John Gruber on 10 of Apple’s biggest problems

Sat, Feb 13, 2010


John Gruber of Daring Fireball recently gave a speech at Macworld where he addressed 10 of Apple’s biggest problems as he sees them today. Philip Elmer-DeWitt of BrainstormTech summarized each of Gruber’s points as follows.

1. Steve Jobs. It can be argued, Gruber maintains, that Steve Jobs’ most important product — the thing he’s spent the better part of his energy building since he returned to Apple — is not the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone or even the iPad. It’s Apple Inc., the company. The pessimistic dig on Apple, says Gruber, is that it’s a supremely well-organized company organized around one irreplaceable guy. The optimistic view is that Jobs has structured it to run like his other company, Pixar, which manages to turn out hit after hit, year after year, without a charismatic celebrity leader.

2. AT&T. Apple is a company that clearly believes in the adage that if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself . Which is why it must stick in Cupertino’s craw that they are dependent on a carrier whose service in cities like San Francisco is almost comically bad. Has it reached the point where Apple turns to AT&T and says, Darth Vader-style, “You have failed me for the last time”? Gruber thinks not, if only because AT&T so desperately needs the iPhone that Apple can extract far better terms from them than it ever could from Verizon.  So he takes Tim Cook at his word when Apple’s COO tells analysts that the company has reviewed AT&T’s plans and is going to give it time to work out the kinks. Meanwhile, however, AT&T’s service problems are draining Apple’s good will.

3. Computers. Gruber thinks he’s seen the future of computers, and it is the iPad. “It’s really, really good,” he gushed. If you are sitting on a couch and you need a computer, most people are going to reach for the iPad, not the MacBook Pro. And that puts Apple into uncharted territory. For the first time since the original Mac replaced the Apple II, it has two overlapping computer products. And although it took a few years for the corpse to grow cold, the Apple II basically died the day the Mac arrived.

4. The App Store. There are two schools of criticism about the iPhone App Store: The most vocal critics say that it is totally going in the wrong direction and should be doing what Google  does with the Android Marketplace — offer users the option of downloading apps that aren’t vetted and approved. The other school says that Apple is going in the right direction, but is hurtling at great speed a few degrees off course. Gruber fears that the shouting from the first school is so loud that Apple may be ignoring the second as well. There are game consoles — like Nintendo’s — whose apps are as tightly controlled as Apple’s. And there are computer systems with app libraries nearly as large as the iPhone’s. But there’s never before been a tightly controlled system with 150,000 apps. “If it proves unsustainable,” asks Gruber, “what are they going to do?”

5. Security. Microsoft  put a lot of effort into building strong malware protection into Windows 7 because its operating system is under constant attack. Apple users don’t fret nearly as much about Mac OS X malware because there is so little of it. Gruber doesn’t care which OS is intrinsically more secure, but he is increasingly worried about Apple’s sluggish response to its own publicly disclosed vulnerabilities. For example, it took Apple 75 days to respond to a hole in Open SSL — the open-source encryption system that is supposed to protect credit card data from getting loose on the Internet — even though the vulnerability was made public last September. “It happens again and again,” says Gruber. Apple is the last vendor to respond, when it ought to be the first. Of the companies that use Open SSL — and Microsoft pointedly does not — Apple is the biggest.

6. Mobile Me. It’s great for syncing your iPhone to your Mac, but what’s the point of Mobile Me’s Web apps? If you’re at your computer, you use Mail and Calendar. If you’re out and about, you’re supposed to use the iPhone. Gruber has a sneaking suspicion Apple put apps up on the Web because “that’s what the kids were talking about.” It’s like the lounge singer, he says, who grows long sideburns after Elvis Presley arrives.

7. Back Ups. Data loss is a tragedy, and Apple is particularly vulnerable because — unlike Google — the primary storage on their systems is local. Time Capsule is the right idea, but it’s not really a solution for all those people who don’t even know they’re supposed sync their iPhones to their Macs. “Ultimately the long-term solution is to be in the cloud,” says Gruber, but that puts Apple on poor footing compared with Google. Given how badly Apple handled Mobile Me, he’s skeptical of Apple’s ability to do cloud back-ups well.

8. Apple TV. Gruber is not one of those who talks about Apple TV as Steve Jobs’ one dud. He likes Apple TV, but says it has a fundamental problem: it’s primarily about watching movies and TV shows through the iTunes store, with the result that there’s a worse selection on Apple TV than there is at any local video store. Hulu is a wonderful solution but when Boxee figured out a way to put it on TV, the Hulu guys freaked out. They have “this crazy brick wall in their heads,” Gruber explains, that perceives computers and TVs and two fundamentally different things. They worry about ad-supported Hulu getting on TVs when they should be worried about people bootlegging their content for free and watching it with no ads. “I don’t see,” Gruber concludes, “how Apple can get from where they are to where they need to be when they are negotiating with people that stupid.”

9. Arch Rivals. A company needs direct rivals to stay hungry, but when they get big enough they tend to run out of them. Case in point: Microsoft. “They were something to see,” in the old days, “because they were relentless, they were fearless.” Its no coincidence, according to Gruber, that since they got busted for beating Netscape — Jake La Motta-style — into a bloody pulp, the only new thing they’ve done is the one product that has serious rivals: Xbox. Apple’s closest rival in smartphones, Gruber maintains, is not Google (which will rake in the Web ad riches whether Android succeeds or fails), but Palm, whose WebOS he admires. “I’m convinced,” says Gruber, “that it would be good for us — and good for Apple — for Palm to do well. But not too well.”

10. About Box Credits. This one is a bit obscure, but if you look at the “About This …..” under the Apple menu for any Apple-made software, you get the same gray box with the name and version number of the program but little else. And, most significantly, none of the names of the people who created the program. This is a holdover of the dotcom boom, when Jobs got it into his head that the Silicon Valley headhunters who were poaching Apple employees were getting their names from the about boxes. Movies and TV shows may list the names of all the people who helped make their shows because union rules insist on it, but it’s also the right thing to do. If software is a form of art, as Apple insists it is, “artists should get to sign their work.”


6 Comments For This Post

  1. Lee Says:

    Ah that would be the John Gruber multi BILLIONAIRE with the huge house boat plane with the huge multi national house hold named company!

    NO, it isn’t it’s the BLOG writer, well f*ck me sideways with a zune (HD of course) Look I can say Bush was a bad president but IF I haven’t been a president and haven’t done any better then it’s really easy to pick fault, point out things that no one really gives a monkey’s toss about and generally be a look at me look at me I think I’m smart and have something to say kind of person…

    Erm you haven’t your not so Shut the hell up and make Apple a better company and me a better iPad and if you can’t then FADE AWAY with some GRACE instead if being a whingy little girl…

    Jobs/Apple built the hardware and wrote the software and have in my opinion done a pretty good job of things, I have 2 ipods an iphone and might buy a mac next year if I can afford one, my girlfriend has an ipod and iphone and a nano thing all of which we find are great love em but know about thier limitations and live with them, updates come and we are happy… new tech comes out and if I can justify the price we get it if its beeter then what we already have…

    Until everyone that slags off apple can build better kit I will buy Apples products, just as long as I can JUSTIFY thier cost/benefit ratio…

    So let the little girls whinge…

  2. Lee Says:

    I was doing my I just can’t get settled I’ll skim the net to see what’s new before going to be reading and came across the above…

    So I’ve posted the info below on edible as I think you’re an over opinionated twat, and I’m really DEMANDING that you to try to beat Jobs in designing manufacturing and selling tech to the great unwashed and of course getting your brand to rival his…

    NO really please,
    • I want to see you make a start up company and write about it on your blog which I promise I will follow each and every day
    • then I want to see it grow
    • I want to see how you steer it to huge success
    • make a million dollar deal
    • get a carrier to carry YOUR product exclusively and get them to BRAG about it
    • I want to see you implement everything correctly (100% so that everybody loves it 100% of the time with no faults and upgrade paths)
    • and better yet I want to hear the little people who can’t do it so slag you off on their BLOGS

    Ah SO
    • you don’t want to,
    • can’t take the chance to
    • can’t be bothered to
    • don’t have an idea good enough to make it work
    • or if you just don’t have the knowhow to make it work

    Right then until you can do the above fuck right off as until then your opinions are just so much BOLLOCKS in the ether, bollocks that I might add that has got me so pissed off that I’m writing this as 02:13 (BST), that’s how much you and your nit picking little mind have got my blood up I really can’t understand how Steve Jobs can put up with sad people like you, you can’t do it but talk about it over and over again…

    And I’m really looking forward to your reply where you tell me 10 things that are wrong with my email or in the way I’m moving my mouse button to the send button as I bet you can do way better than me…

    Yours sincerely

    Dr. Lee William Wheeler Ph.D.

  3. Lee Says:

    And no ones bothered to flame me so I guess they think that I’ve hit a nerve!

  4. Matthew Frederick Says:

    I really don’t understand this backlash. Do you honestly believe that you can only criticize something if you have done it yourself? If you bought a car and the wheels fell off two miles down the road, you can’t say anything bad about the car company because you’ve never run one? And what, you either have to just walk away from your useless car or go build your own, those are your only options? Unfathomable.

    Apple is a great company that builds amazing things. That certainly doesn’t make them unworthy of criticism.

    And don’t worry, Lee, someday someone will flame you. Keep trying!

  5. G4Dualie Says:

    Hey Dr Lee, STFU!

    Honestly, you couldn’t relate to a word Gruber said, really? If not, you don’t know squat about Apple Inc., and you’re probably the last person we want to hear from.

    Every one of his numbered criticisms are spot on, even if I don’t agree entirely with the rationale behind each of them. You see, we have our own reasoning, but every forward-thinking Mac user I know, would produce a similar list.

    I could add fifty more nitpicks to the list that have existed for years and though some have been addressed by third-party solutions and a few of them disappeared altogether during a transition, we all live with them because they aren’t critical enough to detract from the overall experience.

    I don’t speak for Gruber, but as a shareholder, I find your girlish rant rather pathetic, especially in light of the fact that you’re not his target audience! Many of these problems aren’t critical enough to veteran mac users because many don’t apply, but these things weigh on the minds of Apple shareholders and in the bigger picture Apple will have to address each of them, and they know it.

    The merits of your defense of Apple is laughable. There is absolutely no substance to your challenge of John Gruber. Just as Matthew Frederick has deftly illustrated, after we take away your argument about earning the right to criticize only after having yielded the same results of those you criticize, you’ve got nothing!

    Obviously, you’ve only recently become acquainted with the company and it would seem your historical perspective is pathetically shallow at that.

    Big deal, you own a few iPods and iPhones. As a shareholder, I appreciate your fondness of Apple’s gadgets but, I think you should spring for the Mac. Honestly, what kind of doctor can’t afford to pay cash for a top-of-the-line Macintosh, mmm? Oh, I get it, having used the word bollocks, you must be an British dentist!

    Unless you’ve owned a few Macintoshes and made the transition from 68k to PPC, OS 9 to OS X, PPC to Intel you know jackshit about Apple and you shouldn’t say anything else.

  6. CapnVan Says:

    “And no ones bothered to flame me so I guess they think that I’ve hit a nerve!”

    Or it could just be ‘cos we figure you’re psycho.

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