Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Why Apple Should Care More About Power Users

I've been an avid user of and advocate for macOS ever since the initial release of "OS X" back in the early 2000's. For many years, I've considered it to be the obvious choice for just about every possible task one might wish to engage in when using a computer, with gaming being the one, notable exception. In truth, when it comes to the things I tend to use a computer for these days, macOS is still the best solution for me; however, Apple does have a bit of a problem on its hands in 2019, which is worth examining. Ironically, it's a problem of their own making, which certainly isn't unprecedented, but still a bit frustrating for those of us who are comfortable using Apple gear, and who aren't particularly keen on the alternatives.

In a nutshell, that problem can be boiled down to a troubling lack of support in recent years for a small-yet-influential group, often referred to in technology circles as "power users." Depending on the criteria used to define said group, it could be argued that power users represent 2-10% of all computer users on the planet at any given time. These are folks who push a computer to its limits on a regular basis for a variety of reasons and they tend to be the most astute, demanding, and difficult to please customers a tech company might attract with its products.

The conundrum power users pose to a corporation like Apple is that, while they represent an empirically-insignificant portion of the company's sales, they simultaneously require significant investments of capital, R&D time, and extremely-specialized technical support resources to cater to their needs effectively. As a result, on paper, it might seem like a no-brainer to shift emphasis away from power users and toward the average consumer, particularly as the company and its products grow in popularity, as Apple has in the past decade.

The simple truth of the matter is that 90% of people who use Macs and iOS devices these days use only a tiny fraction of the capabilities of those systems. From customers purchasing desktops and laptops to primarily check e-mail and surf the web, to most cell phone and tablet users regularly using six or fewer apps by many estimates, it's easy to see why a company like Apple would want to soak up as much of that easy money as possible for as long as it can.

Unfortunately, by focusing the vast majority of its attention and resources on the low-hanging fruit of mass-market, consumer electronics, particularly in the past five years or so, Apple has accumulated a rather significant technical debt that has begun to manifest in some rather alarming and embarrassing ways. You need look no further than the "Mac Pro," the desktop computer purported to represent the pinnacle of performance and functionality for macOS users, which hasn't seen a significant update since 2013 to begin to see the cracks in Apple's armor that hardcore technology enthusiasts have been lamenting for years.

Beyond that, Apple hasn't done itself any favors in recent months by releasing half-cooked OS features like macOS Mojave's "Dark Mode," which comes across to me as more of a demo, or proof of concept, rather than the refined, fully-functional OS feature it was billed as, or the company's recent efforts to lock down macOS to utterly prevent the execution of unsigned binaries, effectively forcing all software developers and users to play ball in Apple's walled garden or take a hike.

The sad reality is that I could go on and on citing the myriad of ways Apple has either let down or flagrantly rebuffed power users in recent years, which has led to the first significant exodus from its platforms by said users I've seen in over a decade. Why does this matter if power users represent at best 10% of the user base? Quite simply, power users are the influencers of the technology world. They are the people the other 90% turn to for technical support and recommendations. In many cases, they also create the software, data, and media products that drive, not only the tech industry, but other professions that heavily rely on technology. Thus, if a tech company loses them, it inevitably loses everything.

One could certainly make the argument that Apple has been overtly attempting to transition from being a tech company into a sort of service provider and lifestyle brand via efforts like Apple Pay, Apple Music, and the Apple watch in recent years. Still, the vast majority of Apple's value as a company remains inextricably linked to its traditional hardware and software offerings, which are the most likely to suffer the consequences of the inevitable blow to its mindshare within the tech industry should power users continue to seek greener pastures.

For me, there are two big questions when it comes to Apple in 2019:
  1. Do they have any interest in solving this problem? 
  2. Is it too late to turn the tide?
Personally, I think a lot is going to hinge on what happens with the "Mac Pro" in the new year. It's been known for quite a while that Apple has been working on a new, modular version of its flagship desktop computer, which is supposedly going to address most if not all of the long-standing complaints power users have had about the platform. If that does come to pass, I think it could be an important, first step toward Apple beginning to regain some of its lost credibility.

Of course, releasing the computer it should have shipped six years ago in and of itself probably won't be enough to convince those who have already jumped ship and this is where I think Apple has the biggest issue and hurdle to overcome. Apple's blind spot in recent years has been a presumption of excellence with regard to its own products, and a failure to look beyond its current success. It's pretty evident that Tim Cook and company have been diligently wringing the last bits of magic out of the playbook Steve Jobs left them upon his passing to good effect but its also quite clear that Apple is in desperate need of some new ideas, or at the very least, a return to the fundamental principles that got them where they are.

Can that happen in time to prevent a total collapse of Apple's ecosystem? Perhaps. I certainly hope so because, frankly, the idea of having to use Windows or Linux to do anything important kinda makes me sad. Fortunately, I'm fairly confident that I'll be able to continue using macOS for years to come, regardless of how this all plays out. It would just be nice to be able to, once again, feel good about the future of the platform, and less like it being the lesser of three evils.

To wrap things up, I'd like to give a quick shout out to MacRumors. I've been visiting that site for ages and their "What Do You Want to See From Apple in 2019" post definitely inspired me to speak out on this subject.

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