Asking Apple To Do The Impossible

on January 3, 2016

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.

Incomplete

(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.