Apple, Condemned to Death by a Thousand Papercuts

Ever since Steve Jobs’ death, Apple pundits and fanboys all around the world began counting down the “inevitable death of Apple”. There can only be one Steve Jobs and he is dead. He defined an era when only an era can be defined. The emergence of the iPhone can only be described as a goldfish swallowing the whale. They say history repeats itself and once again we’re seeing the sequel of “PC overtaking Apple” as “Android overtaking iOS”. Funny how we never learn. Maybe someday Steve Jobs will be resurrected by bio technology and we’ll see this whole drama play out again in the bio field. But I digress.


Apple products are distinguished by the polish and intuitiveness of the interface backed by solid technology in both hardware and software. It’s quite a formidable package and one that is yet to be rivaled. Samsung, Google, and BlackBerry are still chasing Apple’s tail. The brilliance of Apple under Jobs’ second coming is that they made just the right trade offs with open and closed systems. They leveraged open technology to build an OS (OSX), even though I think they bet on the wrong horse (mach kernel) in the long run, and leveraged that for mobile. They created a new market for touch screen devices that created a whole new paradigm and even extended it to tablets.


Like any brilliant invention that revolutionizes the world, once people got hold of an iPhone they soon settle into a state where they can’t image a world without it. It feels natural, almost meant to be. Every time I try to use an Android, I feel like it’s a different beast. My mind locks up when I run into many of its unintuitive rabbit holes that come from logically inconsistent and/or unintuitive interaction designs. I’d frequently find myself forgetting how to access a certain setting or getting lost in an application’s menu. A lot of things just don’t feel right. The battery life was atrocious.


However, at the end of the day, the iPhone is simply a mini computer (that connects to the internet), camera, and media player with phone capabilities. That’s it. What sets it apart is the application eco system and all the innovations it introduced to the market. However, the company is now feels decidedly conservative. There’s no excitement on the horizon. What’s coming after the iPad Mini? The iPhone grande? Or maybe the iWatch? AppleTV as a gaming console anyone?


The app eco system will eventually be the downfall of Apple. They’ve created a culture of fear by acting as arbiters of taste rather than protectors (ensuring that malware isn’t circulated). Take away all the applications from any smartphone and you’re left with the internet, music, and movies for your entertainment; email, sms, and voice for communication. When you get banned from Apple’s App Store you have no recourse (other than public appeal). With Android, their Play store is much more permissive and moreover, users can choose to install non-market apps.


Without a visionary like Jobs, Apple needs all the help it can get with innovation and there’s no greater inspiration than an eco system of third-party developers. Interface improvements like the ubiquitous pull-to-refresh came from outside (apps like Facebook have a nice flick to go back from a picture view which I think should be standard). Also, Apple’s preference for sandboxing all data and more importantly locking down the music and video library is also another weakness that will irritate users more and more. The big issue at hand is Apple tries to control how we interact with our own data in the name of protection. We can’t download and play music or movie files from the internet without going through iTunes or syncing it via PC. Movie files can only be played if it’s in Apple’s mp4 format unless we use third party apps.


The smartphone revolution is far from over, it’s only beginning. As more and more of our lives go mobile, we need newer ways of interacting with the device. There are still lots of improvements to be made, such as text input, before they can completely replace computers. Social interactions are also another area ripe for innovation (I’m thinking device to device communication like Bump and more location-based networks that involve more than just checking in). Payment/point-of-sale is yet another are that will eventually become a major pat of smartphone usage (something with more substance than the Passbook, something that makes use of technology like RFCs).


As technology matures it’s only natural that there are no low hanging fruit to pick and that pushing the envelope involves great risk. However, with companies Samsung chasing them on the hardware front and Google chasing them on the software front, they really can’t afford to rest on their laurels.