Apple vs. The Universe

The most significant effect of Apple’s October 23rd event, at least in the short term, will be the wails of anguish as tech bloggers and writers awkwardly re-work their pre-written articles about “The iPad Mini Announcement.” The Mini, for all of the leaks that led up to the announcement, was only one of many stories and anyone who treats it otherwise is clearly flogging a canned story – one they’d had on ice waiting for shipping specs, list prices, and a couple of quotes.

The second most significant effect will be a lot of Retina iPad owners staring with disgust at their freshly-obsoleted 6-month-old tablets. Although there are no profound functionality changes in the 4th Gen iPad that Apple just announced, it uses the newly blessed Lightning port and received a considerable speed bump from the A6 processor. I won’t be upgrading my Retina iPad, but it certainly shortens the window of “comfortable consideration” for gadget shoppers who want the latest thing.

Beyond those two points, though, a lot of expected narratives have to be scrapped. Wasn’t this the iPad Mini’s day to shine? An event distinct from the iPhone 5’s, so that it wouldn’t be overshadowed? Why wasn’t there an iWork update? (Sad Trombone.) Aren’t the shrinking MacBook Pros nudging into the Air’s clearly defined turf? Is this the death of optical drives? And so on and so on. All of these miss the point.

The Apple Experience

The star of this event was the Apple Hardware Ecosystem, not a specific device. It was all about establishing the range of options, price points, and form factors available for those willing to buy in. The iPhone/iPod cheerleading that kicked off the event established the personal/handheld zone, and over the course of the hour they hit almost every other point: the new iPad Mini, the fourth-gen iPad, a new 13” Retina MacBook, a freshly upgraded Mac Mini, and a svelte new iMac.

The few mentions of software focused on inter-operation between the different devices, platform-specific authoring tools to keep said ecosystem populated, or… well, that was it, really. The announcement of the new Fusion drive for the iMac – an Apple-flavored blend of SSD and traditional HD – points to yet more black-box tinkering inside the devices themselves. The Mac Mini can still be popped open and upgraded, but the long-neglected Mac Pro line, the last bastion of really upgradeable hardware, went unmentioned.

That’s because Apple’s pitch isn’t a device anymore. They’re talking about digital lifestyle, family computing, and the vision of everybody noodling around on their own device while they sync on iCloud and share photos and watch movies from the iTunes store and compose books with iBooks Author and read ‘em on the living room iPad. It’s interesting, and for anyone who’s ever tried to keep a nerd-house full of tablets, phones, laptops, and various desktops platforms in sync, it’s seductive.

The Dark Side(s)

The biggest problem for Apple is that while their hardware ducks appear to be in a row, the software side is flagging. iCloud, for all the happy ads, is nowhere near ready for serious collaborative use. It’s only just barely useful for keeping a single user’s work in sync across multiple machines, and past experience with Mobile Me leaves most of us pretty skeptical that it will grow up to rival more mature options like Dropbox.

iWork, meanwhile, is showing its age in a serious way. I speak and present quite a bit, and I live and breathe Keynote. It’s gone more than three years now without a serious update, and even then the only noteworthy addition was a fancy new transition effect. The iOS version of the app is a serviceable fallback, but still crippled by the lack of custom themes. Keynote is still the best presentation app out there, but its stagnation is pushing people like me to explore other options. The growing pool of HTML5 web apps that can leverage advances in hardware-accelerated CSS3 transforms to rival most of its visual effects – if Keynote goes another three years like this, it could easily be eclipsed.

Finally, the relatively modest iBooks update (infinite scrolling – hooray! I guess!) – feels like a token gesture. It’s useful, but the core failure of the eReading experience isn’t really the style of page turning. It’s the absence of natural cues, like the thickness of the pages you have remaining or the slight gap between them where you creased the book open to keep your place. Rapidly navigating between several related pages – the kind of thing that’s essential when reading textbooks or technical manuals – is a giant pain in the ass. It isn’t much of an issue when I’m nosing through a novel, but if Apple wants to dominate the textbook world the way they claim, it’s unforgivable that their UX team hasn’t tackled the problem. Come on, guys, you love that skeuomorphic shit. Use it for good.

The Competition

Amazon already fired its big guns with the new Fire and the low-end Paperwhite. This week, Google’s going to be announcing new tablets and Microsoft is going to be really-for-real launching its new Surface tablets. Their broad-spectrum announcements, emphasizing the integrated ecosystem, will give them a solid narrative going into the next few weeks of counter-announcements and comparisons. Sure, Amazon has a nice eReader, but have you seen the skinny new Retina MacBook? Yeah, that Galaxy is nice, but check out photo-sharing with the iMac… Surface may be fancy, but whose ecosystem has all the handheld apps? And so on and so forth.

The biggest competitive ecosystem gap for Apple, at least right now, is the living room entertainment center. The Apple TV is a stopgap at best, a wireless TV adapter for people who already live in the Apple ecosystem. It’s handy, and it outlasted the doomed Google TV project, but Microsoft’s XBox is much, much better positioned.

While everyone was trading iPad rumors last week, Microsoft quietly rolled out a major new XBox OS including a standards-compliant version of IE that allows users to pin web sites to their XBox dashboard the way they do native apps and games. Lest web folks dismiss it as an also-ran, remember that last year there were more than 40m internet-connected XBox Live subscribers camped out in front of their machines. That’s more than the number of subscribers Comcast has in North America, and IE on the XBox appears to roll with all the fancy HTML5/CSS/JS tricks you can throw at it. If the Surface delivers on its promise to interact cleanly with that browser the way Apple’s Safari browser shares links across its devices, it’ll be very interesting.

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