Apple has problems that need fixing, too

Apple's been getting under my skin lately. I'd barely noticed it until the other day at lunch, when a friend brought up the company's battle with the U.S. Justice Department.

Apple’s been getting under my skin lately.

I’d barely noticed it until the other day at lunch, when a friend brought up the company’s battle with the U.S. Justice Department.

Apple’s been accused of conspiring with publishers to fix the prices of ebooks.

If this is true, it wasn’t for our benefit as book buyers. The arrangement effectively drove prices up anywhere from 50 per cent to 100 per cent

Apple would have been acting in its own interests and the interests of publishers to instantly secure market share and increase profits.

But alleged collusion isn’t the only thing that’s irking me about Apple these days. There’s plenty more.

So while we’re on the subject of law-breaking, let’s talk about the company’s army of lawyers.

Blindly following an industry trend, the company is siccing its legal militia on everyone from Samsung to Motorola to Nokia (and maybe even me after this column). It’s such a fad, you’d think a new product line called iLawyer was in the works.

It’s as though the company has lost its will to be technically innovative and instead just wants to sue competitors out of existence. True, the tech industry is all about sue-or-be-sued these days, but just because Samsung jumped off a bridge…

Speaking of innovation (or the lack thereof), Apple’s last great one was supposed to be a voice command tool called Siri on the iPhone 4S.

Can we all agree that Siri sucks? I can type on my iPhone keyboard faster than Siri can transcribe, and that’s when she/it actually manages to accurately recognise what I said, which is rare.

Siri could be better. Other services are.

I bought a one-dollar app the other day called SayHi. It does on-the-fly voice transcription and translation between over two-dozen languages including Mandarin, Hindi, and Thai.

SayHi is much faster and more accurate than Siri could ever hope to be. This app transcribes my speech and translates it before Siri has even finished scratching its/her head.

Then there’s iCloud. Which is really just Apple’s abbreviation for, “I (Don’t Get the) Cloud.”

Like MobileMe and .Mac before it (thanks for the string of redundant email addresses, Apple), iCloud is just another chapter in Apple’s embarrassing effort to obfuscate the fact they don’t understand cloud computing.

Sure, some things are great, like syncing calendar and contact data between devices. But .Mac nailed that a decade ago. What’s improved since then?

Not much. Apple just keeps changing the name, rebranding the service, and forcing its customers through yet another painful technical migration process.

Apple still seems oblivious to the fact that we’re moving whole-hog into the cloud and we need to get all our stuff there, not just selected bits and pieces.

Microsoft, for example, gets the cloud. The integration between its desktop Office suite and Skydrive is close to perfect.

But just try to get a document into iCloud using Apple’s own word processing tool for Mac, Pages. You can’t. It’s pathetic.

Speaking of the Mac. These days, the Mac is like that adopted child who is emotionally discarded when the parents finally manage to conceive.

It’s rumoured that even within the corporate edifice that is Apple, the Mac engineers themselves are treated like second class citizens in comparison to the lucky geeks who get to work on iPhone and iPad projects.

And it shows. The quality of the Mac, both experientially and technically, is dropping.

It’s becoming more like an iPad for no apparent good reason.

But, more to the point, Macs are getting harder to use and less dependable.

Apple’s own Mac apps are either embarrassingly aged (Pages, Numbers) or have been catastrophically disabled (Final Cut). And the operating system itself is becoming less secure: a critical Java security flaw was left open for months, resulting in the one of the largest malware infections of all time.

Other apps that are actually maintained, like iPhoto and iTunes, have become slow, barely-usable, over-functioning messes of non-intuitiveness.

Speaking of iTunes, what a mess. As a software application, it’s like your typical Yukon mansion: once a pretty little cabin, the owners just kept nailing new rooms on until it became a grotesque monstrosity. iTunes is a digital Jim Robb painting.

I could go on. There’s a lot more about Apple that has really started to irritate me.

But I think the problem with Apple can be summarized best like this: it’s stopped moving forward. It’s comfortable and bored.

The company seems to have settled on a conservative strategy of iteration over innovation: tweak the iPhone, tweak the iPad, pretend to tweak the Mac.

Remember Apple’s “Digital Hub” strategy? It was introduced by Steve Jobs 11 years ago. At the time it was exciting, visionary, and inspirational. Now it’s tired and overwrought. Apple hasn’t really come up with anything to replace it.

Apple has embraced its new role as market dominatrix to the extent that it seems afraid of new ideas.

Apple needs to drop the courtroom drama and get back in the lab. The company needs to update its strategy so that again it’s clear, forward-thinking, visionary, and inspiring.

The company has about $100 billion in the bank.

That’s more cash than the US government has. Apple could refinance Europe with it. Apple could buy America’s Big Three automakers and still have something left over.

Or it could buy itself. I don’t mean share buybacks. No, more simply, the company needs to reinvest in itself, reinvent itself.

The path the company now treads has an endpoint in sight, and the company is clearly growing weary of its tedious hike toward it.

Before it gets lost, Apple needs to pull out a map and some machetes, chart a new path through the wilderness and start cutting. Like just before the iPhone was introduced.

If Apple doesn’t establish a new direction for itself it will just keep getting more lackadaisical. Competitors are already nipping at the company’s heels, and it won’t be long before they’re neck and neck. Then the company will only have itself to blame when it starts to fall behind.

Andrew Robulack is a writer and consultant specializing in technology and the internet. Read his blog at www.geeklife.ca.

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