Chuq Von Rospach: What’s wrong with Apple

“They’ve chopped off the edges of the bell curve—and big chunks of their key users with them.”

The must-read Apple rant of the week is Chuq Von Rospach’s Apple’s 2016 in review. The veteran of a dozen Silicon Valley firms—including 17 years at Apple—Von Rospach has written a critique of Apple’s annus horribilis so sharp and on-the-mark that even die-hard Apple apologists are recommending it.

Von Rospach gets high marks for his analysis of the Mac Pro disaster and the abandoned AirPort line. But for me the heart of his critique is captured by this anecdote:

Back when I was running most of Apple’s e-mail systems for the marketing teams, I went to them and suggested that we should consider dumping the text-only part of the emails we were building, because only about 4% of users used them and it added a significant amount of work to the process of creation and testing each e-mail.

Their response? That it was a small group of people, but a strategic one, since it was highly biased towards developers and power users. So the two-part emails stayed — and they were right. It made no sense from a business standpoint to continue to develop these emails as both HTML [and] text, but it made significant strategic sense. It was an investment in keeping this key user base happy with Apple.

Apple, from all indications I’ve seen over the last year and with the configurations they’ve shipped with these new laptops, has forgotten this, and the product configurations seem designed by what will fit the biggest part of the user base with the fewest configuration options. They’ve chopped off the edges of the bell curve—and big chunks of their key users with them.

Is this Tim Cook’s fault? Von Rospach doesn’t think so. Is Apple broken? Not even close. But he does worry that Apple isn’t seeing the “unmitigated disaster” (ex John Gruber) of the Mac Pro situation for what it is because it’s looking at the company’s sales numbers and they look fine.

If you just look at the numbers, things are okay. But what Apple’s always been good at is looking beyond the numbers to the things they don’t say—and I worry they’ve lost that.

As I say, a must-read.

More Von Rospach photos here.

22 Comments

  1. Richard Wanderman said:

    It’s a brilliant piece.

    I think the current reason Apple has “chopped off the edges of the bell curve” is because the offset between power Mac users and iPhone buyers is much larger than the offset when Chuck was at Apple. Customers back then were everyday Mac users and power Mac users. Now we have the same power Mac users and the rest of Apple’s customers, most of whom will never be Mac users or care about MacOS and the number of those users is enormous.

    I’m not defending what Apple seems to have done, but us serious long term Mac users are a much smaller piece of the pie now.

    Personally, I think the same rationale applies: we’re a significant group and Apple ought to pay attention, not to mention make more of an attempt to pull some of the larger group into using the Macintosh.

    Merging MacOS and iOS into one group at Apple was a strategic mistake and I think is one of the many reasons we’re seeing such a lag in both hardware and OS updates on the Mac side. I hope Apple is paying attention.

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    January 4, 2017
  2. Jonathan Mackenzie said:

    How many here remember that Apple did the same thing with Final Cut a few years back.

    From Wikipedia:
    “In its initial release, Final Cut Pro X was met with mixed reviews as many video editors eschewed its dramatic departure from the traditional editing interface and the dropping of many legacy (and some non-legacy) features. At the time of the initial release, a significant number of long-time Final Cut Pro users considered the new product to be an unsatisfactory product undeserving to be part of Final Cut Pro product line. An online petition was started demanding either the continued development of the legacy Final Cut Pro product or its sale to a third party by January 1, 2012. […] By January 2014, the petition had received well over 9,000 signatures.”

    I have a few friends who are video professionals (post production, and such). They were apoplectic. How could Apple abandon them for a glorified iMovie that was meant to appeal to teen YouTubers?

    But what happened? Over time features that had been stripped were added back in the new framework. All of my friends, who vowed they would abandon Apple, are still using Final Cut Pro, and they are no longer complaining about it.

    This horrible tunnel vision that Apple is supposed to have is not new. They are constantly “abandoning” faithful users. And yet over time it seems their decisions more often than not allow them to follow certain undisclosed development paths and somehow manage to retain most or all of the Apple faithful.

    I do not want to get in the middle of a holy war. But the claim that this is somehow new for Apple is revisionist. When Apple made the leap to the x86 processor they inconvenienced a lot of long time users as well. And yet Apple pushed forward and most Apple enthusiasts came along for the ride.

    I will be interested in seeing what Creatives are saying about the Macbook Pro (and other Macs) in a couple years.

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    January 4, 2017
  3. Fred Stein said:

    Thanks, and agree, ‘must read’.
    A few comments:
    The issue of missing AirPod ship dates doesn’t matter. It may be about the safety of batteries so close to a vital organ, BLE technology issues, or the availability/quality of one single component. We’re on a 10 year plus journey in wearables. No need to get tripped up early on.
    His final note is positive. I agree, or rather hope, that the gaps and bugs may be addressed soon.
    His metaphor, ‘not hitting on all cylinders’: YES!. That’s because Apple is no longer an elegant 4 cylinder sports sedan. It’s more like a 12 cylinder engine that gets out of tune quickly. Look how many iOS derived devices they have now. Making features work cross platform as the platform surface expands is really tough. It will get tougher, hence marginal products fall off.
    The concern about the uber-pro user, the Mac Pro etc. might be addressed by a separate division. Apple has to optimize the product design, manufacturing, and the global Apple retail Stores with genius bars around volume products. Niche product just don’t fit. Remember Apple’s retail footprint is much larger today than when the Mac Pro launched (and it was spec’ed out a year earlier). The uber-pro users could be supported by separate dedicate group. While “the bloody ROI” would suck, it would be a tiny operating unit. The impact would not visible at the top level.

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    January 4, 2017
  4. John Kirk said:

    With apologies to PED and the readers of Apple 3.0, I have a lot to say, so I’m going to respond over several posts.

    First, I agree with everyone else that this is, overall, a great article. But I think it has significant flaws too.

    Let’s start with some of the things that the author likes about what Apple is currently doing:

    “Apple has built some laptops that nicely handle the needs of the vast majority of its users.”

    “if you fall within the user base that they’re designed to support (I am) the new MacBook Pros are incredibly nice machines.”

    MY COMMENT: Keep this comment in mind. The critiques of so many others ignore the fact that Apple is meeting the needs of the vast majority of their users. This author acknowledges it — but then seems to feel that it’s worse to miss the mark with the niche customers than with one’s core customers. That’s a disconnect, no?

    “I’ve fallen in love with Touch ID on the desktop, and I like the Touch Bar.”

    MY COMMENT: I think the touch id is big and the way Apple makes it easy to pay from the laptop and desktop if you have an Apple watch is even bigger. Apple is quietly moving to dominate internet payments. If Google were doing this, the critics would be taking to the rooftops so they could shout out the news that Apple had, once again, blown it.

    “if you ignore the manufacturing challenges, the Pencil and the AirPods both seem to be truly innovative marvels.”

    MY COMMENT: I think the AirPods are still being under appreciated. They may — and I emphasize may — be the biggest thing to come out of Apple since the iPad. Some even think they’re the biggest UI change since the iPhone in 2007.

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    January 4, 2017
  5. John Kirk said:

    One of the things I dislike about this article — and so many critiques of Apple — is the tendency to compare the Apple of today with a near perfect Apple of yesterday — a near-perfect Apple that never actually existed. Sure, Apple deserves criticism for the things they do wrong. But by placing the Apple of yesterday on an Olympus high mountaintop it’s impossible for anything Apple now does to not appear to have “gone downhill” from that overhyped yesteryear. Here are some examples from the article of this tendency to idealize the Apple of yesterday.

    “Is Apple broken? Nope, not even close. It’s not firing on all cylinders, though, and it needs to do some internal thinking and realignment to get back to where it was a few years ago.”

    “Apple rarely missed ship dates.”

    MY COMMENT: Bull. Remember the white iPhone? If my memory were better, I’d be able to cite a dozen other examples where Apple missed ship dates.

    “They’ve also misjudged demand on products.”

    MY COMMENT: You have GOT to be kidding me? Apple has shortages EVERY FRICKING YEAR. Are some worse than others? Sure. But you’re on crack if you think Apple hasn’t misjudged demand in the past. Projecting product demand is damn hard. Especially when your product keeps selling more than it’s supposed to.

    “in 2016 I feel like the tone of the chatter about Apple changed and got a lot more negative.”

    MY COMMENT: Bull. If you think people are more negative about Apple today than they were yesterday, it’s your memory, not Apple, that is flawed.

    “Apple, for the first time in over a decade, simply isn’t firing on all cylinders.”

    MY COMMENT: You have got to be kidding me, right? First time in over a decade? Really. Off the top of my head, I remember a little thing called antenna gate that kind of blew up in their face. And every year Apple is written off as being doomed. You say Apple has been firing on all cylinders for over a decade? Only in your fevered imagination.

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    January 4, 2017
  6. John Kirk said:

    Another thing that this article, like so many others, does is to say that Apple doesn’t understand it’s market when, in fact, it’s power users who don’t understand what Apple’s market is. Here are some examples:

    Apple’s view of its users doesn’t match its users: I think Apple’s lost sight of its users.

    Apple’s view of its users doesn’t match its users

    MY COMMENT: I’m not stuttering. He wrote the exact same thing twice.

    Apple seems out of touch with its users

    MY COMMENT: You are not everybody. Just because Apple isn’t catering to the power user doesn’t mean they’re doomed. On the contrary, Apple has quite routinely ticked off their power users. I’m tempted to say that if the power users are happy with Apple, then Apple really is doomed.

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    January 4, 2017
  7. John Kirk said:

    The article makes some really good points, and here’s just a few:

    “The Mac Pro. It’s been over a thousand days since this product has seen an update.”

    MY COMMENT: What. The Hell, Apple?

    “Long delays between product refreshes”

    “Apple has products it’s let languish without any significant update for long periods of time”

    MY COMMENT: Yeah, something is up with that.

    Here are some subtler criticisms:

    “Another example is 3D Touch/Force Touch, which Apple clearly saw as this huge usability improvement, and even now, users seem to either not know about it or not care, and it’s implementation is inconsistent across Apple’s own apps — it seems like Apple is still trying to figure out how to turn this into the usability tool it thought it had when it first announced it.

    MY COMMENT: I think 3D touch has taken off much slower than Apple imagined. If Apple can make it a part of the muscle memory of its users, I think it will be a huge competitive advantage. No one else appears to be even close to creating a 3D touch clone.

    “The new MacBook Pros and the Touch Bar are the most recent example: Apple clearly expected us to fall in love with this new bit of technology and saw it as a tentpole feature. I think down the road it may well be, but the reaction to the announcement was a lot less enthusiastic than they seemed to expect, and more criticism of it being a bauble and not a feature.”

    MY COMMENT: Hmm. I think this is just a case of power users thinking that their needs are more important that the needs of “normals”.

    “But here’s the problem: sitting in this niche of excluded users are some of Apple’s strongest supporters, the influencers that create word of mouth, and to me, most importantly it includes a significant number of the developers Apple depends on to create it’s Mac and IOS apps.”

    MY COMMENT: The first part of this paragraph is nearly delusional. If power users think people are buying computers because of them, then they’re simply not paying attention to what’s been happening in the market. Power users aren’t leading the way, they’re trailing far, far behind.

    The second part of the above paragraph does give me pause. I don’t know the area well enough to comment, but I do wish Apple would upgrade a bunch of their products and make power users happier. Power users may or may not be crucial, but they still have an important role to play.

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    January 4, 2017
  8. John Kirk said:

    Let me close with the author’s thoughts on why Apple is doing what it is doing:

    “My worry is that Apple isn’t seeing this, because it’s looking at the sales numbers and they look fine, with many products under backlog and strong demand (including the new MacBook Pros).

    Spreadsheets can tell you where the sweet spots in the market are and how to hit them, but they struggle at finding and bringing forward strategic areas that also need coverage. That was, actually, one thing that Steve excelled at. It means you need people in leadership who understand their user base and which bits are strategic and need to have product coverage.

    Has Apple decided these risks are worth it, or are they oblivious to it?”

    First, I don’t believe Apple has let dollar signs cloud their judgment. Just the opposite. Apple has a strong ethic of doing what’s right rather than what’s profitable. And their dedication to notebooks proves it. If Apple were most any other company, they just would have move MacBooks to ARM or made them all tablets by now. MacBooks are of small importance to Apple compared to iPhones, but Apple continues to tout them and to support them.

    As to not seeing the risks in what they’re doing, I don’t believe that either. I honestly have no insight into why Apple is doing what they’re doing but I can’t believe they’re obvious. They’re making strategic decisions — some good and some bad — and they’re making them years and years in advance of when we see their effects. Criticize Apple all you want. But keep things in context. And in perspective. I mean, if you think Apple is struggling with PCs, then what the hell do you think of Microsoft, Dell, Lenovo, HP? Geez. Remember, every quarter Apple captures more and more market and profit share from the ever shrinking PC sector.

    Criticize Apple all you want. But remember this. The PC market is the Titanic. And Apple is the iceberg that tore them a new one below their waterline. That iceberg may not be perfect. But it’s going to stay afloat far longer than the Titanic did.

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    January 4, 2017
  9. Michael Barnett said:

    I regret to say I very much agree with this article. I and my family are avid Apple fans and I normally buy heavily around the Christmas holiday season upgrading to the latest models as presents to the family and myself ….BUT NOT THIS YEAR..

    Each time I went into a London Apple store I have been unable to buy any of the latest models that I wanted because they were not in stock. Everything I wanted was on a 3-4 week waiting list so I bought no new Apple Watches, no new iPhones and no new Mac Pro.

    Was this shortage as a result of overwhelming demand or of bad stock management?

    I suspect the latter. But whatever the case, all I have bought is one more iPad Pro (for a son who previously said he didn’t want one but fell in love with it after trying the ones other members of my family have) and some accessories, which for some reason are not available on on their web site? Why not? Apple are surely losing sales for not selling accessories online?

    All told this year was a most disappointing Apple buyer experience Christmas period.

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    January 4, 2017
  10. Tom Wyrick said:

    Chuq: “They’ve chopped off the edges of the bell curve—and big chunks of their key users with them.”

    This is flawed thinking. Bell curves have tails, not “edges.” There are no “big chunks” out in the tails. There are outliers.

    The outliers would have Apple believe that its future success is contingent upon serving their needs.

    1
    January 5, 2017
  11. Bill May said:

    This piece truly summarizes much of what has me upset about Tim Cook’s Apple. I think software interface design has been turned over to Ive’s crew. They are graduates of art and design schools. They have entirely too much focus on how software looks and too little focus on designing how the software works.
    I am flabbergasted that Apple, the industry’s most profitable company, is so stingy about engineering resources. To me, it seems like Tim’s company has become slaves to those gaudy profit margins. Anything that impacts these margins gets cut. As an Apple shareholder, the conclusion that there is no advertising value in having a beautifully designed Apple display on people’s desktops is most upsetting.
    I think that Disney is the company whose history Tim Cook and other Apple Executives need to study. Like Apple, they started off with one product that drove the company, Animation in Disney’s case. They had to diversify to prosper as a company. In the end, the original product category came to be dwarfed by new enterprises in live action film, theme parks and broadcasting. Over the years, Disney has faced the question as to whether this successful diversified company should just pull out of Animation which was overall less profitable. In the end, Disney executives decided that Animation was strategically important to the company. As a result, Disney has maintained its company identity and a spiritual connection to its founder.
    In my opinion, Apple should regard the Mac market as a strategic resource with as much value as Disney Animation has to that company.
    Personally, I find history much more interesting than spreadsheets.

    1
    January 5, 2017
    • Richard Wanderman said:

      “Over the years, Disney has faced the question as to whether this successful diversified company should just pull out of Animation which was overall less profitable.”

      And, instead they bought Pixar, making this example thread nicely into our reality.

      I totally agree on the form/function question and at least some of this is the iOS influence on MacOS and if rumors are true, those two groups being folded into one software engineering group at Apple.

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      January 5, 2017

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