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The Feature Bloat Report: Do You Really Need All That?

The biggest arguments made by Apple’s competitors center on the features you don’t have, assuming you actually need them to enhance your telephone, Web or general personal computing experience. This is the sort of bullet-point innovation that Apple has traditionally avoided.

That doesn’t mean that Apple doesn’t want to add the features that you are clamoring for, but they generally implement many of them in their own way, quite often in a fashion totally different from the competition. Indeed, even moving from the Classic Mac OS to Mac OS X, Apple actually threw out a number of system capabilities, including a highly configurable Apple menu, for a highly simplified version.

At the beginning, it was largely a matter of time to market. Apple had to delay the release of Mac OS X by several years because they had to devise a path to allow many software companies to easily port their stuff. Key among those developers was Adobe and Microsoft. In those days, coming off a near-death experience, with lots of skeptics suggesting they’d never survive, Apple couldn’t get away with a “my way or the highway” approach.

So Mac OS X arrived slow, somewhat buggy, and bereft of lots of features. Some of them were added over the years, although even Snow Leopard is far from a bloated OS. In fact, one of the selling points of 10.6 was that Apple actually removed old code and compressed system files so they’d consume less storage space. Many of the built-in apps also use less RAM, even though memory chips are much cheaper nowadays, but it meant that even the cheapest Mac usually has enough to spare for basic tasks.

When 10.7 arrives — and there appears to be only a slight chance you’ll learn anything about it during the WWDC next month — Apple will no doubt be forced to tout loads of sexy new features in order to entice you to upgrade. But even if there was a brief demonstration of a few new technologies, I wouldn’t expect to see it until late in 2011. Since the best Microsoft can say about Windows 7 is that you can pin document windows to the sides of the screen, I don’t see much incentive for Apple to rush another reference release of the Mac OS.

When it comes to the iPhone, already the uninformed critics are concerned that a product released last summer has been eclipsed in performance by recent Android OS smartphones. That may be true, although Apple is not in the business of releasing monthly updates. That would present a huge R&D outlay, whereas it’s far more efficient to release new products with significant new features when it makes sense, rather than to boast being able to open an app or a Web site a second faster. In the real world, such differences may seem significant to power users or as a sales tactic, but smooth often trumps fast, particularly when you’re trying to call up loads of different functions.

One area where Apple excels is in feature editing. VP Philip Schiller said years ago that good product development also means knowing which features to leave out. That would surely explain why it took a couple of years to find a workable solution for cut, copy and paste, and why Apple is only now working on implementing a system-wide multitasking system that would expand beyond their own apps.

Yes, people were clamoring loudly for both. But I can’t subscribe to the silly conspiracy theory that Apple was deliberately withholding those features in order to sell product upgrades. That doesn’t make sense. They could, after all, lose sales as well because iPhones lacked features that the media told you were essential for a great smartphone.

Even the lack of Flash has been a controversial issue. Is Apple just trying to kill Adobe? Hardly, since Mac users not only comprise nearly half of Adobe’s sales, but such industry-standard apps as Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop are mainstays in the content creator’s toolbox.

When it comes to the mobile platform, some might suggest that Apple is too much of a control freak to prevent developers from porting apps from Flash. But the end result is notoriously inefficient code, which fails to support the latest and greatest features of the iPhone. Who suffers from a subpar app? The developer and the customer, so even if it takes more work to build those apps, sales are apt to be higher because the end result is superior.

It would actually be in Apple’s interest to allow Flash on the mobile platform, if it could be made to work properly. I’m sure Steve Jobs doesn’t want to prevent you from visiting the sites you want. Where’s the sense in that? But if your experience is compromised as a result, Apple suffers, because you will be less satisfied with your iPhone or iPad. Indeed, those widely publicised demos showing a Flash 1.1 beta running on the forthcoming Android 2.2 OS indicate that Adobe has lots of work to do. It’s slow, buggy and there’s no evidence that battery life isn’t seriously compromised.

In other words, Steve Jobs was right.

So before you demand that Apple deliver the feature you feel you want, my advice is that you be careful what you wish for.