Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Why Steve Jobs' absence might help Apple's health

I'm not the kind of person who wishes ill health on anyone, even my worst enemy. I took no pleasure in the news that Steve Jobs is stepping back from Apple for the sake of his health. But I do have some hope that it might signal a new direction for a company I respect, but whose products I don't want.

Let me explain what I mean. I was at a friend's a few evenings ago. He's a big fan of Apple's kit. We were chatting, and listening to music on his Apple TV. There was a track on my mobile phone I wanted him to hear. The conversation went like this:

"Has the the Apple TV got Bluetooth?"

"No, sorry."

"OK, well, if I put my phone on your network and set it up as a UPnP audio streamer, it'll pick it up and browse it, right?"

"No, it doesn't do ordinary streaming. I can send files from the iPad, though."

"Huh. Look, the iPad has Bluetooth, right?"


"Well, my phone knows A2DP. You can pick up the file from there, yes?"

"iPad doesn't know A2DP."

"Well, how about I 'tooth the file to the iPad, then you can send it on to the Apple TV." (Getting desperate now; I don't like copying IP around.)

"It won't accept Bluetoothed files."

"And it can't browse my phone over wireless, using uPnP?"


"Right, well how about I hand you over the microSD memory card from my phone?"

"iPad doesn't support removable memory."

I played the song using my mobile's speaker.

Now, that's a couple of self-confessed alpha geeks, using every trick in their books to try to play a tune from my phone using Apple kit. What chance do mere mortals have? And every way was blocked because Apple decreed it so. It wouldn't have been difficult for Apple to have included those facilities, but they said:
  • Thou shalt have no streaming server support in Apple TV"
  • Thou shalt have no streaming server support on iProducts
  • Thou shalt not use Bluetooth the way God and Ericsson meant it to be, but only in the ways decreed by Us
  • There shall be no removable anything in our iProducts. What you've got, you've got. Be glad of it, and want no more. Or buy the next, bigger, one when it comes out.
See what I mean? Welcome to the world of jaw-droppingly expensive consumer disposables. When your battery starts losing capacity, pay a fortune to an Apple Centre to get it replaced, or buy a new device. When your battery pegs out on a long plane flight, be glad you had the use of it whilst you could. Don't expect to do anything other than what Apple decrees on its own hardware. Because you don't own the hardware really; Apple does, and Apple says what you can do with it.

Actually, I can tell Apple what it can do with it. I like being able to carry a charged spare battery on the place. I like to watch YouTube every now and then. I like being able to stream my phone's music to my Bluetooth-enabled car radio. I like to add to my device's memory when it's getting a bit full.

The annoying thing is that I want to buy Apple's stuff. I was an early adopter of the Mac Mini, and loved it. If the MacBook Air had a removable battery and a DVD burner, I'd have it. If the iPad were about half or two-thirds as expensive, and had a microSD slot, Flash support and a user-replaceable battery, my wife and I would probably have had one each by now. It's hugely frustrating to me that every time Apple comes out with a nifty new piece of kit, it doesn't meet my needs. And the decisions that dictated the specs that caused that problem arose, I believe, from Apple's Executive Office.

Jobs' illness is very unfortunate, and I genuinely hope he recovers and goes on to lead as long and healthy a life as any liver transplant patient could hope for. But I think it will be best both for his health and Apple's if he does what he promises, and stands back from the company now.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, his vision transformed the company and its products. But now I believe he's become a hindrance: a portcullis between the company and its customers, and a barrier to its growth - yes, Apple could grow faster, if its products were less encumbered by executive doctrine.

Get well, Steve. But let Junior fight his own battles now. It's time for Dad to step back.