Monday, March 3, 2014

Is Apple Like A Chicken Without A Head?

I was reading the other day about Mike the Headless Chicken. Mike was one of a crop of Chickens that had their heads chopped off prior to being served up as someone's meal but unlike the other chickens, Mike didn't die.

Mike lived on far longer without his head than anyone though he could. His body lived on, was fed and actually traveled the world performing in side shows for 18 months after his decapitation. He was a miracle to behold because when he was decapitated, the farmer left most of his brainstem intact and that was all he needed to run his basic bodily functions. An amazing true story that I hope does not parallel Apple Inc's performance since the passing of Steve Jobs.

What got me thinking about this was trying to help someone with their iCloud notes synchronization of all things. Let me explain. I have been a Macintosh developer almost since the product was released. I got my first Mac in 1985 as part of the second crop of freshmen who received Macs as part of their school tuition at Drexel University. I dove right in and tried to learn everything I could about software development on the Mac. My first two full-time jobs after I graduated were both Mac development jobs. I was excited for the future.

What I did not realize at the time was that Steve had left Apple in 1985 and in retrospect, Apple had started to coast, much like Mike. Innovation has started to turn into incremental improvements. Stagnation had set in, most likely due to risk avoidance. The same kind of risk that Steve Jobs pursued during his tenure was diminishing every year.

Slowly, my day job turned from Mac development to Windows development. Customer demand for Windows products was up and Mac demand was down and I moved on, not really noticing the reasons for this shift at the time.

Now on to 2005. After spending years developing for Windows and becoming intimately familiar with its warts and bruises, I had moved on to pure Java development. After Apple's migration to Intel hardware I decided to take another peek at Apple computers. Performance on Power PC macs was lagging behind most Intel systems at that point and it looked like the time to see if this was a platform was now worth switching back to.

What I found was a reliable, engaging platform that was fast and gave me the kind of flexible command line that I could only find previously on Linux boxes. It was easy to use, much less troubled by viruses and did not slow down over time. I was back and times were good. I would tune in to Apple keynotes like Macworld in January and look forward to new innovations like the iPhone and iPad. These also brought with them new development challenges and endless new Apps. Times were good again.

Now I am beginning to wonder if the Mike analogy is appropriate again. Here is why. Remember MobileMe? I do. It was a disaster and Steve gave it the mercy killing it deserved. It was replaced by iCloud which I had a lot of hope for but this hope is fading in the light of competition and the lack of continued improvement or innovation. When I think about it, I use dropbox more, on Apple platforms than I ever use iCloud storage. iCloud is everywhere (on my Apple devices) but not anywhere else. Is free storage size is small and Dropbox is everywhere, on all platforms.

You might come back and say, "But it is so simple, I don't have to think about it." But you do. The first thing I noticed about iCloud synchronization is the annoying feature of having a local and cloud based store of information. You can have local calendars and notes that don't synchronize and it is easy to start using them, only to discover your stuff isn't everywhere. I know this is a feature but more than one person has come to me asking why their content is not syncing and the answer always is these local data stores. This is not something that should ever get turned on by default.

My other complaint about iCloud is it's app centric philosophy. Drop box just cares about files. I can put a file in it and its on all my devices. I don't ever have to think about it. When I go to I don't see my files, I just see apps that can edit them. I guess this is ok, but the test of time has proven to me that I want to see are my files because I keep falling back to dropbox. Just try to make a file public on iCloud so that anyone can download it. You just can't do it.

Next is iTunes. I pay my $20 a year for streaming privileges and when this feature came out it was half baked. It would fill my phone with streaming content to the point where I would have to delete my iTunes library just to install a new app. No one wanted it to work that way and they finally made it simple streaming. Time has moved on and now Google will stream all my music for free and will import my iTunes library anywhere. Where is my iTunes app on  Its not there. Can I watched amy video I purchased there? No. When are they going to stop charging me $20 a year for something I can get for free. They probably won't stop. Things will just go on the way they are because nobody is going to make the same call Steve did with MobileMe.

The iPhone was amazing when it first came out. No other device could do what it could do. Every year it got better and better. I would expect innovation to slow down on this product eventually but all two quickly the changes became incremental. Now new phones are starting to populate the product line that don't really make sense. Did the iPhone 5c remind anyone of the days of the Macintosh Quadra's and Performas? A proliferation of a product line that just made no sense? Who wants to buy the second best new iPhone? It turned out no one did.

And what about Siri? It progresses painfully slowly. Born in the final Steve era, it still can be classified as useful when it feels like it. One day you can ask it something and it works and the next you can ask it the same thing and it fails. Don't ever try to use it without a good network connection because it just won't work. Google has caught up because it has advanced so slowly. There speech recognition is now better and from what I can tell, we are approaching the turning point for new software innovation transitioning from IOS to Android any day now.

I read Steve's authorized autobiography. One thing I remember is that he did not ever want anyone to ask themselves, "What would Steve do?", after he was gone. What they should ask is what is the next opportunity to innovate. Steve appointed Tim Cook, his former head of operations to replace him. I though this was an odd choice. I was hoping for someone more drastic or Mercurial. Operations is kind of like the brain stem of a company. It gets resources where they need to be and keeps the body moving smoothly. In general, Apple's stock price is still high. Innovation comes in small jumps. My iPhone now has a thumbprint scanner but Mike lived for 18 months before his body finally failed. Are we seeing the radical innovation we were used to or are we seeing the body live on without the head?

So now I find my self looking to the future. Will there be an iWatch? Will the AppleTV finally open itself up to Apps and Games? Where is the Apple brand TV that Steve mentions in his autobiography? Will we see something no one expected or will I find my next laptop is running Linux and I am developing for Android? I am waiting for a sign. I hope I see one soon. Can this chicken grow a new head?

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