As the yawns that followed the release of Apple’s new hardware fade away, it’s worth remembering that the company that gave us the tablet computer, the ultrabook laptop and the slate smartphone isn’t always so clever. In fact, look beyond the revolutionary first iterations of the hardware his firm designed and you can see that when it comes to software, Steve Jobs was never as fastidious as he was made out to be — and that under Tim Cook, that tradition is continuing.
Take what has to be users’ biggest bugbear in Apple apps: the company’s tendency towards skeuomorphism, the implementation in design of elements that were necessary in previous technologies but are now outdated. Open the Notes app that comes with the iPad, for example, and you’ll get what looks like a block of lined, yellow paper, complete with a hint at torn sheets. The edge is bordered with an imitation of stitched leather and a fake pocket holds dates. Even the font is closer to Comic Sans than Times New Roman. The idea is to make us feel that we’re actually writing in a notebook rather than storing ideas in a thin computer.
But it’s not as though we’re new to making notes on simple word processors and need to be slowly eased in to jotting ideas onto a screen. Look for “notes” in the App Store, and you’ll get nearly 2,500 results for the iPad (and nearly double that amount for the iPhone). Even when those apps do employ their own skeuomorphism — as FiftyThree does with Paper’s moleskine-style notebooks — the combination of technology and tradition still works much better than Apple’s attempt which is just unimaginative, a throwback to an age that Apple helped destroy. If Apple had made the iPhone with the same approach it took in the development of Notes, the number pad would be rotary and the device would be six inches thick.
Looks Just Like Paper
That skeuomorphism hasn’t disappeared. It turned up again in the company’s most recent release: the Podcast app spun out of iTunes. Press Play on a podcast with no cover art, and you’ll be given a picture of two tape reels. This from the company that gave use the album carousel and did more to move music away from cassettes and into the digital age than any other.
But it wasn’t the poor design that ensured Podcast has received 452 one-star ratings in the App Store — more than four times the number of five-star ratings it’s collected. The bugs did that. Reviewers have complained of sluggish start-ups and hanging processes. Users have complained of sudden crashes, failure to sync, an inability to understand when a podcast has been played, the random removal of unplayed podcasts, restricted search options, subscription failures and mid-play stoppages. One user suggested in the customer ratings that “Apple developers decided to create this app while intoxicated.”
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised though. The Podcast app did come from iTunes, a program that remains essential for Apple’s mobile devices despite the company’s constant attempts to persuade us that we’re living in a post-PC age. Not only is iTunes necessary though, it’s also poor, a good example of a program that tries to do too much and ends up doing none of them well.
Leave aside its retention of Ping (at least for now), the biggest social media failure since MySpace (which was at least popular once). Leave aside too, the question of ownership of media files which is a rights issue rather than a software problem. And leave aside, too, iTunes’ habit of losing files so that when you press play instead of hearing the opening notes, you get an exclamation mark and a regret that you hadn’t backed up your entire music library on an external device. Focus instead on the poor functionality that has turned what should have been a simple media manager into a bloated store/audio player/encoder/video player and so much more into a confusing mess of counterintuitive options and dialogs. Try to slide an app from your iTunes Apps library onto your iPad, for example, and you’ll get both a starred number indicating that you’re about to add an app and a “no entry” sign indicating that you’re not adding anything. Slide it back and the “no entry” sign turns into a plus suggesting that you’re making a new entry, even though the app is already there.
Don’t Sync! You’ve Been Warned
The solution that Apple expects you to figure out is to open the Apps tab in the iPad part of iTunes and check the “Sync Apps” box. When iTunes then asks if you’re “sure you want to sync apps” and warns you that “all existing apps and their data” will be replaced by apps from the iTunes library, the warning is frightening enough to have you unplugging your iPad and trying to keep it as far away from your computer as possible.
iTunes isn’t the only landmark Apple software that’s a long way from perfect. Pages is deliberately incompatible with Dropbox, despite that service’s ubiquity and even though automated syncing to iCloud takes place only on mobile devices. (On your Mac, you’ll need to remember to upload your files manually.) It also plays badly with Word, even though the absence of Microsoft’s Office suite from the App Store gives Apple a golden opportunity to steal the market. Upload a Word document from a PC to iCloud and when you download it to Pages, you’ll have to wait for the app to convert it — stripping out much of the formatting in the process. You might also run into the strange problem in which the location of the words on the screen fail to line up with their location according to the iPad. The red underline that marks names or misspellings can run under a space and when you place your finger on a word to make an edit, you find that you’ve deleted the wrong word and the line jumps as the text realigns.
Of course, software will have bugs. Updates can help to iron out early errors just as new models can be big improvements on first releases. (The original iPod Touch came with no speakers or microphone, remember.) But compare the quality of Apple’s software with its hardware (as well as with the software available from iOS developers) and it’s no surprise if its apps are greeted with a mocking giggle to match the iPhone 5’s yawns.