A Brief Conspiracy Theory

Humour me for a few minutes, on the whole topic of apple disposing of the 3.5mm jack.

I consider myself to be a fairly technically advanced guy (as do many of those people around me). I keep up to date with what’s going on with the avid engagement of a fashionista. But I refuse to be a victim. I signed up for what was arguably the first production smart-watch (Pebble) when it was on Kickstarter, but I didn’t go for the Apple Watch when it came out because, though sexy it was about four times the price. The Pebble though ugly and crude had most of the functionality I needed, and it was cheap. To me that is “good technology” – Apple Watch had most of the same stuff, and a couple of other bits besides but there’s a cognitive cost to every new gadget, as well as a money cost, and I just couldn’t be bothered in either sense.

So it goes, I love Apple Macs. Love them not quite passionately but ardently. My Macbook Pro is one of my most prized possessions. Why? Because it has given me very little trouble. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “No” trouble because of the hugely irritating Yosemite release of OS X (I am currently now two releases behind El Capitan and then Sierra because I’m too afraid of breaking my computer again). Then there was that stupidity with mDnsResponder/discoveryD, which is one of the few issues I believe Apple ever admitted they were wrong about.

For any small issues I’ve had with my Macbook though, it’s important to remember that “Computers are Hard”, and to manage expectations as such, even when paying top dollar. It’s important to remember that it’s still better than most of the alternatives. Though it looks like Windows 10 is closing this gap.

Same goes for my iPhone. I get frustrated with it from time to time, in particular that my current iPhone 5s just isn’t as good as my first iPhone 4, but I’d be hard pressed to find an alternative. The Android devices just seem a little too finicky. If WebOS was still around I might go for that …

We’re not quite in the good old “it just works” days of 10 years ago, but in perspective things are still “Okay”, “Better than the alternatives”, and fairly reliable.

But obviously I’m grumbling about something, and I think it’s Apple’s attitude to product development. Everything seems to be entirely driven from the industrial design end of things. The entire strategy seems to be around making new “cool” and “beautiful” things, and not so much looking at utility, which is what I always felt was the biggest draw to Apple stuff. Not just the shiny shiny love we Apple fanbois are so often admonished for.

… and a cornerstone of Apple’s practicality and innovation was their software, and I just don’t think they have that any more. Like I say, Apple is now being driven by an industrial design doctrine, the two key figures being Tim Cook of course (manufacturing operations) and Jonny Ive (industrial design). Phil Schiller as far as I can make out is some kind of vacuous PR/Marketing cardboard cutout.

Apple’s software died the day Apple Maps came out. I don’t know if you dear reader remember that unmitigated disaster but one day you were happily using the excellent Google maps app, and the next after an upgrade to iOS 6 it was gone and replaced with a shambolic alternative, and the vast bulk of customers who got wise beforehand  (I was one) delayed their upgrade for about 6 months until Google took pity and provided us with Google Maps once more as a third party app (probably laughing all the while).

But that wasn’t what killed Apple’s software (though I suspect it was a facet of it’s long beleaguered defeat) – I suspect it was the sacking of Scott Forstall (he of the weird obsession with Skeuomorphism that gave us a “leather” contacts app, and a “spiral bound” calendar app). I don’t know if he was brilliant (obviously at my level of a mere mortal he is, but at his level I mean) but he was a “software guy” at executive level, and that is what is sorely missed.

In the years since I’ve watched the quality and utility of Apple’s software gradually deteriorate. An Apple Mac used to have all the software you needed to effectively manage your life. iTunes, iPhoto it might shock you to learn were all great Apps back in 2010. Their newer iterations are absolute (pardon my French) shite!

There seems to be little appetite for doing “Software Engineering” in Apple any more – by which I mean developing solid, maintainable, reliable, functional software cost-effectively. Sure skeuomorphism was a bit weird, but like art-deco, it was an embellishment or veneer that didn’t inhibit the quality of the software. Now what we have veers more towards style over function. From “It just works” to “Just make it work”. Software for Apple has I believe become just another “value added” function – which is a pity because it was just as much the software in the early days that made the Apple stuff sing. There is a well known anecdote about how Steve Jobs was unhappy with the early Mac’s boot time, and how he wanted 5 seconds off it because it would “save lives”! This was a guy who recognised the role good software plays in the overall product experience. He made it integral. Furthermore, software drove the hardware, not just the other way round. Parabolically, Steve Wozniak reduced the cost of the early Apple’s by implementing certain hardware features in software rather than bear the costs of additional hardware.

But we don’t have these strategic sensibilities in Apple any more. Apple are in the “devices” business now. They’re very good at this, but concerns about production costs, supply chains and shipping now dominate. Basically it’s all about producing the most expensive devices for the cheapest cost. This style of product development follows a very simple equation: Sales – Costs = Profit. There’s two ways you can increase your profit: One is to increase sales, by selling more, more expensive devices. The other is cutting costs, and not only is software development expensive, but it’s also hard to scale in any conventional sense. It can be done, but not within a conventional manufacturing mindset and this is where having somebody at the senior executive level who “understands” software is sorely lacking.

I don’t think Scott Forstall was necessarily sacked because Apple Maps was bad. It probably wasn’t his fault. There had to have been an issue with Google swallowing a large amount of Apple’s revenue through their apps and they had to be got rid of eventually. Forstall had an impossible task I’d say: Catch up with Google who had been blazing a trail in the mapping space, in probably something like a year. It could never have worked and when he refused to be scapegoated for hit he got fired.

Now software is a cost. The effort that goes into producing it is mere “labour” rather than the creative, generative exercise it needs to be. The ways you cut costs in manufacturing (e.g. by ever and ever subdividing tasks, enforcing uniformity, driving scale and to a certain extent getting cheaper labour) just don’t work in software. So I say anyway, so I have observed in my ten years or so watching businesses time and time again try to apply these principles and just end up either losing customers or being bled on support costs because the software just isn’t good enough.

We hear ever more these days about the 10x programmer (not saying I am one mind) who is 10-times more productive (while being maybe twice as expensive) and “full-stack” which is the very antithesis of subdivision of tasks. These are the economics of software: You can do more with less. It’s like getting beaten up by 3 guys instead of 10: Your assailants will do more damage (thus be more productive) if they’re coordinated and not getting in each others’ way.

So veering back to the headphones. Sorry I swear we’ve got to traverse this ellipse a little further before I actually get to make my point but we are starting to converge … headphones, production costs, software quality, headphones … great.

Have you noticed, that you’re having to try more times getting typos right when typing on your iPhone? I have. It’s not just the dictionary is bolloxed and it’s capability to learn, but I also notice that I’m mis-hitting the keyboard a lot more. I remember being struck in the earlier days how well my iPhone compensated for mis-hits and usually guessed my intention quite well. I don’t get this feeling any more …

Have you noticed that new “non- feature” too that they added whereby the top of the keyboard provides you with a list of possible words you can type, thereby taking the load off the predictive text engine?

Touch screen device drivers, and predictive text are “hard” to do well, and they also have the curious property that most people won’t notice right away if you dumb them down. If they’re hard to “do” they’re even harder to “manage” in a conventional manufacturing mindset. Hard to do and hard to manage means you need smart high-cost people, which are “costs”. How does an industrial designer reduce such costs? By changing the product so they’re no longer relevant.

With a large screen you don’t need clever device-drivers; you have less mis-hits so you don’t need such sophisticated predictive text and you can afford the extra screen space of a word-list at the top of the keyboard so that the user can assist the keyboard.

Boom everything just became much more manageable, at a user-experience cost barely noticeable by most, unless they inconveniently stick with a small screen (which I do, because I want my phone comfortably in my pocket!). So now everybody has Phablets. In fairness it’s not just Apple, they’ve been relatively late to the party – but it does explain why we’re less and less likely to have the “option” of a reasonably sized phone any more and why manufacturers are pushing the larger screens really hard.

But that’s not the conspiracy – remember I started off talking about the new headphones? Or rather the elimination of the headphones jack? It’s all about making the iPhone “slimmer” they say but why do they care about slimmer? Really as a customer I would way prefer a small fat phone than a big thin one. Already there’s stories going around about how though the thinner phones are bendy the internals aren’t and the issues this leads to issues

Thinner is cheaper again. So a big screen right, if you buy my argument makes development of the device simpler and thus cheaper. But now what you have is a device that is bigger and heavier, and thus requires more materials to produce and costs more to ship. Marginally per unit but at the scale Apple operates at this works out at a lot of money, and remember Tim Cook is a manufacturing operations guy.

So if we go back to our equation earlier, if we reduce manufacturing and shipping costs by making the device thinner (thereby lighter – to compensate for the larger screen the purpose of which was to reduce development costs) you have more $$$$$$

Elimination of the 3.5mm jack is integral to this. If it works, it translates into mega bucks, even if people don’t go for the vendor locked-in headphones, or the EarPods and AirPods. If people just buy iPhones the same way they always did and just use the adapter then Apple have already succeeded. The other stuff is a bonus.

Yes it does further reduce the experience but the gamble is that most people won’t notice or care. It may be the case with the headphones jack they’ve pushed it too far but we shall see.

I remember when they got rid of the optical drive I was annoyed. They were charging me more for a computer that had one less optical drive. But I got used to it, and in a completely solid-state device such as my Macbook Pro is it makes complete sense. There’s no moving parts. Nothing to break. It feels so sturdy and durable. I still do miss optical disks, but in fairness I could have bought an external drive ages ago if I really wanted one.

Then there’s the fact that I’m simply outside the norm on the bell curve. Most people want a device that “Just works” (with the emphasis on “just”). I’m a demanding power user and maybe there’s just not enough money to be made fawning over my every desire vs doing the bare minimum to keep the less demanding users happy. Even then maybe it’s just good enough to be “better than the alternatives”. My Mum’s iPad still works as well the day she got it about 4 years ago. My 3 y/o Google Nexus however, does not.

We’ll see. Google maps (which was swiftly restored!) is one thing; optical disks are another; lets not even go there with mDnsResponder (also reconstituted!) but the trusty headphones jack is quite a bold (ha ha maybe “courageous”) step. What about all those kids with Skull Candy headphones; or my friend who spent €350 on his Bose noise-cancelling headphone? There’s an adaptor which I can lose, or noting the reliability of lightning thus far more likely break; what happens at a party when somebody passes you the aux lead and you forgot the adapter?

I’m still annoyed I can’t get a phone that fits comfortably in my pocket.

Now this?

Will it stop me buying one eventually??? When I run out of options (thankfully the SE is still available) and I’m caught between that and an Android device? I can’t see it going any other way.