What has happened in the past few days is just a repetition, a perfect demonstration of Apple’s biggest problem.
And no, their biggest problem is not that they no longer have SCSI ports on MacBooks, or that they are called MacBooks and not PowerBooks. (It is very easy to be painted into this caricature if you happen to disagree with something cast as progress.)
Their biggest problem is this: knowing when to stop. Apple is one of a few non-solely-luxury companies to find success with the idea that doing something “right”, polishing every corner, letting the intent of the sculptor be the final word is more important than everything else.
The culture inside Apple is that what it does is in service of making the world a better place, and that Apple is needed to stress these things that might not otherwise get much of a shake. Although it may be seen as arrogant, when it comes down to it, I believe it’s more right than wrong.
What is missing is the ability to stand up, think clearly, as free from Apple-internal dogma as from the constraints adopted by their competitors, and walk 10 feet away from idealism. To realize that the clarity of one mission is within grasp, but to be pragmatic.
Here’s what’s going to happen shortly. “Headphone-gate” will plow onward, Apple will refuse to do anything other than protect the course it has already charted. Apple will present iPhone sales as one sales number, not providing a break-out number of iPhone 7, and since many people who decide a headphone jack is necessary decided to get an iPhone 6s or SE instead, it will appear that Apple has weathered the storm. Tim Cook will not betray a model breakdown besides possibly capacities during the quarterly results call, and that will be the end of it.
Apple has played this game before. Apple are the experts of coming out of things with the same attitude as it went into it with. The actual casualties will be ignored. The point is that Apple will never do anything that will allow the theories they put forward to be tested. It will never become a public fact that headphone jacks are beloved, and that models selling them are unexpectedly popular, until all models are phased out of the lineup, at which point it could be confused with a mysterious downturn, and attributed to the latest Android models.
Consider this: an iPhone 7 that is 3-4 mm thicker, has just about twice the battery life, no camera hump, possibly a small boost in performance and of course a headphone jack. Let’s call it the iPhone P, for Pragmatic (or L, for “Laggard”). I would buy the iPhone 7 today if it had a headphone jack, but I know many, many people who would give up their current phone in a heartbeat if such a beast as iPhone P existed.
Apple doesn’t offer this. It would solve all of their problems if they could. It would let them include everything they wanted, and could still be heart-achingly beautiful. It would let them keep offering the iPhone 7 and give customers the choice to decide which they value more. It would give whatever iPhone sale downturn they’re in a rapid and sudden reversal. Stock prices would soar, as would customer satisfaction.
Why don’t they offer this? Because it wants to be a company to which it is more important to be right than to serve the actual needs of their customers. It wants to put a dent in the universe in terms of causing upheaval and in terms of implementing an idealistically pure world view, not in terms of being solicitous towards the everyday problems of people. Letting people pick thicker mocks their effort and drive to make things thinner, even if that drive is exactly what would let them offer iPhone P, too.
Another good example of this is the onanistic metrics used to market the MacBook Air then and iMac now, where the thinnest single point of the computer is touted loudly and widely, as well as celebrated with forced perspective in glamorous product shots to give vistas that never actually benefit the customer in any meaningful way. The MacBook Air was thin, but what made it useful was that the overall thickness was very thin, not that the tapered edges were however many millimeters thin. To say nothing of the iMac, where it matters even less.
I am very wary writing this past bit because I do enjoy Apple’s sense of design and don’t want to tell anyone to hold it back, but part of the current malaise is that there’s no sense of appreciating when the improvements to the design stop having a practical effect. Taking a craft to its logical conclusion is worth appreciating, fostering and pursuing for its own sake. But when did it become more important than solving actual problems, like placing ports where they will be easy to reach for and find?
My own streak of buying every single iPhone flagship model has come to an abrupt halt, and I’ll be keeping my 6s until it gives out, and then who knows what will happen. I certainly am not expecting anything to change. I just don’t appreciate the lack of breadth in the current debate, where I’m expected to have to pick a side, and be unable to have reasoned arguments in support of something just because the case can be made that it is dated. If that’s the case, Apple just celebrated its 40th birthday. Where does the line for “legacy” go for computer and consumer electronics companies?