Posts Tagged ‘steve jobs’

I briefly considered writing a blog post about Steve Jobs’ departure from Apple last week, but it seemed rather unnecessary – the last thing the world needed was another blogger pitching in on the subject when it seemed everyone on the Internet was already doing exactly that. So instead, I’ll be very brief on the subject now that the immediate furore about it has quietened down.

Obviously, Apple will miss Jobs – how could it not? He transformed the company, and through Apple he transformed our lives. That’s literally no exaggeration, as I sit here surrounded by my iMac, iPhone, iPad, iPod …

But perhaps one of Steve Jobs top ten achievements is how he finally managed to write himself out of the Apple story. A few years back, when the news about his ill health first broke, he and Apple were blasted for (a) concealing the information, and (b) having no transition plan, no line of succession for a post-Jobs era. They were right to be criticised on both counts.

Fast forward to last week: Apple and Jobs have used the intervening time to bring along and put in place the people they needed for the transition. Jobs’ long heath sabbaticals had allowed the transition to be road-tested and the next generation leaders to become established and well known in the industry. By the time Jobs handed in his letter of resignation it no longer seemed alarming or unplanned for, just confirmation of what we knew had been the situation for some time. Apple hadn’t crumbled in the meantime with Jobs off ill, and so we are reassured that it wasn’t going to go horribly wrong now he’s stepped down, either.

The moment for succession has arrived; it had been planned for; and it has worked, in just the way that five years ago it never could have.

In the meantime the general reaction of the blogosphere was a slew of near-eulogies for Steve Jobs, which slightly irked me – he hasn’t died after all, just stepped down as CEO. That’s no cause for weeping and wailing and the rending of garments. Not yet, at least.

Of course in the back of our minds we wonder about Steve Jobs’ health and prognosis in the light of his resignation. But you know what? It really isn’t any of our business now. Five years ago, when Jobs and the Apple board were borderline-illegally concealing relevant information about the company from shareholders by refusing to discuss the state of Jobs’ health, it was very much a matter of public concern and debate. But not now, not that he’s stepped down as CEO and left the shop in the hands of Tim Cook – now it’s a private matter for Jobs once again, and rightly so.

So it really is none of our damn business, and I’m not going to comment or prognosticate on the issue at all. Instead I’ll just wish Steve Jobs and his family all the best for the future, whatever it may hold, and thank him and the team at Apple for the ways in which they have contributed to all of our lives. And also, thanks for not screwing up the company in the leaving of it.

So Apple have unveiled the most extensive revamp of their iPod range this week. And yet, despite being an Apple fanboi going way back (before iPads, iPhones, iPods or even iMacs) I find myself in an odd fugue state of indifference, topped off with the first early warning signs of anxiety about Apple’s direction and future.

Last year the company unveiled the fifth generation iPod nano, and I was so excited that I had bought one within a couple of days. Far from being a rash decision, I can happily say that I’ve used the nano virtually every day of the year since and certainly never regretted the purchase.

The new nano is the most far-reaching redesign in the 2010 iPod line-up revamp, changing it to a square touchscreen device that continues Apple’s strategy of progressively cascading the ‘touch’ paradigm through its line-up. The touchscreen is clearly the thing to have these days and anything else with physical buttons and sliders is starting to look a bit tired and old hat: users used to iPhones start prodding the screen and wondering why it’s not working, until they reload the old and dated way of doing things back into their brain. And there’s no doubt that the simple clickable scroll-wheel – so effective when first introduced – is now creaking under the weight of finding ways to access all the gazillion new features that have crept onto the iPod since its launch.

So the addition of touch technology brings a little of that Apple glamour and pizzazz back to the nano, and helps stop it being potentially overlooked in a crowded market. But the sixth generation nano’s touchscreen implementation seems a rather halfway house solution, because the screen – while looking at first glance like the iPod touch/iPhone iOS – is purely cosmetic. It doesn’t run iOS and can’t have apps added to it, so it’s a bit of sleight-of-hand that doesn’t really hide the fact that its beauty is barely skin deep, and I suspect this limitation will disappoint as many people as the redesign will delight. In addition, the screen is now rather too small to easily navigate through lots of music, and the touchscreen makes it hard to use when out for a run or any other time you can’t stop, take out the nano to look at and fiddle with.

But the main reason I’m disappointed in the new nano is that it removes video capability. I’m not referring to the video camera/recording per se – I’ve not used that very often on my nano, but on the other hand it does nicely fit a gap in functionality on my old iPhone 3G phone – but I do find the removal of a much-touted fifth generation feature to be a somewhat retrograde step. No, my main complaint on video is that the new iPod nano can’t play video. At all. No more vodcasts, no more watching TV programmes recorded through my Elgato tuner (which I’ve gone a fair amount of over the year.) That’s a real drawback, actually a dealbreaker for me. Why remove that feature? Not being able to pack in the video camera hardware into the diminished casing I can understand, but how can the nano software suddenly lose the ability to play video after all this time?

At least the new nano retains its FM radio, which I was particularly excited about with the fifth generation last year. I actually feared that it, too, would be swept away by the change in physical form, so it’s nice to see it retained. It actually makes me surprised that the revamped iPod touch is singularly lacking an FM radio chip in its latest incarnation. Otherwise, the new iPod touch delivers everything that was expected – in particular the front-facing camera and the Facetime video conferencing capability. This was an absolute top priority for Apple, because establishing Facetime as a video conferencing standard needs it to be on more devices than simply the top-of-the-line iPhone 4, and so this iPod touch brings it “to the masses” – or at least as mass as it’s ever likely to get.

The one thing that surprises me with the iPod touch upgrade is that its appearance looks … Well, pretty much the same as the previous model. Apparently it’s a little thinner, but not by so much as you’d notice. That means the general overall aesthetic is still the same as the iPhone 3G and 3GS, and fairly close to the iPad. What it’s not like, however, is the iPhone 4, and that leaves the iPhone 4 looking like the odd one out: “one of these things is not like the other ones.” As a result, its sleek, metal, sharp-edged design looks rather un-Applelike against the carefully curved other models in the mobile range. Now it could be that Apple just wants the iPhone 4 to remain unique and special, or it could be that the iPhone 4 style simply doesn’t work well with an ultraslim physical form. But by leaving the iPhone 4 looking so different, it does raise the suggestion that someone, somewhere has already decided that it’s not the future of Apple’s mobile devices and that the iPhone 4 design has already been consigned to the “lame duck” category of history.

Because it’s true, Apple do make mistakes when it comes to product design: and you only have to look at the overhaul of the iPod shuffle to see this. The new model is fairly square, with buttons on its front face, while the previous model was longer and thinner with all the controls on the headphone lead. But look a generation back from that, and you’ll find that the 2008 shuffle is squarer, with buttons on its front face … Exactly like the 2010 model. Okay, the new model is thinner, and brings in the VoiceOver technology lacking from the 2008 model, but in all other respects this is one of the clearest examples yet we’ve had of Apple holdings its hands up and admitting “yeah, sorry about that 2009 model, it was a complete dog.”

Having the courage to own up and backtrack is actually quite laudable, but what’s missing here is that Apple seem to be completely out of ideas for what to do with the product than put it back to how it was before they broke it. A first sign of Apple’s design maestros running on empty? Or simply an illustration of how difficult even Apple finds it to deliver striking products to their usual dazzling standard at the low-cost end of the market?

You sense that Apple would love to just do away with the shuffle – that the new iPod nano touchscreen is really where they see this part of the market, being quite small enough (in fact – rather too small, especially for a touchscreen device). But the shuffle is a key part of Apple’s business strategy, its low price protecting the iPod range from the attacking hoards of budget MP3 players that are out there. In the same way, Apple clearly hate having to continue the iPod classic line and would love to get rid of it and have the iPod touch as the unchallenged king of the iPods, but they can’t – 128Gb RAM chips are proving elusive, and so the hard disc technology of the iPod classic is necessary for those music obsessives that need over 100Gb of storage on their device. But for the meantime the classic is a necessary evil, and so it sits in Apple’s product line-up, looking old and tired and neglected – just merely indispensable at the same time.

There were a few other launches at Apple’s September 1 event other than the refreshed iPod line-up: the next iPhone operating system, iOS 4.1, was announced – and top of the list was a fix for using it on the old iPhone 3G hardware. This (even more than antenna-gate, which was massively overhyped by blogs and media) has been a real black mark against Apple of late: when iOS 4.0 came out, the 3G was still part of the current iPhone range being sold by Apple. Even if that was only for a week overlap, there were still people buying a new phone on up to a 18 month contract who instantly could not use the current recommended OS for it without serious performance issues. It’s one thing to remove support and deprecate an out-of-date product, but to make a model obsolete while it’s still in your retail line-up is reprehensible.

There’s also the Apple TV, but outside the US this is rather hobbled by international licensing deals and consequently still feels like a dispensable sideline for Apple. What’s raised most eyebrows about Apple TV in the UK has been the price – the £99 matching the $99, the first time we’ve seen pound/dollar parity. The Apple TV seems a bit of a blip on Apple’s pricing, but other Apple prices are also skyrocketing (the new nano is about 25% more than the old one, for example) and even Apple seem to be getting a little uncomfortable about how this is coming across, carefully adding information to their UK Store pages detailing how much of that is down to sales taxes (VAT) and import duties. While it’s true that the pound has fared poorly on the money markets in the last year, and VAT will be going up to 20% in January, it’s still astonishing just how much Apple are hiking their prices, while all the other IT retailers are slashing prices to nothing (for example, under £300 for a laptop) – but then, Apple sales are exploding despite the price, so maybe it just shows that Apple know more about this than I do. Or indeed most economists do! Apple seem happy shooting for the premium crowd, where “if you need to ask the price, you can’t afford it” – but will this last or prove to be a bubble?

And there was also the launch of iTunes 10, the latest version of Apple’s media player/manager. Here’s a program that urgently needs a complete reboot – it’s got large, bloated, confusing and disorganised over the years as more and more demands and features have been foisted upon it. For a simple media player, the amount of system resources it hogs these days is astonishing. But instead of tackling all of this, Apple have simply landed it with another whole chunk of stuff to take care of – this time social networking via music, a network they call Ping. I can honestly say that another social network was not something I was thinking as being missing from my life, and while it’s been hailed as “the final nail in MySpace’s coffin” I can’t help but think this is far too little and far too late in the day to be getting into this game. Then again, I’d have said the same about Apple’s clearly doomed attempt to infiltrate the mature mobile phone market just before they launched the iPhone, so if anyone can pull off the impossible then it’s Apple.

However, there are a few things about iTunes 10 and Ping (other than feature-bloat) that make me scratch my head and worry that Apple are starting to falter at keeping all these plates spinning. Early users of Ping have been trying to set up user accounts … And finding that their avatar pictures don’t appear, until they have been “approved”. It’s Apple’s control tendencies showing again, mixed with the same puritanical streak that sees them censor anything remotely smutty or sleazy from the App Store. But having to get an avatar approved by the all-seeing Apple? Even for committed Apple fanbois this is surely a level of central control beyond a joke. And for everyone else, is this a network that you’d be happy joining? Apple clearly don’t have a grasp on social media or understand that it cannot be directed and controlled without killing it off. On just this one piece of early evidence, I have grave doubts Ping will ever make any impact and that it may quickly whither and die, much as its original foray into online communities, eWorld, similarly suffocated and died.

The other point about iTunes 10 is a very, very minor one: they’ve moved the three buttons for closing, minimising or expanding so that they now run vertically like traffic lights – instead of horizontally, as they appear on every other piece of software on the Mac OS. It’s a OS interface constant, a standard, so that everyone knows where the buttons are, what they do, how they work. And Apple have mucked around with this for no good apparent reason, but just because they felt like it. Interface designers know that you don’t monkey around with such things on a whim, so what are Apple playing at?

It is, as I have already admitted, a very minor detail. And yet there is something about it that seems telling to me, where such attention to small detail that used to be the defining characteristic of the company. And it’s in this and in the other parts of the iPod line-up covered in this article, either through highly uncharacteristic carelessness perhaps simply from being overstretched. The volume of output from Apple over the past few years has been astonishing, and we’re talking about a company a fraction of the size of Microsoft – which had been all but inert for years now, God alone knows what all those people are doing up in Seattle. Apple’s “start-up” size has worked for them over the years but now it might be catching up with them, the cracks showing as they take on more than they can carry, and as a result some of the plates can no longer be kept spinning: just look back at the iPhone 4 antenna-gate problem, the early iPad wi-fi problems, the issues with iOS4, the fact that iWorks hasn’t had a major upgrade in two years, and then add the sense that the latest iterations of products frankly aren’t as interesting or innovative as we’re used to from Apple. Too much to do, too little time to allow for innovation and inspiration.

And also … I do wonder whether any of this might stem from Steve Job’s medical leave last year. There’s things here that I wouldn’t have expected Jobs to let go through if he’d been in charge at the time, little slips that would have had him been in a rage and demanding to fix. Maybe the experience has changed him, and that infuriating, dynamic, demanding, contrary, driving, unique, charismatic dynamo at the heart of Apple is no longer the force it was. And if Apple’s core starts to falter, then will Apple itself decline and fall in turn?

Or perhaps this is just a simple blip, and all will be well with the Applesphere next time around. Let’s hope.

The news that Steve Jobs was taking a leave of absence on health grounds was at once both shocking and out of the blue, and yet at the same time the confirmation of the other shoe dropping that we know has been on the way for months.

Deep down, we all knew this was where it was going from the moment Steve Jobs abruptly pulled out of the traditional keynote speech at the 2009 Macworld Expo. For all the skilful sleight-of-hand that Apple deployed (expos were a thing of the past; Apple didn’t want to dance to anyone else’s schedule) there was still the startling central fact that Jobs wasn’t even going to give so much as a valedictory keynote to an event that’s been awfully good and very important to Apple in the past. Not even so much as a surprise walk-on at the end to bid farewell? No amount of misdirection could conceal the fact that something was very wrong here: Jobs was either too ill to speak, or looked so ill that his very appearance in public would send Apple stock into freefall.

Jobs really is that critical to Apple, which is why – as distasteful as intruding into someone’s personal health – in this case it is unavoidable. (Indeed it’s probably the reason why last week’s easily treated “hormonal imbalance” has become this week’s “more complex that originally thought” – someone probably pointed out that to withhold this from next week’s quarterly statement could be a breach of the law, so serious an impact it would have on the shareholders. Indeed, talk of lawsuits by shareholders is already revving up.) Anyone doubting that Jobs is this crucial should just turn their minds back to the mid-90s when a Jobs-less Apple, under the uninspired management of Gil Amelio turned out similarly uninspired anonymous beige computers that literally faded into the background. Apple was literally sliding into obsolescence, so much so that even when Steve Jobs returned as “interim” CEO few people thought that Apple was salvageable. Yet look at it now: a powerhouse, growing in market share all over the world, and the company that’s transformed the computer, music and phone markets. It’s surely inspiring to us all that even in this day and age of globalisation, one person can still truly make such a huge difference to the world in which they live.

We can only hope that a similar story of miraculous recovery can be written for Steve Jobs. Unfortunately, if I’m honest, I doubt we’ll ever see him return as CEO. The best I think we can hope for is that he takes on a visionary-in-chief role much as Bill Gates moved to at Microsoft in 2000, someone to see the big picture and paint broad strategic brushstrokes while leaving the day to day work for others – hard though that would be for a workaholic detail-obsessed person as Steve Jobs. It will also be necessary to put in place a management team and a successor capable of doing the implementation – something Steve Jobs has been reluctant to do but which now becomes top priority.

Because I fear even this much is a lot to hope for right now. Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in 2004, and while that was treated successfully it still seems that in most cases of the disease, a survival period of 3-5 years is considered a success. Even if Jobs has a less serious form of the disease (as has been said), the latest “hormonal imbalance” is grim news. Analysts are right to point out that this can be a common side-effect of pancreatic cancer; what is less said is that any onset of such problems in someone with this medical history almost certainly indicates a more devastating underlying cause, so much so that it would be common practice to immediate commence chemotherapy even before the presence of cancer was confirmed (or not), such is the need for quick and aggressive treatment. Even so, the fact is that the outlook is grim, and I say that with the pain in my heart as someone who lost a parent to a similarly devastating and resistent-treatment cancer a decade ago.

Apple will continue. It has a lot of good people working for it (including designer Jonathan Ive, who might not be the showman Jobs is but who is arguably more important to Apple’s current product line than even the boss.) Hopefully they’ve learnt from Jobs what Apple is and what makes it a success, and they can take it forward from here. But no one really argues that without Jobs, the way ahead is uncertain; and the future would lose its greatest advocate and navigator.





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