It’s a strange time to be an Apple user.
After years of being the underdog company, and very nearly going out of business, it now sits proudly on the top of the hill with more money than most countries. Its latest iPhone sold over 5 million units in the opening weekend alone (which is extremely impressive when you think that it’s pretty much the most expensive phone you can buy and we’re in the middle of a recession) while the rumoured 8-inch iPad could appear at any moment and sew up the tablet market completely. The Macs that Apple are currently producing are impressive, especially the Airs, and have spawned countless imitations from the rest of the industry. Even Apple TV, which Steve Jobs referred to as a ‘hobby’, is now a very viable and useful product. You’d think that we’d had never had it so good. But that’s not the full story.
A troubling trend is developing and it questions whether the big A really has any more ideas up its wealthy, hand tailored sleeves?
Beta. There I said it. Beta.
In computing terms a Beta release is a product or service that you let people use under the proviso that it isn’t actually finished. It’s a ‘work-in-progress’, something full of bugs and problems that you hope to iron out with help from Beta testers – brave volunteers who use the software and report back on any problems they encounter. This is standard practice, and a good one, as it allows real-world testing of a product before you release it into the wild. The idea is that you discover any glaring errors and fix them, thus saving your customers the aggravation and confusion when the software finally goes on sale. Microsoft do it, Google do it, even educated fleas do it, so it’s no surprise that Apple do it too. What is a surprise though is that Apple has started doing it with the flagship features included on its devices.
When Siri came out for the iPhone 4S it looked, or rather sounded, incredible. A voice interface that seemed to have an answer for everything. Apple made it the absolute sole reason to buy the iPhone 4S. The adverts were only about Siri, showing how it could arrange your diary, remind you of anything, and offer light entertainment like some kind of electronic court jester. To make the product even more attractive the company carefully selected celebrities such as Zooey Deschanel, Martin Scorsese and Samuel L Jackson to interact with the faceless wonder and turn the service into a celebrity in its own right. Websites and Youtube videos popped up displaying the answers Siri generated to weird and wonderful questions, while it seemed only a matter of time before the whole world would be talking to our phones rather than those troublesome people that we currently have to deal with.
Then people got the chance to use this technical marvel…and found that it wasn’t really that good. Sure it could do some stuff, and was pretty cool as a party trick, but the effortless lifestyle manager that the ads portrayed never materialised, and for those of us that live outside of the US, which is nearly everybody, the services were missing vital local information so that no matter how much we tried to sound like Zooey we just couldn’t get soup delivered to our houses.
In surveys conducted a few months later it turned out that most iPhone users were hardly using Siri at all, which really isn’t that much of a surprise. Apple’s explanation for the limited use of their flagship feature…it was in Beta. That’s right, the one single aspect of the iPhone 4S that you single out for an expensive ad campaign, and which heralds a new era in communications software is in fact not finished, not ready for prime time, not even ready to be called a full product.
While still scratching my head on this one Apple then brought forth the iPhone 5, now with Apple’s own maps – which show 3D Flyover features of major cities. Wow. Except if you live outside the US. Oh. And as the standout feature on the phone (let’s just look at those 3D views of American major cities once more…oooo, that’s useful) it was trumpeted by Apple as the ‘most beautiful, powerful mapping service ever’, that was right up until people used it and found that towns and cities didn’t exist, bridges looked more like Dali paintings, and the directions would quite happily lead you somewhere totally different to your intended destination. People complained, the media collated some of the hilarious gaffs, and Apple had to issue a formal apology and direct users to third party map replacements.
The strange thing is that Apple told consumers that the product was still being developed and that if users would send in the errors they found then the service would improve. So what that really means is…it’s a Beta. Again. Two years running the most profitable technology company on the planet releases unfinished products and expects customers, who paid a small fortune to have the ‘best’ phone experience lots of money can buy, to road test their experimental products. That’s not innovation…it’s just plain lazy.
It used to be the case that you paid the top money for an Apple product but were sure you were getting one of the best machine and software combinations around. Now it seems like the money is nothing more than a high entrance fee for a focus group product test. At least have the decency to buy us lunch next time…