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Matt Wilcox

Musing

Feb 09th 2016

Two of my favourite companies keep making mistakes

Apple and Twitter are by many measures very successful. But in my opinion both companies are floundering at the moment; Twitter very obviously, and Apple is struggling to find places for future growth.

Why I got into Apple and Twitter in the first place

They were focused on the type of user I was.

Twitter

I got into Twitter very early; by Twitter's metrics today, I was in the first 0.01% of 'active users', so I've seen almost the entire history of it from the perspective of a user.

I got into it because it was something new and different; an open community of random people talking in near real-time. There were no 'forums' and no 'channels'; it was as though everyone was in one huge room talking to each other, and you could just meander around over-hearing conversations and join in whenever one caught your attention.

Originally Twitter was very successful, i think, because it was very simple and very open.

  • You had an account
  • You made posts 140char in length
  • You could 'follow' anyone else, and read what they posted

That was it. If I remember right (this was a decade ago), there wasn't even any official software to use; there was the very basic website and that was it for 'official' Twitter.

The part that made Twitter grow so fast was how open it was to being hacked on. Software developers were allowed to do whatever they liked, and so there were countless applications that ran on top of the core Twitter service, which let people pick whichever software suited them the best for the way they used Twitter.

Because of this, Twitter got a lot of it's 'core features'; it was users and third-party developers that invented the @reply, the hash tag, the 'pull to refresh' mechanic used in so many applications now, and a bunch more.

Twitter was a playground for experimentation where all the interesting conversations were happening.

Apple

Apple I got into late; we were pretty far into the Second Coming (of Steve) by the time I decided Apple wasn't some company offering only expensive hardware and crap software (my only experience of Apple software previously was iTunes / QuickTime on Windows... which were dire). In fact what got me into Apple was starting work at View Creative where all the designer types had looong been into Apple. Because, you know, designers and Apple.

The thing was; Apple's OS, once you got used to it, was far superior to Windows. It was consistent, logical, and powerful. And then I discovered Terminal, and the UNIX underpinnings of OSX... and frankly I couldn't do my job on Windows anymore. The hardware was expensive, but it was also a lot nicer than a PC of the time.

What I think is wrong with them today

They have both stopped focussing on the type of user I am.

Twitter

Twitter screwed themselves years ago when they let investors take the reigns. The real problem is Twitter had no business strategy - they had no idea how to make money. It couldn't support itself beyond speculative investment.

The problem with having no monetisation strategy is you can't keep your service going. Twitter sold out by letting investors come in and supply money, and then you have to answer to the investors, and they only want a return on their money. If you can't make money you can't please them, their demands for profit get worse, and they demand changes to the service. The changes that an investor wants to make are aimed at making money - which is not the same thing as making a good service.

What had made Twitter a good service in my mind was was the fact that it was open to be hacked on an open to having conversations - it was welcoming of all sorts of things. Those are things that the investors decided were bad, because they wanted to control the conversation and flow of information; so they could put money taps on these things.

What the investors have ended up doing has screwed Twitter. You could tell that from the early signs where they decided to shut access to the APIs and stop third party development. That would have been fine if they had a vision for where they were going. The trouble was even when they bought the best third party software and made it in house - they were still steered by investors making stupid decisions. This meant developers leave as they're not making software they want to make. This leads us to 2016, a decade later, and Twitter should have been bigger than FaceBook - instead it's a mess. The on-boarding experience is atrocious compared to what it was. They can't explain what Twitter is. It's hard to find good people to follow. It's a bad experience. The latest issue being changing stars to hearts - a daft bit of terminology changing. In either case you 'mark' a tweet. With Twitter it was never a 'like'. You can star something because you want to refer to it later, or star as an indication of agreement. Those are not the same things even though they're the same user action. Twitter have decided it means 'like' and enforced that retroactively. Is that the end of the world? No. But it is Twitter dictating how you should be using Twitter, rather than letting you use it however you use it. That's the antithesis of what helped make Twitter good.

You only need to look at their share prices, which are plummeting. There's a little application called Bux, which is where you trade on the real stock market with pretend money (unless you want to use real money). I've made a virtual killing on Twitter because about two years ago I bet it'd devalue. And it has, it's worth less than half what it was. I could have doubled my money in two years if I'd put real money down - it seemed obvious that's where Twitter was headed back then. I can only see it carrying on that way.

Twitter doesn't know how to make money. It's going to fail. In many ways it already has - it is not the entity it should have been; it could have been so much better. It could have been a platform other people built on - which is what it was for a while. With that comes growth in terms of users, diversity, and use cases - all of which offer other possibilities for monetisation. Instead investors made Twitter the company try and take control of how its service was used, to dictate the use cases and interactions people made... and they got it wrong. Sponsored tweets are not going to work, advert injections aren't going to work - I can see Twitter fading away into relative obscurity and Facebook eating their lunch.

I don't see how Twitter can pull themselves back because they've lost the trust of the type of person who can rejuvenate Twitter.


Apple

I hope Apple learn from Twitter; they need to be aware of what your core users want. And you need to be able to listen to them. Apple, I feel, have put themselves in a corner that they seem unable to realise they're in. Apple is all about the iPhone, which is great in that it's the primary money maker. Sales are slowing down, but that's because they're hitting saturation point; there are only so many people on the planet to sell a phone to. And they know sales are doing that, which is why they're trying things like the iPad, Watch, and TV. The trouble is, none of those are successful in anything like the level required, or even expected.

What worries me about Apple is the three new things they've tried since the iPhone all miss the mark. Even in basic ways with regard to functional design. Which is something you expect Apple to be good at. Their design seems to be misaligned in my opinion. With the iPhone their focus is on simplicity because the end user is expected to be not technically savvy. They're going after 'everyone', so you have to assume that there isn't an understanding in their customer of the filesystem, how comuters work, or the network, or any of that. The design philosophy has been "how does someone with no understanding of anything technical interact with our device well". Which is totally right for the iPhone; but not right for many other things - including in my opinion, what the iPad should be for.

The iPad is a failure. I think Apple expected a lot more from it; however they left it as just iOS. It is, as the initial mockery suggested, just a bigger iPhone. The fact of the matter is, for what you can do on each device, people are happier with their iPhones. They would rather have an iOS device that is iPhone sized than one with the same features that is iPad sized. Until there is an operational difference between the iPhone and iPad that's not going to change.

iOS is the problem with the iPad.

If they want it to have a different use case, they need it to have the ability to do different things. The core problem to my mind is that iOS doesn't allow access to the filesystem. You can argue that you don't want that on an iPhone; which i'd largely agree with because it's aimed at the casual user. If you're wanting to aim the iPad at a professional, which clearly they are because they launched the iPad Pro, then you have to have access to the filesystem. The way iOS works at the moment is that each program is it's own island. You can't import or export between apps. Which is a problem if you're a pro, because as a pro you want whatever it is you're doing to be best-in-class at whatever it is. Say we're talking about podcasting; you want the best recording experience, the best mixing experience, the best tagging and exporting experience. With iOS, because you don't have access to the filesystem, all of that has to be in one single app. Which isn't realistic. Even Adobe can't make a single app for graphic design, if you want to do vector work you go to Illustraitor because Photoshop can't do it well. And vice versa.

The very model of how iOS works is a problem for professional workflow. You need access to the filesystem so you can move work between apps.

iCloud is not the answer; it does a different job and doesn't work in the way it needs to.

Either Apple adjust iOS so you can do this, or they don't. So far they haven't, and I don't know if it's because it's a design problem they haven't answered well enough internally, or because they don't think there's a problem. Either way it's a problem for Apple - why have they released an iPad Pro that isn't capable of Pro workflow? I could even go into how the App stpre is run being hostile to developers wanting to make pro apps; there are plenty of software houses that have pulled their apps from the Mac App store as a solid example of this. There are no upgrade options, a race to the bottom price bracket, awful experiences with Apple review, slow turnaround times, etc. The app stores are a mess.

Apple have an operating system that's fundamentally problematic for pro apps and an app store that's hostile to developers. Apple don't seem to have addressed this, or perhaps realised it's the case. That worries me.

Looking at the watch; it's just a toy market. It's a way of developing future tech for other uses. But I don't think the watch is their end game for the tech in it - who wants to spend so much on a slow, heavy, ugly watch that doesn't do much. Sure, it's early in development, maybe the next will have twice the capacity and four times the speed... but probably not. Because Apple seem to have - with all their devices - settled on a battery life period that they believe is acceptable. I don't agree, and I think a lot of people don't.

I am sick to death of thinner devices from Apple and the compromises they make to get that. There is no advantage to me the end user to a thinner or lighter iPhone or Mac. I don't care. They are already thin and light enough. I want better battery life. A phone that isn't down to 10% at 8pm. That matters to me. Apple don't seem bothered about that.

Apple are obsessed with thin, and they are past the point of that being beneficial for them.

For the thin phone and thin Mac, I think they're shooting for the wrong goals.

The Mac... what can you upgrade? RAM. That's it. Your HDD if youre willing to void a warrenty. Apple hardware in terms of the Mac is a joke. It's so expensive and so limited, and these are devices for power users. iOS is for the layman; Macs are for pro's; it couldn't be more obvious. And yet the pro Mac hardware is ever less suitable for a pro. Impossible to upgrade, vastly overpriced for the specifications, and they thermal throttle to half the speed they should because there isn't decent cooling in there because proper cooling would make them fatter. Not to mention the dire keyboard in the new MacBook, purely to save a millimeter or two in depth, and a single IO port. There is no advantage in a thin desktop machine. I am not carrying it. I don't look at it edge on. Why go this route?

I want a computer I can upgrade and do work on.

Then there's the general design choices Apple are making. Look at the remote for the TV. It's as bad as the hockey puck mouse of yesteryear; it's actively hostile to use, it's plain bad design for an object you interact with. What is the goal of their design? It seems out of whack with a users requirements. A symetrical controler you must look at to use and skips video if you knock it? It's stupid. No matter how nice it looks visually.

Apple have gone too far chasing the thin, symetrical, small property in everything they make. It's not appropriate for some stuff. They need to re-focus on what the end user actually needs.

What is the Mac for? It used to be a general compute device. Which is why OSX simplified things compared with Windows or UNIX. The problem now is that the iPhone is the device for simplicity. The iPad should be the Pro version of the touch interface device; iOS is the interface you need for that but the featureset for an iPad needs to be closer to OSX but with the UI sugar and sensibilities of iPhone. So - what is the Mac? To me it should be the proper Pro thing. Where real computer work is done, the stuff that requires more finess and more grunt than an iPhone or iPad could ever provide. There will always be a place for a tranditional computer; they are not going away.

The glass slate metaphore just doesn't work for some applications; they'll never be a web server, or a number crunching compute device, or something with a lot of I/O options. I think the Mac needs to reverse course and become more like a PC again. The simplicity route is wrong for Mac now there's the iPhone and iPad to cater for that.

The mac needs to go back to power and upgradability. The only thing a Mac has over a PC today is the OS. That's it. In every other way PCs stomp all over Macs. Even ones with the same specification of internal components; because those damned thin iMacs and MacBooks can't keep themselves cool enough to use the hardware in them to its potential. The PC with its water cooling can. A MacBook will thermal throttle in under a minute; so too bad if your work involves 'extended' processing times. Which if you're a pro it will; video editing, photo editing, heavy database compute, gaming... all area's where the design choice of thin smacks your performance down. And you paid extra for that nice thin chasis.

I can see a lot of pro users migrating to a proper filesystem enabled iPad Pro if it appears; but there's still a need for the Mac, and the Mac needs to be a monster of performance; not a desk ornament or coffee table art piece. That's not what the Mac user needs. They have iPads and iPhones for that casual stuff.