What would Apple look like if Steve Jobs was still at the helm?
I pondered this question recently after another iOS bug surfaced rendering all links useless in Safari. It seems Apple’s software, once touted as “It Just Works”, has become increasingly known for bugs and unreliability. Even respected members of the Apple community pointed out with sadness the plummeting quality and major regressions. Witty criticisms from many of the Mac vs PC ads now apply more to MacOS X than to Windows.
For a company with a war chest of $203 billion liquid dollars, it’s strange why more wasn’t done to reverse this trend in declining quality and protect Apple’s longstanding reputation from taking further hits. After having become the world’s most valuable company under Steve Jobs, Apple’s market cap was now being overtaken by its rival, Google.
Under Jobs, Apple developed its iconic status as the undisputed leader in user-friendly interfaces, but since his passing, Apple has gradually become a follower. The company’s knack for user interface design, once considered the pinnacle of user-friendliness, has radically changed in favor of a Bauhaus minimalism with hidden gestures and thin typefaces. User interface experts who once praised it now say Apple is giving design a bad name.
How did this happen?
Until Steve’s passing, the user interface of iOS, Apple’s fastest-growing and world-changing product, was overseen by Steve Jobs and Scott Forstall. Steve heavily promoted interfaces that felt natural and familiar, by evoking real-world objects, and Forstall shared this mindset. This was part of the “magic” that gave Apple’s software its distinctive look-and-feel, and Steve was very proud of it. The hardware’s design, on the other hand, was overseen by the talented Jony Ive, a big fan of minimalism in industrial design, who successfully turned out hits from the iPod to the iMac to the MacBook and beyond. Ive was an incredible hardware designer who left his mark on the world. But he would soon leave his mark on the software world, too.
Right after Steve Jobs left, the company was reorganized. Google and Apple had just had a big split under Jobs, and the Apple had developed its own Maps product to compete with Google. However, Apple Maps had been a big fiasco and heads were going to roll. Scott Forstall, who was in charge of that project, was fired after refusing to apologize. Jony Ive, who had been at loggerheads with Forstall over the direction iOS design was headed, was placed at the helm of both the hardware and software human interface design.
The New Normal
With both Jobs and Forstall out of his way, Ive moved quickly to remake the software interface in his own image. Everything was to be flat, minimal, and follow the same design ideology as the hardware. Everything else was dubbed skeumorphism, on which an open and public war was declared. Textures would be replaced with translucent layers. Visual controls would be reduced in favor of secret gestures. Everything would be flattened and replaced with minimal text and colors. A single talking point was developed to defend this design direction:
“When we sat down last November (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits,” says Ive. “So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got design out of the way.”
Jobs himself was publicly named the biggest culprit behind of the old, “kitschy” design that separated the iPhone from everything else. By switching, Apple’s design would become like Android and the new Microsoft phone, whose design Steve Wozniak had just praised over the iPhone. Apple had become a follower of “flat” design.
So, where would Apple be today if Steve Jobs was still running the place?
First of all, Apple’s visual interface would still be distinctive today, making both the Mac OS and iOS feel “polished” and “friendly”. Textures would still allow users to quickly distinguish between the content and the buttons. Steve would never allow the iOS interface to “descend” to the same playing field as the other platforms, especially at the cost of a visually painful transition in the app store as app developers played catch-up for years. Steve Jobs knew something that Walter Gropius missed: easy-to-use does not simply boil down to minimalism, it’s about naturally fitting what a person wants to do.
The Mac App Store
After being proudly introduced by Steve Jobs on stage, the Mac App Store has been severely neglected by Apple after his death. Such was the extent of the neglect that the company forgot to renew the digital certificate for the whole store last year, preventing most purchased apps from starting with a scary message about being “damaged”. Earlier this year, they did it again, with the following message for developers:
Mac App Store customers running OS X Snow Leopard (v10.6.8) will be unable to purchase new apps or run previously purchased apps that utilize receipt validation until they install the Mac App Store Update for OS X Snow Leopard which is available via OS X Software Update.
Under Jobs, the Mac App store would have received much greater attention. Apple has been releasing great stuff for Mac developers, including Swift and Grand Central Dispatch, but Steve was always focused on making a platform on which developers can actually sell their apps.
Steve Jobs famously defended the form factor of both the iPhone and the iPad when they were unveiled. The original iPhone’s size, he claimed, was perfect for the range of thumb motion. A year after Steve’s death, a larger iPhone was unveiled, with the screen taller but the width remaining the same. This time, video ads showed the same “thumb argument” but now with the larger size being perfect. A couple years later, though, Apple gave in and made larger phones. These days, both versions of iPhone 6 are so wide that one can’t comfortably grip them with one hand and use their thumb as before. Apple’s “thumb commercials” were right about phones being too big to be comfortable, and under Steve Jobs, the width of the iPhone would still be the same as the original.
According to his authorized biography, Steve Jobs never really tried Siri. He was handed the iPhone 4s a day before he retired, and he was less than impressed after playing with it briefly. Sure, Steve would have wanted the iPhone to have a digital assistant, but he wouldn’t let Apple release a mediocre feature that Google and Microsoft would easily compete with. No, not the man who famously introduced Macintosh by letting it say hello. Just to give you one example from beginning to end, here is what I think Steve would have done:
- Form a team to find and fork the best open source voice recognition software project, like they did with WebKit
- Implement voice recognition entirely on the iPhone, in all languages, eliminating the need for an internet connection
- Oversee the design of a new “voice” platform allowing apps to hook a unified spoken “command line” and carry out actions that the user wants, with full access to the context (contacts, calendars, previously spoken lines) and ability to cooperate on different parts of a complex command (like intents / extensions do now).
- Direct the iOS teams to integrate all native apps with this command line
- Patent the crap out of it
- Start integrating it into a voice interface for drivers, patent the crap out of that as well
- Introduce it on stage with references to the Star Trek Computer.
“I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong… I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”
After his death, Apple and Google settled their patent battle over smartphone technology, ending one of the highest-profile lawsuits in tech. Their joint statement following this amicable outcome also said the two companies “have also agreed to work together in some areas of patent reform.”
The Road Ahead
For the first time in 13 years, Apple’s stock has experienced its first quarterly decline. This has also been the first year that iPhone sales have declined. Apple is likely to begin using its $200+ billion war chest to acquire overseas companies in new markets, and branch out into cars and home automation. One such acquisition is its $1 billion acquisition of Didi, a Chinese competitor to Uber. Since the company faces a large tax burden if it ever moves the money into the US under the current regime, Apple’s acquisitions will probably continue to come from overseas. However, perhaps one day it will acquire Tesla.
What’s next for Apple? Can the company still make insanely great things? Berkshire Hathaway thinks so – but, notably, not Warren Buffett, who was famously averse to investing in tech companies. It was, instead, two guys he brought on to help manage the company. Who knows what will happen to Berkshire after Warren Buffet?