlooking that Apple was criticized by most (including themselves) at those product intros.

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