Apple, Power Users, and the Dance of Progress

It was common knowledge until earlier this year that Apple was going to kill the Mac Pro — and then, they stunned us all with the reinvented new Mac Pro at WWDC ’13. We were equally prepared to accept that Apple wasn’t really focusing on its iWork apps, since they hadn’t received a major upgrade since ’09, and were delighted to catch a one-sentence promise of a new iWork during the same keynote. Combine that with OS X Mavericks’ new power user features, like tabs in Finder and better multiple display support, and it’d be easy to say that Apple finally was focusing on power users again.

And then, we got the new iWork apps, and they each had features cut out. Mavericks, even, crippled Mail.app’s Gmail integration. And so the pendulum swung back again: see, Apple doesn’t care about power users at all.

Leave it to Cupertino to push the pendulum back yet again by announcing that they’re bringing features back to iWork over the next few months, and they’ve already fixed Gmail integration in Mail.app. And yet, that shouldn’t be surprising all: it’s how Apple works.

Begin Again

The Apple II was great. So let's throw it out. (Macintosh image via Wikipedia)

The Apple II was great. So let’s throw it out. (Macintosh image via Wikipedia)

Apple’s never been afraid to reinvent themselves — at least, under Steve Jobs’ reign. The Apple II kept the company going for years but was obviously not the future of computing, and the Lisa was overpriced and again couldn’t redefine computing for normal people, so Jobs spearheaded the Macintosh. Then Jobs came back to a company making far too many Macs, so he cut them down to just 4 different models — a tradition Apple hasn’t veered far from even to today. Those Macs were still too much like beige-box PCs, so Apple redesigned them in candy colors before switching to aluminum. They used PowerPC CPUs as long as they made sense, and perhaps just a bit longer, but eventually moved to Intel even when that meant leaving behind legacy PowerPC Mac users.

In the mean time, they aggressively cut features that were no longer considered relevant, and added the features that future proofed their machines. The floppy was first to go back in the late ‘90s, when it was unimaginable to not have a floppy drive, but the writing was on the wall and Apple was just the most aggressive to cut. The CD/DVD drive has faced a similar fate in Apple’s latest machines. But at the same time, Apple was adding wireless tech before other companies were, along with advanced sensors and touchpads and more that made Macs have more features others couldn’t match while they lacked features that seemed essential at the time for the competition’s machines.

Cut, cut, cut. Reinvent when necessary in the most forward-focused way you can. Then build up from there in ways that give you the advantage over the competition. That’s the mantra.

And it’s not just with hardware. Apple’s done the same with software. AppleWorks was killed, but then reinvented to a degree by iWork. No, it didn’t bring back everything, but it had the stuff Apple thought was most important for the day. And then, most infamously, Apple reinvented Final Cut Pro in Final Cut Pro X much to the chagrin of existing users — but the new magnetic timeline was considered a major innovation, and Apple’s since brought back many of the missing features everyone complained were missing at first.

Here again, Apple decided to strip down to the minimum, rebuild with the future-focused features, then add back what’s missing if needed. They’d rather disrupt themselves than sit aside and have someone else disrupt their businesses.

Thinking Beyond the Box

iCloud makes zero sense, until it makes perfect sense.

iCloud makes zero sense, until it makes perfect sense.

But perhaps the best example is iCloud. Apple’s struggled with online tools for years, starting with iTools, then .Mac and most infamously MobileMe, before finally releasing iCloud. In the mean time, Jobs courted Dropbox, presumably to build its file-sync tech directly into Apple’s machines. They wouldn’t sale, so Apple pressed forward and reinvented their online services offering as iCloud.

And yet, iCloud was no Dropbox — it’s enough different that most of us continue to use the two side-by-side. But that doesn’t mean iCloud is bad. Instead, it’s aimed at something else: the future. It’s about simplifying the traditionally complex file management that confuses all but the most advanced computer users, and makes it to where your data simply shows up in the apps you’d expect when you’d expect it. Sure, it’s not perfect, and Apple needs to continue to improve it and build on that foundation if it truly wants to win the future in data storage. But it’s a truly different idea in file sync that’s prompted Dropbox and others to add similar app sync features of their own.

Another oft-complained about Apple tech with a similar approach from Apple is the App Store. It’s made it possible for anyone to sale Mac and iOS apps to anyone across the world incredibly easily, and yet developers continue to find its restrictions and review issues and more a source of frustration. They’ve begged Apple to add traditional upgrade pricing, free trials, and more.

Apple, in the mean time, has set its sights on what it thinks the future looks like. Not traditional upgrades, but lower priced full-versions of apps, perhaps accompanied with in-app purchases to unlock extra features. It may or may not be the best approach, but it is different from the past, and it is what Apple’s set its mind on. And now, it’s building on that framework to add volume purchase features for businesses — something that’s great for businesses and developers alike, but decidedly not what everyone has said is the most important thing for Apple to tackle.

Somehow, though, I happen to think it’ll make more sense looking back, when traditional upgrade pricing seems like a long-forgotten oddity of the software market.

The Next Big Thing might kill the Last Big Thing

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So then, there’s this year’s confusing moves from Apple. They stunned us all with the brand-new Mac Pro — a machine that’s beautiful, totally unique, and decidedly future-focused on what Apple sees as its core pro users. That means the death of the last real “desktop tower” Mac, along with its huge chassis and internal expandability, dropped in lieu of a whisper-quiet machine that’s expandable by USB3 and Thunderbolt. Apple’s betting the future of pro computing on it — while at the same time, making MacBook Pros and iMacs that are more than powerful enough for almost every other possible need.

And then, there’s iWork. The original suite that seemed focused on page layout, presentation, and simplicity was fully redesigned. It’s simpler than ever for new users to understand, and free with every new Apple machine, which makes it an obvious up-sale for most people. And yet, it lost power-user features that many of us loved — ones, in many cases, that made iWork better for us than Microsoft Office. Apple has, of course, announced that they’ll bring back many of the features we’re all missing, but the wound is still there. Why on earth would Apple cut out features we all loved?

John Gruber wrote two years ago that, in response to a crisis, Apple will “measure twice, cut once”. I’d argue that Apple does that with everything they do. iWork was great, but they saw a feature-compatible iWork suite on iOS, Web, and Mac as greater. So they cut to the bone, built a new suite, and can now build up from there. The old Mac Pro design was dated at best, so they threw it out, reinvented what pro computing could look like today, and made the only desktop computer anyone will remember from 2013. Both moves affected pro users the most — they showed us that Apple isn’t just an iOS device company, and that they do still care about doing real work with Macs, but they also hit us with Apple’s relentless drive for what they see as the future.

Apple cares about power users, but they care more about making sure they aren’t left behind. They’ll disrupt themselves before competitors have time to catch up to Apple’s previous disruption. “Sometimes to take a major step forward, you have to completely change direction.”, the new Mac Pro marketing site reads. Usually, those changes look obvious in hindsight, but for now, they can sting.

I happen to bet Apple’s planning to slowly surprise us with both iWork and the new Mac Pro going forward. And whenever they deeply reinvent MacBooks, say, or the iPhone, it’ll feel odd at first. But it’ll make sense later.


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