Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Apple at UI Innovation Crossroads

The news of the high profile departures of two Apple executives show that even though Apple seems to be impervious to competition, it shouldn't sit on its laurels.  The WSJ reports key to the purging were the missteps from Scott Forstall's much maligned new map implementation and John Browett's faux pas and demoralizing retail work staffing formula.  The commonality was that it gave Apple a public relations black eye.  For the Apple faithful and mainstream Apple consumers, it may not really mean a whole lot.  Yet Apple watchers may have some takeaways. 

The map implementation embedded in the iPhone 5 launch, while a strategic effort to distance the company on reliance on Google, was not what was expected from Apple's (Steve Job's) perfectionist culture. Though previous iOS releases and other software had its own share of bugginess while Jobs was at the helm, the PR headaches spearheaded by Apple faithful early adopters should be alarming.  While there was incremental changes to iOS, one view is that Apple has gone conservative. When I attended Nokia World in 2011, a Nokia executive argued that Apple hasn't changed their software (UI) since it launched in 2007.  There were many analysts who countered with a logical message that basically stated the U.S. adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."  There is some truth to this as it's mucking around with the Apple secret sauce that is uniform in its desktop, phone and tablet experience. It's this UI that has been the magnet and foundation for its halo products.  The UI is simple, intuitive and works. Enough said, right? Yet the UI is also the foundation for the Android OS and the OEM variants. Sure there are differences but it's pretty much alike.  Here we are in 2012 and iOS 6 is really no different than in 2007. There are incremental additions for sure. Windows Phone 8 just launched and while Microsoft is challenged with getting user traction, Windows Phone (back to 7) is radically different and some can argue innovative.  At the 1:00 minute mark, Joe Belfiore visually presents the above argument.


As an analyst, I don't really have a dog in this fight on defending any company.  However, Microsoft has really thought differently.  Will Apple need to jump ahead to show software innovation?  It should but it likely won't for at least a year or more.  They're in the driver's seat with record adoption in tablets and smartphones.  Microsoft to some extend had to think out of the box because it was losing share in mobile and desktop. Some can argue that it was defensive but again to their credit, rather than do incremental UI upgrades to Windows 7 (which were in my view incremental upgrades to Vista and XP), they had to take the offensive and take a risk and do a wholesale change.  Like Apple, the experience is uniform across its desktop, mobile and tablet hardware but the UI is so radically different.  How will the public accept this?

Back to Apple and why is it in a software innovation crossroad?  For one, it needs to stay safe and protect its growing base of users. Their UI is so well known and simple that it needs to protect any wild swings of experience.   But heartening for Apple is that Jony Ive, the SVP of industrial design (the hardware design magician) now has the 'Human Interface' responsibility. 

It will be telling in the next year or two to see where the signature Apple UI heads. To be sure, it cannot sit still for another five years.