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  • With Apple It’s Rarely About the Features

    February 9th, 2010

    As I read the complaints about the lack of a Web cam and “true multitasking” on the iPad, I’m reminded of the complaints folks voiced years ago about the original Mac OS. In those days, as I mentioned in yesterday’s column, Apple cobbled together a cooperative multitasking system to allow you to run more than one app at a time. But since it depended on apps playing nicely with each other for decent stability, things didn’t always work so well.

    It did work, and got the job done until Mac OS X arrived with its preëmptive system. But that didn’t stop the complaints, since Mac OS X also lacked many features lots of Mac users had grown to love — or at least accept — over the years. Slowly but surely, some of those capabilities have been restored, but others, such as the ability to print a Finder window, are still missing in action, although such features can often be found in third-party products.

    The typical Windows advocate will rightly remind you that their preferred operating system has many features that Apple hasn’t adopted or adapted. Just take a little time to explore the Control Panel features of Windows 7 and you’ll find loads of settings that have no Mac OS X counterpart. Then again, do you really need all those things? If you do crave more ways to configure your Mac, you will discover a rich selection of Terminal commands to accomplish these tasks or just check out an app such as TinkerTool, which puts a friendly face on loads of ways with which to customize your Mac.

    As you recall, the iPod got its share of brickbats from people who insisted you really needed an FM tuner as standard equipment. Now I have had iPods almost since Day One, and I have not missed an FM radio. If that’s what I want, I have plenty of receivers at hand in my home, and the one in my car works just fine, thank you. Besides there are accessory tuners that’ll accomplish that task, so why force people to pay for features they won’t use?

    Indeed, Apple VP Phil Schiller was once quoted as saying that good design is not just a matter of adding features, but knowing which features to remove, or not include in the first place. It’s very easy for a company to create a PowerPoint presentation with bullet points listing all the capabilities the competition offers, the better to figure out which ones they need to add in the interests of oneupmanship.

    But from Day One, the Mac was sold as the “computer for the rest of us,” meaning real people who just wanted things to work without having to spend hours or days fiddling with all sorts of adjustments to make things function properly. I remember that iMac commercial where the announcer described what was needed to get online. He talked about “Step One,” then “Step Two,” but here was the clincher: “There is no Step Three.”

    Apple has also been roundly criticized for forcing you to use your iPhone, iPod and the upcoming iPad within a fairly closed ecosystem, with iTunes as the centerpiece. However, if you’re buying an appliance that plays music, makes wireless phone calls and lets you access Internet content remotely — not to mention playing games of course — wouldn’t you prefer to just turn it on and sync the gadget with your copy of iTunes, rather than undergo endless steps to set things up?

    Isn’t that to be preferred rather than cope with a device that offers more flexibility, but saddles you with silly and unduly complicated setup procedures to access those features? Why is it that so few of Apple’s competitors realize that charging people for features they don’t need or can’t use is just a waste of everyone’s money?

    This doesn’t mean that Apple delivers perfect products each and every time. There are certainly situations where you wonder what logical process their product designers and marketing people employed to choose whether certain features were added, discarded or simply ignored.

    Why, for example, did it take two years to incorporate cut, copy and paste into the iPhone software? Yes, the implementation works all right, but why wasn’t that critical feature not given higher priority? Did it really take Apple all that time to devise a workable scheme for moving text from one place to another?

    At the same time, every hardware and software product is a work in progress. There are always tradeoffs that have to be made to ensure a stable user environment and to ship the product on time. Indeed, it’s a sure thing that most tech companies ship products prematurely, hoping to fix the most serious problems in the development labs or production lines over time. After all, early adopters can always download an update or send their units in for service.

    The 27-inch iMac may be a prime example. It was critical to ship no later than late October of last year, to guarantee a robust holiday season. Certainly high sales have vindicated this approach, but what about those outbreaks of flickering screens and the yellow-tinged displays? Yes, the former was addressed with a pair of firmware updates, and the latter issue is being handled through customer service. But could they have done anything to prevent the problems from happening in the first place?

    Not likely, so long as humans and not machines direct the design process, and do you really want the robots to take over?



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