Notes on Kottke’s take on Apple

Jason Kottke wrote a thoughtful essay: How to beat Apple. I highly recommend reading it, every point is simply and clearly made, and true.

    1. Apple doesn’t do social well
    2. Apple doesn’t do cloud well
    3. iTunes is bloated and showing signs of age
    4. Apple doesn’t pay close attention to products that Steve Jobs doesn’t show a personal interest in

1. Apple doesn’t do social well
Agreed. I turned Ping off a month after turning it on. It wasn’t a great idea to add one more piece of functionality to an already bloated iTunes (see #3). More importantly, given Apple’s past with eWorld as an answer to AOL and their various ways for people to connect on the internet, I’m not confident that whatever they have brewing that we don’t know about will be great. If #4 is true, Apple won’t get this right until its CEO delegates “taste making” to someone who actually cares for and uses social applications.

However, Apple sure does know what to do with credit card numbers they hold: they sell lots of computers, iPhones, iPads, iPods, music, apps, and more on the web and if we stretch the definition of “social” a bit to include finding innovative ways to connect with customers, maybe it’s less of a leap to find innovative ways to let said customers interact with each other.

Kottke makes the point that “the Facebook Fone would be a massive hit if done right.” Of course, “if done right” is the key and one could make the same case for many opportunities Apple still has but hasn’t yet done right. And, given Facebook’s struggle with doing things right, I’m not so sure they’ll get it right either.

Here are two social networking opportunities that come to mind that Apple hasn’t fully leveraged yet and may in the future:

Apple is spreading FaceTime around on all of its devices. Now that the iPad has a camera and FaceTime and anyone with a FaceTime equipped Apple computer, phone, pad or pod can call anyone else with said device, FaceTime may be a social platform that end-runs the other types of social networking. I would love it if Apple found a way to merge some of iChatAV’s capabilities (group chat, sound alone, texting) into FaceTime. I continue to use and love iChatAV daily.

I know a couple who just bought a new MacBook Pro (with FaceTime). They were hoping to get a new iPad before one of them traveled off for a month to Costa Rica for business. He’ll have free wifi in Costa Rica so they were hoping to communicate with Skype or something like that. They couldn’t get an iPad in time (at that point a five week order backlog) and I recommended an iPod Touch. They found a current model used on Amazon and of course it has a camera and FaceTime. The iPod Touch will allow them easy and free video calls anywhere in the world there are wifi connections. Of course Skype will as well but FaceTime is easier and built into all modern Apple devices with cameras.

FaceTime may be Apple’s Trojan Horse for end-running typical social networking. It’s another “credit card” like thing they hold on all of their users and it will allow them to connect us to each other (and them) in creative ways we may not have thought about yet. This is social networking that doesn’t compete with Twitter and Facebook, it end-runs them.

Apple TV
Apple TV runs on iOS and is connected to a user’s home network so in theory, Apple TV could allow users to interact with other users through their TV sets. It could also allow someone running FaceTime to broadcast to someone at home with a TV set and Apple TV. I agree with others, Apple probably won’t make a TV set although a TV set with a built in video camera might be a compelling reason for them to enter this market if it meant easy connection in a living room to other living rooms and computers, phones, pads and pods. Maybe instead of having a camera in the TV, Apple could continue to stay out of the TV market and put the camera and microphone in the Apple TV box.

Again, this is not “typical” social networking like Twitter and Facebook but I think it uses technology Apple already has in place and allows easy user interaction, end-running cellular services and all of their costs and complexities.

One thing Apple is capable of and has done well occasionally is looking at the product landscape from a higher altitude than others and then redefining the game with a device or service that changes things. This has the potential to flop on a grand scale but it also has the potential to be a huge success. Apple TV and FaceTime might be Apple’s way of not playing the same social game Twitter and Facebook are competing in but redefining the social game to a field even more people can fit comfortably into.

2. Apple doesn’t do cloud well
Agreed. MobileMe is poorly designed (for Apple) and unreliable. As I’ve said in earlier posts, MoblleMe should be free or better yet, free and built into the OS of every Apple device.

I want to be able to add an address or calendar date to my iPhone and have it automatically and immediately sync to any and all of my other (Apple and/or other) devices. MobileMe in theory does this but it hasn’t been honed as well or as fast as Apple’s physical products which might mean #4 is at play again.

I think if Apple made the address book and calendar apps even better and improved them in MacOS and limited MobileMe to simply syncing updates, made it free and totally reliable, they’d have a huge hit and they’d sell more computers, phones, pads and pods because of it.

As Kottke says, users of his caliber now use services like Dropbox to sync computers and other devices and Dropbox has a cult following. If Apple started with address and calendar, then bought Dropbox and added it to MacOS and iOS, maybe adding something like Simplenote as well, they’d have a huge hit. The idea is to build this stuff in so that using it isn’t an optional add-on but something everyone does as part of using a collection of tools that share information.

The rumor is that the reason Apple built a huge data center in North Carolina is that they’re working on a way to stream music and video from the cloud but given their track record with MobleMe we’ll have to see this and use it to believe it. Again, Apple doesn’t do things like this in a small way but this is an area I think ought to be done incrementally, initially by building syncing of addresses and calendar into everything and then expanding to more data types.

3. iTunes is bloated and showing signs of age
Agreed. My good friend Dirk (who lives in London) and I were talking using FaceTime six months ago and he noted (rather strongly) that iTunes is “a piece of crap.” This got my hackles up and I spent some time defending iTunes as a necessary part of Apple’s strategy to update and synchronize their various devices.

After we disconnected I had this nagging echo of Dirk’s rant on iTunes in my head. Dirk enjoys poking at me as he knows I’ll defend things I’m passionate about but he and I also share many years of discussion about this type of technology as we both worked with a company (AlphaSmart) that makes a simple keyboard for writing while away from one’s computer. Dirk still works for the company that bought AlphaSmart and the product still exists: Neo. Granted, the AlphaSmart and/or Neo is a simpler device than an iPhone and while it was easy to “send” text from an AlphaSmart to a computer via a USB cable, wireless transfer or moving text from computer to AlphaSmart was more complex and needed more attention.

All of that said, Dirk has deep experience with both all things Apple and the complexities of syncing and his opinion, while always suspect for attempting to get a rise out of me, carries a lot of weight.

So, I started thinking about iTunes and the process or setting up, upgrading, and moving information to and from an iOS device. Then I considered my Apple TV which, for a complete iOS upgrade doesn’t need a computer at all: it will upgrade itself and remember its settings sans-computer.

If Apple did a cloud-based service right and every Apple device was automatically and simply connected to it, Apple could update a phone, pad or pod this way, backing up the device to the cloud, updating the OS, then restoring all settings, just like they do, sans-computer, with Apple TV.

When you consider the fact that one can buy music, movies, TV, and apps directly from the phone, pad or pod, iTunes becomes a superfluous layer that could be eliminated, or, turned into what it was initially, a player for MacOS computers.

Step one is eliminating the need for a computer when setting up, syncing, and updating an Apple phone, pad or pod. Maybe their new datacenter is all about that. We shall see.

4. Apple doesn’t pay close attention to products that Steve Jobs doesn’t show a personal interest in
I’m not so sure about this although it makes perfect sense. I think it may be more like: Steve jobs doesn’t allow products out the door that a collection of Apple folks haven’t convinced him of the viability of. There is little doubt that Steve Jobs has made some great business decisions over the years and has done many things right, and while I’m a fan of his I’m not of the opinion that Apple will flounder without him at the helm.

Apple has been honing its DNA over many years and what Steve Jobs has done is amplified this by pushing the company to take risks that other CEOs with boards and stockholders might have avoided. Some of those risks have bombed, some have been wild successes.

Yes, it may take a small group of visionary people to do what Jobs has done but so what? Apple has plenty and while it would be a huge loss if Jobs’ influence ended, it may be that the person or people who take his place do “it” even better.

Kottke’s example of Jobs’ lack of personal interest in iCal allowing it to be less than wonderful is a good one. Of course, the next CEO or design decision team might actually use it and make it better. Or, allow a more radical change to it.

One of the biggest things Jobs did with the Macintosh/MacOS and now with iOS devices is to defend two things:

1. Keeping it simple; not competing on features and horsepower but usability.

2. Keeping it beautiful down to the last pixel, port cover, or Gorilla Glass screen.

Good design, well tested and honed isn’t something that only Steve Jobs knows how to do and over the years he’s been involved, others have as well. The fact that there are pieces of Apple’s offerings that have lagged may in fact be because Jobs didn’t push in those areas but it also might be that Jobs was in the way of innovation in those areas (as Kottke says).

As Steve Jobs gets closer to retiring we’ll see how all of this plays out.

I hope Apple continues to make things simpler, more ubiquitous, and more connected, and they do this in a way that includes even more people. They certainly have the potential to smooth out these rough edges and surprise and delight us all.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could share a Facetime call using my iPhone on the Appalachian Trail with my 95 year old mother watching (Apple) TV in her living room in Los Angeles and at the same time with my friend Dilip on his iPad in India and with my friend on his business trip in Costa Rica on his iPod Touch. If that’s going to happen I’m confident that Apple is the company to do it.

[via Steve Splonskowski]

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