By Jason Snell
November 30, 2015 11:04 AM PT
Timing is everything
Welcome to the first issue of Six Colors Magazine! This newsletter will be sent out to Six Colors subscribers every month. Once again, I want to express my gratitude for your support of what we’re doing at Six Colors. Dan and I are both independent freelance type people now, and we’d both love to have Six Colors be a major part of what we do for a living. Your subscriptions help us do that.
Prompted by an email by subscriber Doug McArthur, I’ve been thinking a lot about Apple’s approach to dragging the technology industry forward, one product at a time. On the “traditional computer” side Apple appears to be the only company attempting to do anything in terms of building a better computer. (Most of the innovation in the Windows PC world seems to involve making tablets that are also laptops, which is most definitely not about building a better computer.)
On the phone and tablet side, there’s a lot more going on, though even there, Apple seems to be dragging the industry ahead. And it’s always been this way, to a certain degree. Apple has always been a company that has been unafraid to go its own way. That instinct, instilled by Jobs and Wozniak at the very start, has ultimately been very good for Apple and very good for the technology industry.
Look closer, though, and you’ll see bad moves as well as good. I firmly believe the net score is in Apple’s (and our) favor—every computer and mobile device sold today owes a debt to decisions that were iconoclastic at the time Apple made them. But sometimes Apple’s tendency to go its own way also led it astray.
In the dark times that nobody talks about anymore, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when I left my doesn’t-run-any-PC-software Apple II behind and replaced it with a doesn’t-run-any-PC-software Macintosh SE, Apple’s nonstandard nature was painful for the company and its users. Just about everything on and inside a Mac was incompatible with the PC. Some of it was better, but the burden was on Apple to build most of it on its own.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, one of the less emphasized aspects of his return was his strategy of using industry-standard stuff, especially since the Mac was a minority player that was losing momentum in the aftermath of Windows 95. Yes, the iMac’s omission of a floppy drive was a nice step forward—but floppies were largely irrelevant at that point. (My reaction at the time was more that Apple hadn’t provided any writeable external storage device, no Zip drive, no CD writer, nothing. And USB flash drives didn’t exist back then.)
But the big thing about the iMac wasn’t the lack of a floppy. It was the omission of Mac Serial and ADB, two nonstandard technologies that Apple had been using for more than a decade. Including only USB was a risky move for Apple in a way, because there were essentially zero USB devices available when it launched. (Another thing people don’t remember: When the iMac came out, USB wasn’t popular at all. The first few months of the iMac’s existence, there were almost no peripherals for it.) But it was brilliant in a different way, because Apple helped popularize USB and the PC industry followed—and suddenly, Apple’s peripheral port of choice was part of the larger PC market.
In Jobs’ later days as Apple CEO, Apple became almost an editor for the tech industry. Every writer needs a good editor. More generally, every creative person needs someone to challenge them. Jobs and Apple did that for the tech industry. Not just by omitting the floppy drive on the iMac, but by later dumping optical drives from its product line, too.
Forgive me for the sports metaphor, but as a kid I was a fan of the San Francisco 49ers football team during their heyday. Their coach, Bill Walsh, famously had a philosophy about getting rid of players “a year too early rather than a year too late.” Apple’s got the same philosophy. Losing a star player when they still appear to be in their prime is painful, and hard to understand, and when Apple kills technology too early, it can cause Apple customers pain. But if that technology is about to become obsolete—in other words, when that player turns out to have been at the end of his career—it’s the right decision.
It’s all in the timing. What you don’t want to do is move too soon, initiating a product transition before the technology to replace it is ready to go. Apple’s usually good on timing: The iPod and iPhone could both have been released sooner, but Apple waited until they were viable, with the right set of features and the right prices. Sometimes it can be a bit too early—the iMac, for all its overall success, might have benefited from another year of cooking. (Apple was desperate back then, and didn’t have the luxury of waiting.)
That brings us to today. Is the one-port USB-C MacBook a sign of things to come, or an aberration? (My gut feeling is it’s an aberration, given the announcement that Thunderbolt 3 will use the same plug as USB-C, and that this MacBook will end up being a born-too-soon oddity. But that’s just a guess.)
And then there are the rumors about a future iPhone model abandoning the 3.5mm headphone jack that’s been around for nearly a century. Again, my gut feeling is that it’s too early to make a move like that. Bluetooth audio isn’t reliable or high-quality enough, Lightning is a proprietary Apple connector that has no chance of becoming a new wired headphone standard, and—perhaps most importantly—there doesn’t seem to be any major benefit to removing the headphone jack that outweighs the pain of the transition. If Apple were to make the transition in 2016, it would feel more like it was picking a fight with users than holding their hand and ushering them into a new, brighter future. (It brings to mind the misguided buttonless third-generation iPod Shuffle.)
Then again, it’s sometimes hard to see the sense in transitions when you’re standing in the middle of them. Perhaps stripping out ports is the right way to go. These are undoubtedly the arguments that happen inside Apple all the time. Timing, as the old saying goes, is everything. 2016 is sure going to be interesting.