Cupertino funk, part II: No joy in iVille

— 2:37 PM on April 19, 2013

Last week, I prattled on about how Apple's dearth of a single, visionary leader was starting to make them feel like just another tech company. A wealthier, better-dressed tech company than most, for sure, but just another member of the herd, nonetheless. This week, I'll be using my poorly honed, casual sense of observation to remark on what I believe to be an even greater threat to Apple's Appleness: a lack of joy. 

Apple products are still stylish. They're still designed and produced to ridiculous tolerances using a combination of alchemy and nanomonkeys with molecular-level, laser-welding packs. Still, I fear there is a palpable lack of joy surrounding Apple gear. I'm not speaking about the lack of another blockbuster product release on the level of the iMac, iPod, or iPhone—after all, how often can such moments really occur? It's that Apple products once embodied a kind of elegant power. They just worked, as the cliché goes, and you didn't need to fool around under the hood unless you were the type to do so. And the design of Apple's user interfaces—from early Mac OS releases to OS X and on through iOS—offered, at the very least, a pleasurable experience even if Platinum or Aqua didn't precisely match your personal aesthetic vibe. In the end, using a Mac always felt less fatiguing than using a Windows machine. At least once upon a time.

But now it feels like Apple is sacrificing its veneer of simplicity on the altar of Dubious Features We Hope You'll Love. Sure, new features that actually make life easier are welcome additions—Time Machine immediately springs to mind. But I dare you to ask a garden-variety Mac user to define Mission Control and what its purpose is. Here's a hint: "Huh?" is not the correct answer. Additionally, some good things Apple has produced are still a bit too complex for the average user to easily maneuver. Anyone tried setting up an Airport Extreme Base Station lately? I've used one for years and still have to dive into the realm of port forwarding and NAT protocols more than I'd care to. (Apple's attempt at making things easier by trimming down the options in Airport Utility 6 proved so futile many users still use version 5.6. which is still available for download from Apple.) And have you tried setting up Messages for someone lately?

Then there's the leather-bound elephant in the room known as skeuomorphism. The technical definition of a skeuomorph is, according to Apple's own Dictionary app, "an object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact in another material." Skeuomorphism is why my parents' 1973 Pinto station wagon had petroleum-based wood veneer dubiously adhered to the side. And it's why, today, Calendar and Contacts look like the 99-cent versions of a Franklin Planner. Do you know what a Franklin Planner is? Exactly. Not only is Apple's use of skeuomorphism fairly off-putting aesthetically, it's also random. Why doesn't iTunes look like a Wurlitzer? Why not make Safari resemble a Sears Wish Book from 1927? Because Sears didn't start printing them until 1933, that's why.

Fortunately, the skeuomorphic scourge may soon be ending; its chief proponent, Scott Forstall, is being shuffled out to the great stock option pasture in the sky. In his place, Jony Ive will oversee all Apple design. And while I can see him possibly making a finder window resemble a pair of Warby Parkers, I'm not overly worried about it. His guidance should result in better UI design (design-wise) going forward, although what impact it will have on the actual experience is another question entirely.

So how did Apple get here and how can they get out? Well, I'd say they got here by forgetting that one of their primary modus operandi was making difficult tasks seem easy—the "it just works" mentality. Sure, they didn't always pull it off—I wouldn't have left my mother alone with an open copy of Font/DA Mover—but there's a reason the iMac "3 Steps" commercial struck such a chord with people. Now, the vibe is more akin to "it works well enough if you know what you're doing." Which, too often, we don't. While Apple's software has grown increasingly complex, it's insistence that it hasn't remains steadfast. Which means manuals for silly things like the operating system are non-existent, and is full unto bursting with frustration and advice. There's a difference between being intuitive and completely understood. I can drive any car, but doesn't mean I'll figure out every nuance of the robotically controlled HVAC interface without a glance at the owner's manual.

I also think Apple has been fishing around for what to do next in the way of "big ideas." Mac OS X is old. While I'd hate for Apple to try and fix something that ain't broke, they don't seem to have a problem bloating something that wasn't in need. Grafting on features from iOS may, at times, make sense, but they only feel new if you're Android-using Mac owner.

So, what to do, what to do, what to do? Well, the answer is simple and fairly obvious, but the execution not so much. Apple must return to creating machines, devices, and operating systems that make the familiar seem new and the new seem familiar. To not just wow us with a new feature, button, or screen resolution, but to make us wonder how we put up without said item for so long. (Yes, that's a very #firstworldproblem kind of thing, but then aren't they all?) How do they achieve this? If I knew, I'd be rich, because Apple would've just bought out my startup. The aesthetics are relatively easy to fix. Simplifying and streamlining the OSes isn't a herculean task, either, assuming Apple has the internal will to do so. The true challenge lies in doing what the Apple of Steve Jobs excelled at: solving problems people didn't know they had in an elegant, almost obvious way. It ain't easy. I don't envy their task. But then, as I've said before, simplicity is often the result of much complex thinking, isn't it?

Good luck, fellas. You'll need it.



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