I watch with increasing trepidation at the direction Apple is taking its products. The most recent concern came yesterday from Bloomberg that Apple intends to offer its software developers new libraries that will allow apps to serve both touchscreen interfaces like the iPhone as well as traditional mouse and keyboard setups on desktop computers using a single unified set of APIs.
Ordinarily, such a change would be deeply welcomed. “Write once, run everywhere” is the design philosophy behind Java and Node and a host of other programming environments, and for good reason. Unifying a codebase can usually reduce bugs, enhance stability, and increase developer productivity, all of which ultimately benefit the end user.
Except, that is, when it comes to user interfaces. Despite attempts across the industry to fuse the concept of a desktop and a tablet, from the new Microsoft Surface tablets to Apple’s catch up with the iPad Pro, there remains an enormous productivity gap between desktop and mobile products that still hasn’t been bridged. The mouse, first invented in 1964, still holds its own against multitouch displays and styluses when it comes to actual productivity.
So I look at an announcement like a potential new fusion UI library, and I hesitate. Apple’s strategy could be as simple as combining basic app elements like strings and images to make them accessible on both platforms (Apple still has two UI libraries depending on if the developer is writing for OS X or if they are writing for iOS).
Or Apple could be much more ambitious, and the company could see an opportunity to really go for a true fusion operating system that would turn the MacBook Pro into a single continuous product line from the iPad, much in the vein of Microsoft’s Surface product strategy.
That would be a product disaster. The use cases are so different for each of these devices, and yet, Apple’s combined library would encourage developers to reuse their UI code from one device to another, rather than thinking through what is most optimal for each. Developers could of course continue to do that hard work themselves, but how long until compressed development budgets and tight deadlines push product managers to just conclude that an iPad app on desktop is “good enough” and ship it out the door?
Look, I’m not an Apple lover or a hater — I’m ultimately just a user. I have the full suite of Apple hardware sitting on my desk right now – an iPhone X, an iPad Pro, AirPods, and a MacBook Pro. But ultimately, I bought each and every one of these devices to actually do things — to read articles, to write them, to edit podcasts and movies, to build websites and API infrastructures. Each needs to function for their optimal purpose.
If the developer behind my package tracking app decides to make a native OS X version that looks and feels similar, I am not going to mind. That’s not what I am concerned about. I am concerned about all the deeper productivity tools that I use on a regular basis that may suddenly decide that the least common denominator feature set between desktop and mobile is suddenly what they are going to aim for.
Unsurprisingly, there has definitely been an intensifying meme from the commentariat that Apple’s software is significantly worse than it has been before. Paul Jones’ article on Apple’s declining software quality hit a nerve last year, and his conclusion seems to be increasingly shared with others industry. As Jones said at the time, even alluding to this fusion app concept:
OpenGL implementation has fallen behind the competition, the filesystem desperately needs updating, the SDK has needed modernizing for years, networking and cryptography have seen major gaffes. And that’s with regards to the under-the-hood details, the applications are easier targets: it’s tragic that Aperture and iPhoto were axed in favor of the horrifically bad Photos app (that looks like some Frankenstein “iOS X” app), the entire industry have left Final Cut Pro X, I dare not plug my iPhone in to my laptop for fear of what it might do, the Mac App Store is the antitheses of native application development (again being some Frankenstein of a web/native app), and iCloud nee MobileMe nee iTools has been an unreliable and slow mess since day one.
And recent news of major security vulnerabilities like the ability to completely bypass a computer’s root password on OS X as well as the company’s intentional degradation of iPhone performance have not helped the perception of the company’s competence much in the interim since Jones wrote his article.
All that grousing is fine, but the touchbar didn’t end my relationship with Apple. At the end of the day, the company’s strongest suit — the single quality that keeps its users including me coming back so consistently — is the company’s design sense. It just has a singular focus on building products exactly the way users need them in order to be the most productive, and frankly, to have the most fun.
News that the company is encouraging people to design for all devices at once is really an encouragement to get lazy around design, and will ultimately undermine one of Apple’s key bulwarks against competition from Microsoft and Google.
Apple has had to grapple with a wider number of products than at almost any point in the company’s history since they allowed cloning. I get that the company wants to reduce friction for developers, and that should always be applauded. But Apple is delirious if it thinks that all of these devices can substitute as one. It needs to keep its focus on where its products are differentiated — and that is in differentiated design, particularly in software.
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