Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Apple Design in the Cook Era

Joshua Topolsky (Hacker News):

Stretching perhaps from the introduction of the first iPod in 2001, through the release of the groundbreaking iPhone 4 (and subsequent refinement with the iPhone 5), Apple was regularly lauded as best-in-class when it came to hardware and software design and the synchronicity of those elements.


But things changed.

In 2013 I wrote about the confusing and visually abrasive turn Apple had made with the introduction of iOS 7, the operating system refresh that would set the stage for almost all of Apple’s recent design. The product, the first piece of software overseen by Jony Ive, was confusing, amateur, and relatively unfinished upon launch. While Ive had utterly revamped what the company had been doing thematically with its user interface — eschewing the original iPhone’s tactility of skeuomorphic, real-world textures for a more purely “digital” approach — he also ignored more grounded concepts about user experience, systematic cohesion, and most surprisingly, look and feel. Gone were the mock felt backgrounds and virtual dials of Steve Jobs’ iOS, but suddenly present was a set of gestures and layers purported to be part of a system that never quite clicked. Ive converted understandable buttons into confusing rubrics (the share arrow?), clustered controls into a context-free space (Control Center), and perhaps worst of all, made some really ugly icons that have never fully recovered.


This is not an argument about what Steve Jobs would have done; this is an argument for a central, cohesive vision that accounts for systems, not just nodes on a network. Jony Ive is clearly not providing that vision. Phil Schiller is not providing that vision. And Tim Cook, the all-time don of supply-chain management, cannot and will not provide that vision. So what happens now?

His title is “Apple Is Really Bad at Design,” which I don’t think is true. And I don’t agree with all of his points—for example, the new Control Center seems pretty functional to me. However, I would agree that we are not currently in one of the golden eras of Apple design. Ive and his team are still talented, so what’s changed? From the outside it’s hard to know. One possibility is that it’s only in retrospect that we can really see the contributions of Jobs and perhaps others such as Forstall who have departed. Another is that the scope of what Apple is trying to do has greatly increased. The software and hardware teams seem to be stretched thin, and design probably is, too. Yet the company is clearly still capable of great design. AirPods is a new product that (aside from the manufacturing delays) is as close to perfect as any Apple has ever made.

Michael Love:

Regarding this heavily-discussed rant: virtually every design sin of Cook era has been case of pragmatism > purity.

Steven Sinofsky:

This is some rant and I’ve been on the receiving end of @joshuatopolsky rants 😱—seems a bit much to me.

Chuq Von Rospach:

With absolute certainty that everyone else is wrong and he’s right. Pure Topolsky.

David Owens II:

Maybe, but I’ve run into far more issues in the past two years with my Apple products then I ever had, all because of design choices.

I literally have all four some my USB-C ports used, two with USB adapters, one with a DP adapter (b/c HDMI doesn’t work for me), and power.

My PENCIL is constantly drained because I haven’t bought yet another adapter. I frequently can’t list to music on my iPhone 7.

Going back to the SE, they still haven’t actually solved any of the design issues in iOS 7, just used more space to help.

At some point, these failures all point to bad design choices.

Nick Lockwood:

Look, clearly Apple is great and all their long-term fans who are now complaining are wrong. Everything is fine so just shut up ok lalalala.

The Macalope:

No one complained about the plastic iPhone 3G, the buttonless iPod Shuffle, the cheap iPhone 5c, brushed metal, pinstripes and stoplight colors in OS X, or the “fat” iPod nano and no one ever said that the “groundbreaking” iPhone 4 was ugly. (The Memory Hole is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for your memory-shoving needs.) Topolsky misremembers that people only started complaining when iOS 7 was released. iOS 7 certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was a dramatic reset of the design of iOS, sometime most observers of the company agreed needed to happen. It was just another thing Apple did that people complained about. One that also evolved into something nice.

Previously: iPhone X Design and the Notch.

Update (2017-10-04): Riccardo Mori:

The thing is, back then I felt that Apple was making the right choices in several contexts, but that a lot of people (even certain long-time, inflexible Mac users) didn’t understand such choices. The absence of the floppy drive in the first iMac. The iPod as a potentially revolutionary device. The transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X. The transition from PowerPC to Intel architecture. I spent long months full of long days as a consultant explaining Apple to bewildered users and clients who, more than once, thought that the company was “losing its mind”. And so on and so forth. If you’ve ever done tech consulting and/or support, you’ve surely been there too.

But now — now I’m criticising Apple more not because I suddenly developed a grudge against the company. On the contrary, I still care a lot about Apple. I’m surrounded by Apple hardware at home, I’m still quite invested in the ecosystem, and even vintage and obsolete machines are put to good use in the household. It’s because I care that I feel, strongly, that Apple should be criticised — mercilessly, provided it’s informed criticism — whenever there’s something truly worth criticising. And in recent times I’ve been more critic of Apple because I simply think there’s more to criticise.

13 Comments RSS · Twitter

> AirPods is a new product that is as close to perfect as any Apple has ever made.

I don't think you've written anything about them yet. What makes them so good? I haven't used them, and to me, they look weird, as if they could fall out of your ears at any second, and don't provide super useful features that similar products provide (e.g. the Here Ones that I use).

As for the rest of the discussion, I don't think Apple has gotten "really bad at design", but it seems to me that my Xiaomi phone's Android version offers much cleaner, simpler, easier to use design than the latest iOS versions, and if a Chinese phone's OS is better designed than an Apple phone's (or at least in the same ballpark), something is wonky. It also looks better than most iPhones, in my opinion, but it has that stupid rounded-edge screen, which is the kind of "form over function" feature that, hopefully, Apple still knows how to avoid.

Regarding "awesome" design made by Apple in Cupertino, who's the idiot who decided to make our lives miserable when dragging a window to the top of the screen?

@Lukas I wrote a bit here. AirPods are just incredibly practical: small, most reliable wireless audio I’ve seen, easy to charge, great battery life, easy to pocket, easy to switch devices, never fall out even when exercising. They sound better than any comparable product that I’m aware of. I’ll grant you that they do look weird.

I’d not heard of Here One. Those look interesting but twice the price. Noise cancellation is good. Most of the time I don’t want a full seal, though. The Verge reported Bluetooth and microphone issues.

@someone That new Spaces feature on High Sierra sounds bad on paper, but I’ve yet to trigger it by accident. Although that may be because I use Moom a lot…

Topolsky is being incendiary because thats how you get page views, but I think the kernel, that apple designs for a lot of core products are bad is sound. Also, I don't think the Macalope, which defends the most profitable company in the history of profits, is wrong in invoking past complaints about Apple products. Pundits complain about every single product that Apple releases. What's different is that in the past people would stop complaining about the lack of an optical drive on the MacBook Air or not having a replaceable batter on the phone because Apple convinced us they were right. People are still complaining about the audio jack on iPhones, the Mac Pro, the Apple Watch, and the touchbar because Apple hasn't won us over.

Even the people defending Apple concede that the iPhone X notch is simply bad design, and for once I think they're right to say that the Apple of a decade ago would not have shipped it.

@Michael Maybe using Moom prevents these accidents. But here, the accident happens too much frequently. I'm wondering whether this feature was just added to hide the bug where a window could be dragged below the menu bar.

> Most of the time I don’t want a full seal, though

That's what makes them so great. You control how much of the external sound gets to you. If you're in a noisy place, turn down the outside noise. If you're in a quiet place, just pass it through. If you're at a bar, turn down the background noise, and amplify voices, so you can hear people more clearly. I even wear them to concerts, because I can turn down the volume without distorting the sound.

Dunno about The Verge, I haven't had any issues with them after I installed the initial firmware upgrade.

@Lukas Are you talking about a software setting? The main reason I (sometimes) don’t want a full seal is that I don’t like the way it feels when exercising.

>Are you talking about a software setting?


>I don’t like the way it feels when exercising.

Yeah, it doesn't fix that. It does come with nice memory foam nubs, which are very comfortable even when worn for a long time, but it's still a full seal.

@Lukas Thanks. Would you recommend them for airplane use?

> Would you recommend them for airplane use?

For people who like full seals, they're a good option. They have an airplane mode that specifically filters out airplane background noise, but allows voice frequencies through:

If you just don't like full seals, though, these are likely not going to change your mind. I'm not really making a recommendation. I personally love them, and use them all the time for all kinds of purposes, but the kind of audio gear people like is highly subjective, so my preferences might not translate to a lot of other people.

@Lukas I like a full seal on the airplane. That all sounds good, although the Web site claims 3 hours of “Real-World Sound Control,” which is less than I’d like.

Yeah, battery time isn't great. In my experience, it's more than three hours if you don't listen to music, and just turn on filtering, and they recharge to a reasonable level quite quickly when put into the little cradle (I wear them for Karaoke, and the last time we were at the bar for four or five hours - battery was fine). But it's a lot less than three hours when listening to music *and* enabling audio filtering. Maybe as little as around 90 minutes.

The iPhone 4 was the last Apple product that really 'wowed' me. An IPS retina screen on a phone just seemed so unreal at the time, and iOS 4 and 5 ran quite well on it. While Touch ID is quite useful, it's been placed in form factors that — for me at least — are all more cumbersome for me to use and carry around than the original 3.5" size.

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