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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8 Responses to “With Apple It’s Rarely About the Features”

  1. dfs says:

    A good example of what Gene’s talking about is the modern iMac. Sure, it would be much more convenient to put the power button on the front and maybe a USB port for the benefit of those who want to do stuff like recharge an iPod or download images from a camera, and plenty of customers no doubt regret not having these. But things like this would create visual clutter and screw up the breathtakingly elegant and monumental simplicity of its facade. I’m sure that considerations like this as well as purely engineering ones go into determining Apple’s design choices, and this helps more often than it hurts. A good Apple product, hardware or software, is driven by a desire to keep things as starkly simple as possible, and this is incompatible with a willingness to be all things to all people. And by and large it pays off. Apple’s design simplicity no doubt has a lot to do with both the ease of use and reliability of their products, both hardware and software. Look at the interface of Pages, for example, and compare it with that of MS Word. Sure, Word can do a great deal of things which Pages can’t, but at the cost of what an almost bewildering interface and a correspondingliy steep learning curve. And when you have an application with so much code that it would probably look like the Greater London phone directory if you printed it out, the chances of something going wrong shoot up astronomically.

  2. Andrew says:

    Simplicity is definitely a reward, as are features, with the trick being to find the right balance. Apple usually gets it far closer than anyone else.

    Yes, there are many features that I really want to see on a Mac and am forced to suffer without, a docking connector on MacBooks foremost in my mind. It is a hassle for me to have to connect, power, display and USB to my computer every time I get to the office or come back home, not to mention the clutter of three cables instead of one port-replicator or dock.

    Of course, to someone who never uses docking, that extra connector on the side or bottom of the laptop would be an eye-sore that takes up space better used for something else, like the new SD card reader

    Apple makes the design choices, and then we, the buyers, decide with out wallets if those choices are acceptable or not. We can even choose to shop elsewhere, as I did previously when Apple’s laptop line was all-glossy. In those dark days of 2008 and 2009 I used a ThinkPad as my primary laptop and greatly enjoyed its eraserhead mouse, matte display and docking connector. There were many design aspects of that ThinkPad that I greatly preferred over anything in Apple’s product line, and a completely different set of design choices that drove me nuts, like a bulky battery that stuck out the back of the laptop and an LED keyboard light that shined onto my eyes instead of the keyboard. Windows Vista and 7 aren’t too bad, but aren’t as pleasant as Snow Leopard, not to mention the inconsistency of moving from the ThinkPad in the office to my MacBook Air for court.

    Today, I am back with a MacBook Pro 15″ matte screen, and while I miss the eraserhead and dock, I prefer the thin unibody enclosure and the simple power of OS X as well as commonality of applications and interface between my large and small laptops. Unfortunately, Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs don’t ask for my input when designing their products. I seriously doubt they ever will, or that I’ll see single-connection docking or an eraserhead mouse anytime soon on an Apple laptop. They did give me back the matte screen, however, and that was enough to push the feature/simplicity balance back to Apple’s side in my purchase decision.

  3. Keyword says:

    Arrow keys on the iPhone would save a whole lot of time and frustration.

  4. SteveP says:

    I used to think that having a Mac that would respond to “thought input” would be great.
    Then I realized that its screen activity would probably look like it had some kind of virus! 🙂

    Oh, well.

  5. Andrew says:

    For many of us, thought-based input would result in an immediate SYSTEM CRASH.

  6. One thing about Apple, they’re simple and stubborn. Oh, wait — that’s two things.

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