Jun 16

Has Apple lost its simplicity?

Last week, I wrote an article for The Guardian with the above title. It was a question, not a conclusion, and I tried to offer a thoughtful opinion. Sadly, The Guardian chose to give it a click-bait headline that contradicted my point of view. So, for the record, here is the complete article as originally intended.

 Four years ago, I wrote a book about Apple and the power of simplicity.

It was the result of my observation, having worked with Steve Jobs as his ad agency creative director in the Think different years, that Apple’s stellar growth was rooted in Steve’s love of simplicity.

This love—you might call it obsession—could be seen in Apple’s hardware, software, packaging, marketing, retail store design, even the company’s internal organization.


Even back in the 70s, Apple was professing its love for simplicity

But that was four years ago.

Though Apple’s customers remain fiercely loyal, the natives are getting restless. A growing number of people are sensing that Tim Cook’s Apple isn’t as simple as Steve Jobs’s Apple. They see complexity in expanding product lines, confusing product names, and the products themselves.

Is this just perception, or is it reality? Has Apple developed a problem with simplicity? Or is it simply maturing as one should expect from a global company?

It’s difficult to be objective because Apple has become the world’s most overanalyzed company. It’s created passionate fans and passionate detractors.

Maybe I can help. My experience with Steve Jobs has led me to admire Apple—but I also believe in tough love. This is a good time to put emotions aside and take a cold, hard look at Apple’s current “state of simplicity.”

Steve Jobs, master of simplicity

First, we need to get one critical fact out of the way: Steve Jobs cannot be replaced. He had the credibility of the founder, extraordinary instinct, vision and energy, and he could make things happen by sheer force of will. It’s just not possible for Apple to be the same without him—but it can still succeed.

Tim Cook has a different style. Remember, he was handpicked by Steve to be Apple’s next leader, and he certainly knows how to make Apple run efficiently. He also recognizes that he doesn’t have Steve’s many talents, so he relies on the expertise of others in those areas where he is less experienced—such as product design and marketing.

That’s where things get a little more complicated. Steve’s vision, strength and charisma made him the benevolent dictator—able to align all the forces within Apple. That kind of performance doesn’t come as naturally to Tim.

Simplicity in the product lines

Apple now sells three different iPhones, four different iPads and three different MacBooks. The Apple Watch comes in seemingly infinite combinations of sizes and bands. The Apple universe is exploding with complexity! Or is it?

One could easily argue that a watch is a fashion product, so the decision here makes sense. And there is ample precedent for Apple expanding existing product lines. The original iPod, for example, successfully grew into a family of products.

Markets mature. A bigger audience has more diverse needs. If Apple were to ignore those needs, they would only force customers to go elsewhere. (As they did for several years by not making a big-screen iPhone.)

So, yes, Apple’s product lines have become more complicated. But really, are they that complicated? The company’s entire selection of products can easily fit on an average-size table. When a company cares about simplicity, it offers the right choices—not endless choices.

Simplicity in software

Critics have had a field day complaining about the growing complexity of Apple software. Apple Music has been attacked mercilessly, and deservedly so. I personally find parts of it to be bewildering.

Apple’s ability to make software solid and simple has come under attack from a number of normally pro-Apple sites. Not that it excuses Apple, but many forget that such lapses also happened on Steve Jobs’s watch. Steve famously went ballistic over the flawed launch of Apple’s early cloud effort called MobileMe.

The fact is, even the best of companies make mistakes from time to time. What’s alarming the Apple crowd today is that the flaws and complexities now seem to be creeping into the products more frequently.

Simplicity in product naming

Once upon a time, Apple’s product naming was extremely simple. Computers were Macs and consumer products were i-devices.

Now the consumer products are offered as i-things and Apple-things (Apple Watch, Apple Pay, Apple Music). But we’ll give Apple a pass on this one because the i is obviously on its last legs, and a transition like this doesn’t happen overnight.

I’m less forgiving when it comes to iPhone naming. With the current models consisting of iPhone 6S, iPhone 6S Plus and SE, Apple’s naming scheme is becoming noticeably less simple.

Then there’s the issue of the S. For some reason, Apple has decided that every other year, it should just add an S to the current model number, because the S-year improvements are internal only. So Apple’s own actions have served to train the public that S years are the “off years.” This is an absurdity, given that such revolutionary features as Siri, Touch ID and 64-bit processing have all been introduced in S models.

The S naming has only served to confuse customers, and make it significantly more difficult for marketing to do its job.

Complicated, yes. But bear in mind that Steve Jobs is the guy who started iPhone with the S-names in the first place

Simplicity in marketing

Apple has a lengthy, award-winning history in advertising. Even marketers in other industries have long considered Apple ads to be the gold standard.

This isn’t because Steve Jobs created great ads himself—it’s because he was adament about keeping the process simple. He trusted a small group of smart people at his longtime ad agency and he was actively involved in the process, week to week.

There were no middlemen, no multiple levels of approvals, and no focus group research. Trust me, few companies on earth work this way. It was Steve’s way of keeping complexity at bay.

With Steve’s passing, things changed dramatically. Apple is building a large in-house marketing group. Teams compete to produce new campaigns. More people are involved. In short, Apple is now managing its marketing more like a big company and less like a startup.

Does simplicity still rule at Apple?

I have zero doubt that Apple believes deeply in the power of simplicity. Simplicity is at the heart of the company’s products and the foundation of its vision for the future.

But simplicity is a matter of perception, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that Apple is struggling to present a simple image to its customers.

There is serious work to be done in rebuilding the perception of simplicity that helped Apple become the world’s most valuable company. Existing problems need fixing, as do the internal processes that have allowed complicated products to make it into the hands of customers.

That said, it’s important to put Apple’s issues in context. Despite its current challenges—and its lapses—I don’t see any other technology creating a simple experience as well as Apple.

We live in a complicated world, and the companies that deliver simplicity are the ones who win in the end.

My new book, Think Simple, explores the power of simplicity as practiced by a wide range of CEOs and business leaders around the world. Launch day is tomorrow, June 7th. Still one more day to get a little gift with your pre-order. Details here. Thanks!

  • fouline

    Apple would be a different company if Jobs was alive today. That’s obvious. The bar has been lowed in many respects and Cook has allowed the geeks to dictate the design and content of the products. And that has made all the products unnecessarily complicated for a majority of users and expensive. Too bad for us.

  • Kira Kinski

    I commented on the Guardian article, how Cook’s Apple today reminds me of Sculley’s Apple of yesteryear; and how its hardware lines have become complex and unfulfilling (for my needs) over time. But I wrote little about the unnecessary complexity of Apple’s software today. Apple has abandoned (forgotten) many of the User Interface Guidelines that made the Macintosh such a readily explorable and powerfully discoverable tool. Not that long ago, I prided myself for never having to read a manual to operate OS X or its HIG compliant software. Sure, I might peruse documentation to learn advanced functionality; but basic operation was easy to grasp and fairly obvious. But today things are different. I’ve actually had to Google basic operations of OS X to use it; and software too. Many changes seem to be made today for the sake of change. I’m not against change, but strongly believe change should be made only when it offers clear advantage. And iOS; don’t get me started.

  • Brian_M_CDN

    Curious about what basic operation you had to google?
    As far as I can tell normal operation essentially hasn’t changed, while many advanced things have changed every few OS versions :)

  • Apple in danger of being the Colgate line in computing, perhaps? Not that direct competitors are much better … they all need to re-read their Jack Trout books.

  • dorkus_maximus

    The iPod came in several varieties, from the Touch to the Shuffle. The iMac, which started as “Bondi Blue” soon branched out into Dalmation, Flower Power, and a few others.
    When Jobs returned to Apple he cut out lots of products in order to keep the company solvent. But once the company found its footing, the variations on its products began to increase. Compared to the Apple of 1995 or most other large companies, the number of distinct products that Apple sells is still pretty small. Aside from the Watch, it’s no bigger than when Jobs was running the show.

  • Zactu

    The the products and having been growing recently. Keep it simple. All iPhones eg iPhone 7x. The technology used in each should the same across product lines in each generation, exactly same CPU from same supplier, same graphics chip, same spec and sourced ram, etc. It will make, software updates easier and more reliable.

  • Player_16

    “…and Cook has allowed the geeks to dictate the design and content of the products.” That right there is the problem (like Windows of old -and probably now!) Some functions are good ‘ideas’ but they should never have been added in as a ‘function’ or considered as ‘innovations’.

  • Ronal

    Internalising marketing may have been related to Apple’s unhappiness with outsourced companies.

  • jameskatt

    The iPhone 6s, 6s Pus, and SE. Only three names. Three iPhones. What can be simpler?

    The Apple Product line is simple. Too simple. After a while, I’m hardly going to the Apple store since there is nothing new.

    All of Apple’s products are only simple on the surface and for beginners. Once your scratch the surface and become proficient, then you realize Apple’s products are very deep and complex. Thus there is a simple level and a complex level. Most competitors only have complex levels.

    For example, the Mac is a full-bred UNIX computer brought to the consumer by Steve Jobs himself. It is definitely not simple given its UNIX underpinnings. But beginners can always stay at the simple level where they can stay out of most harms way.

  • While things may be more complicated than they were (say) three or four years ago, I can say with absolute conviction that they’re nothing like the days of Sculley, Spindler, or Amelio. Remember trying to figure out the (all-but-nonexistent-save-product-name) differences between the Macintosh LC 500, the Performa 520, and the Macintosh TV?

  • Gregale

    A big part of the problem seems to be that Apple is confusing “minimalist” with “simple,” at least when it comes to user interfaces. By hiding important capabilities to serve an aesthetic goal, rather than a functional goal, one merely gives the appearance of simplicity while actually complicating usability.

  • AlanAudio

    It’s fascinating to read your explanation of how The Guardian chose to change your headline. In recent years, The Guardian has taken to printing provocative headlines at every opportunity when discussing Apple. For well over three decades, The Guardian has been the first place I look at for news. In the last couple of years it has become the last place I would look at for reliable news about Apple and indeed has become something of a joke with it’s anti-Apple agenda.

    I was puzzled by your article at the time because I felt that your headline didn’t reflect your story and having read your explanation, it’s obvious what they did.

  • Galaxy_Surfer_007

    Ken, appreciate your doing this. When I started reading your piece in the Guardian, I was put on guard immediately by its title, figuring “Here, we go again! Another ridiculous piece claiming Jobs walked on water, Cook had spoiled the broth, etc.”. Instead, I found a thoughtful, balanced piece that clearly noted where things had gone wrong under Jobs, where simplicity still worked, where Apple could do better. In short, a thoughtful, insightful piece.

    Many, many commenters on the Guardian site, however, misread the article, no doubt influenced by the headline, but also by their preconceived anti-Apple biases or love of Jobs. Clearly, some had not read it carefully at all!

    What amazes me is how Jobs’s much vaunted Reality Distortion Field has persist so long after his passing. Collective amnesia has set in about all his errors.

    Having written all that, though, it is clear that Apple needs to return to the earliest days and re-embrace its Human Interface Guidelines. Glitches, gotchas, and inconsistencies plague OS X and iOS and Apple’s apps. Developers (Apple’s and 3rd party) have run amok with wildly varying and hidden controls. Apple needs to bring back transparency, consistency, and intuitive design.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Galaxy_Surfer_007

    Nicely put!

  • nomster

    Ah good to see the AlanAudio name around again – yeah I agree that tye Guardian Technology section has become bizarrely anti-Apple at the exact time Apple have been so successful.

    It seems to be a reaction to the regular Pivate Eye accusations of the Guardian being too pro-Apple a few years ago.

    I’d have more respect for the newspaper if they just published honest reviews and opinions rather than having to conform to a pre-ordained agenda – but so be it.

    I think the funniest recent Guardian headline was a review of the recently launched small iPhone SE with the headline, ‘Apple IPhone SE: Too Small for Most People’ when a similar criticism could be applied to any product given that most people don’t buy any single product.

    ‘BMW 5 Series: Too Big for Most People’ would be a pretty silly way to headline a review of a BMW in the motoring section.

    And thanks, Ken, for the explanation of how the Guardian chose to distort the intended meaning of your article. I too thought there was a jarring difference in the tone of the piece and the headline. Interesting, sad, but not surprising to see how these things work.

  • Galaxy_Surfer_007

    The iPhone line might be simple, but the iPad and, especially, Mac laptop lines are anything but!

    The MacBook Airs, Pro, and Book lines overlap in confusing ways–and even the Apple Store has hidden certain customer choices and customization possibilities! For example, unless you dig, you’d never know that you can get a 13.3″ MacBook Air with a 512gb flash drive. There’s even a non-retina MBP available.

    Quick! Which of the laptops gives you the best battery life: the new MacBook, the 11.6″ MacBook Air, the 13.3″ MBA, the 13″ MBP, the 15″? HINT: the 13.3″ MacBoor Air trumps them all, with *12* hours of web browsing time,a don video watching!

    Which line weighs the least? Or, rather, how much weight difference is there among the 3 lines? Last I looked, just the other day, they overlapped.

    How powerful is the Book vs. the Air vs. the Pro for “normal” users?!

    They’ve also made odd choices such as stripping the MacBook of all but one port.

    Note: all these comments may be moot as I haven’t watched yesterday’s keynote!

  • Galaxy_Surfer_007

    Oops! Just discovered that the keynote was not scheduled on D-Day, but is next week. Well, any observations we have may well be moot come next week!

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  • dom19

    The lineup is kinda simple but the names are totally not: for instance, the new MacBook is basically an improved MacBook Air, so why create a new category/name? The same thing with the iPads and the iPhones.
    I think the MacBook/iPad lineup should be just renamed in:
    • MacBook (12″ + a new 14″) for consumers, focused on portability and all wireless connection (AirDrop, AirPlay, WiFi sync etc.). Ditch the air/nonair differentiation.
    • MacBookPro (14″ and 16″) for pro users, focused on performance and all kinds of connection (AirDrop, AirPlay, WiFi sync, but also thunderbolt usb etc).
    • iPad (7.9″ and 9.7″) for basic consumers with 1 year old hardware and focused on low prices. Ditch the mini/air differentiation.
    • iPadPro (9.7″ and 12.9″) for pro users with improved hardware and unique features (truetone display, 4 speakers, 3D Touch-ish display capabilities, better cameras etc.).
    So, instead of having one big category and then multiple and complicated subcategories (air, mini, pro) there would be two big categories (non Pro and Pro) with 2 different screen sizes each but the same capabilities. It’s far from perfect but less complicated than the current one imho.
    With the iPhone everything is much more complicated, the SE is great for 4″ display lovers but how should the next one be called like? SES? I’d suggest mini, but it sounds cheap and not so great. iPhone 4″ 4.7″ and 5.5″? smh
    One thing Apple truly should do about the Apple Watch, though, is to personalize the shopping experience like moto maker: basically you create your own watch/size/materials/bands combination

  • Dennis Ulijn

    I don’t want to start a big discussion in this, but I think that a company that has a nice style and product-focused vision is Oneplus. If they could get their customer service and software updates up to snuff they’d be a great competitor for the Apple lifestyle. (P.S. I don’t own any Oneplus devices. I just see their devices, 1 or 2 phones per year, and the accessories etc. they make, and feel that it’s a distinct lifestyle brand)

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  • samdchuck

    Please, a question as a headline is by definition click-bait.

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  • Mike

    It’s easier to be a small company that essentially makes a single product- a smartphone- to keep everything at the simplest level. But even One Plus manages to complicate matter via its “invite only” system. I believe the company dropped the system this year but it goes to prove that even the best attempt at simplicity is often wrought in unintended complication.

  • art hackett

    Wtf is a”lifestyle” brand? You seem to be suggesting Apple is one of these things. Apologies for the big discussion.

  • art hackett

    If it was any simpler, everyone would be whining about lack of choice or options. Good, better, best. More storage? Faster CPU? Desk, portable or ultra portable? If you don’t understand, the cheapest will be fine, or call Apple or go to a store for actual advice. No hard sell and the best warranty and service of any consumer good. What else do you want?

  • art hackett

    Your headline (or if your American, you’re headline), has a question mark. Irony?

  • Jon

    Apple is a perfect example of a lifestyle brand. White earbuds were made iconic. The watch is trying to further cement a lifestyle of fashionable watches. Apple stickers on people’s cars. Do I really need to go on? Weather you agree or not Apple is a lifestyle brand as are other higher end brands. Beats headphones are essentially garbage in many respects but they’re everywhere, worn by sports stars. Marketing and perceived quality is what makes it a lifestyle brand….I guess you either understand it or you don’t.

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  • bugaboo

    Just Betteridge’s law (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge%27s_law_of_headlines#cite_note-2). Didn’t the Macalope remind us that the answer to a headline question is no? http://www.macworld.com/article/1168107/macalope_pointless_exercises.html

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  • NonyAsip

    Last year I gave an iPad mini 2 to my girlfriend who was new to Apple ecosystem. Even after two months of browsing via mobile safari she wasn’t aware of Reader mode because in iOS 7 they hide it with horizontal lines in the address/search bar whereas it was always visible in the address bar in iOS 6.
    These are the times when I miss Steve Jobs.

    I was watching iPhone 5 ads a week ago about FaceTime, Photos and Music. They’re simply brilliant. These are the ads which touches your heart strings but now look at Apple ads.

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    “Once upon a time, Apple’s product naming was extremely simple. Computers were Macs and consumer products were i-devices.”

    Once upon a time the first “i” device was the original Bondi Blue iMac, then the branding was used for the clamshell iBook before Apple even entered the mobile device market (at least post-Newton, post-Jobs’ return. It has also been used for software branding: iTunes, iLife, iWork, iPhoto and of course iOS, but there were never enough years of consistent usage on one product category to makes statements like this.

    This is not the first time in recent memory I have read this revisionist history of the “i” brand, although I can see it being an easy mistake to make if you had never heard of Apple before the iPhone… But it sounds like you’ve been around a bit longer than that ;)

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