On Apple’s swings and misses

There’s a trope in the Apple-using technologist world that when an Apple innovation doesn’t immediately succeed, they abandon it. It’s not entirely true, let’s see what actually happens.

The quote in the above-linked item that supports the claim: “Apple has a tendency to either hit home runs out of the box (iPod, iPhone, AirPods) or come out with a dud and just sweep it under the rug, like iMessage apps and stickers.” iMessage apps and stickers are new features in iMessage. These are incremental additions to an existing technology. Granted, neither of them have revolutionised the way that everybody uses iMessage, and neither of them have received much (or any) further (user-facing) development, but both are themselves attempts to improve an actual product that Apple actually has and has not swept under the rug.

We can make a similar argument about the TouchBar. The TouchBar is the touchscreen strip on some models of MacBook Pro laptop that replaces the function key row on the keyboard with an adaptive UI. It appeared, it…stayed around a bit, then it seems to have now disappeared. Perhaps importantly, it never got replicated on their other keyboards, like the one that comes with the iMac or the one you can buy separately. We could say that the TouchBar was a dud that got swept under the rug, or we could say that it was an incremental change to the MacBook Pro and that Apple have since tried other changes to this long-running product, like the M1 architecture.

There are two other categories of non-home-run developments to take into account. The first is the duds that do get incremental development. iTV/Apple TV was such a bad business for the first many years of its history that execs would refer to it as a hobby, right up until it made them a billion dollars and was no longer a hobby.

Mac OS X’s first release was a lightly sparkling OpenStep, incompatible with any Mac software (it came with a virtual machine to run actual MacOS) and incompatible with most Unix software too. It was sold as a server-only product, which given the long wait involved when doing something as simple as opening the text editor (a Java application) was a sensible move. Yet, here we are, 23 years later, and macOS/iOS/iPadOS/tvOS/watchOS/bridgeOS is the same technology, incrementally improved.

Then the next category is things that go away, get rethought, and brought back. The thing we see might look like a dud but it’s actually an idea that Apple stick with. Again, two examples: remember dashboard widgets in Tiger? There was an overlay view that let you organise a screen of little javascript widgets to do world time, stocks, weather, and other things including those supplied by third-party developers. It was there, it looked the same for a bit (as long as you don’t mention the DashCode tool introduced along the way), then it wasn’t there. But later, control center came along, and we got a new version of the same idea.

In between that fizzy NeXT version of Mac OS X Server and the first public release of Mac OS X 10.0 (which was also a dud, many users sticking with MacOS 9 and Apple even giving away 10.1 for free to ensure as many people as possible got the fixes), the Aqua interface was born. Significantly more “lickable” than its modern look, it was nonetheless recognisable to a Monterey user, with its familiar traffic-light window controls: red for close, yellow for minimise, green for zoom, and purple for…wait, purple? Yes, purple. This activated single-window mode, in which only the active window was shown and all others minimised to the dock. Switch window, and the previous one disappeared. This wasn’t in the public release, but now we have Mission Control and fullscreen mode, so did it truly go away?

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2 Responses to On Apple’s swings and misses

  1. winmaciek says:

    The Touch Bar actually continues to live on, in Side Car. It can be turned off, sure, but it’s still there.

  2. Uli Kusterer says:

    It’d probably be interesting to argue the case that there are also many features that are technically still there, but with each OS release get harder and harder to use because Apple’s focus has moved away from them.

    They first get turned off by default, hidden in deeper and deeper nested UI (sometimes even in Accessibility), and then one day the UI element is simply gone. And as “death will take care of that”, by then few users will remember the feature, so Apple won’t have to suffer complaints.

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