Apple, Innovation & Changing A Company’s DNA

Following its announcement of Apple as the most innovative company in the world, Fast Company has a great interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook.

For 30 years I have seen people struggle to understand Apple and their approach to everything from products to revenue. It has always been right here out in the open, its just very different from how most large tech companies approach customers and product.

As Cook himself says:

It’s always products and people. The question at the end of every year, or every month or every week or every day, is, Did we make progress on that front?

Granted this can sound simplistic or like marketing fluff or both, but the proof is in both the consistency of the message by all Apple exes over the years as well as the product line itself.

The reality is that companies have a DNA that is typically set early on. It can be hard to maintain as you grow and is frequently lost, but it is even harder to change the DNA of a company into something like Apple’s if it has never had it in the first place. Few companies have ever managed it. One notable exception in the last few years has been Microsoft under Satya Nadella, which has undergone a tectonic shift in its approach to customers, developers and its products. It can be done. Its just really hard.

The New Bad Apple & iCloud Photo Sync

Synchronizing data across multiple locations or devices is a really hard problem and difficult to get right. There are many variables and determining the single source of truth is often non-trivial. There isn’t even always a right answer.

Understanding that, I have some sympathy for Apple with iCloud (as I do for Google, DropBox and others too.)

But. When you have a service that is being used by billions of consumers, the presence of even small issues or edge cases means that most likely millions of people will have to deal with it.

The good people at TidBITS1 have started a new feature called “Bad Apple” where they talk about annoying and consistent issues folks are having with their Macs. This came about after asking people what problems they were having with their Macs and:

The ensuring conversation spiraled off in numerous directions as various friends and family members griped, kibitzed, and tried to solve each other’s problems. It was fascinating because many of these people were long-time Mac users who had been blindsided by an interface change along the way, and who had thus been frustrated by their Macs ever since.

The first one covers some of the problems with iCloud Photo Library forcing you to re-sync your entire library if you do something apparently harmless like turn it off and back on again.

As I said, these are hard problems often with no easy answers but they need attention. Often this kind of work gets pushed way down the list of priorities in the rush to get new features out the door. Hopefully articles like this will raise the priority internally at Apple.


1 I have been reading TidBITS since the very first issue which I believe I read on one of the comp.mac.* newsgroups. Back in the olden times. (Really. It was 27 years ago.)

Blast From The Past: Apple ][+

I first learned to code when I was 9 on an Apple ][ Europlus that my father bought to do the accounting for his gas station, in 1980. The language was Applesoft BASIC which Microsoft provided to Apple. (Whatever happened to those guys?)

That machine blew my mind. I could make it do what I wanted. That was my first real introduction to what I learned later was software engineering and computer science.

So I was delighted when I saw this awesome nostalgia trip article by Jason Snell over on six colors.

I remember those 5.25″ inch floppy disks so well. The whirring and clanking of the disk drives as you issued the “PR#6” command to get it to boot something off the floppy.

Back then we liked whirring and clanking and computers were super easy to use with the command to “boot from the floppy” being something obvious like “PR#6”.

Like many command line instructions it actually makes a certain amount of sense in context. In this case the context was the floppy drive was connected to a disk controller which was in expansion slot number six, so the command means “prime slot number 6”. Good times. Good times.)

Reading his article also caused me to descend into some Googling that eventually lead me to this  Apple II emulator which is unbelievably cool.

Why Does Apple Have so Much Cash?

The insightful Horace Dediu writes some of the easiest to understand pieces on Apple and its economic model. Many people know that Apple is sitting on a large cash pile, over $270 billion (with a “B”) but people ask me sometimes why they don’t spend it (by doing large acquisitions) or give it back to shareholders (dividends or share buybacks.) The reason they don’t do the former is cultural and they do actually do the latter. Horace has put together a great FAQ on all of this.

Security in iOS 11

Apple has been getting more and more detailed about documenting the end-to-end security in iOS in the last few years as part of its broader focus on security, encryption and privacy.

As part of that, they have been publishing security white papers detailing both hardware and software security in their mobile OS.

They recently published the latest version of this in a document with the scintillating title of iOS Security. [PDF]

It’s well worth a read and always fascinating to me to see both the lengths they go to to appropriately hide the complexity of the technological solution from the user (who shouldn’t need to worry about it) and also the benefits they get from designing both the hardware and software.

T2 & The Future of The Mac

It’s no secret that Apple has spent a lot of time and money in the iPhone’s first decade moving more and more of the architecture to custom silicon that they design themselves. This covers the iPad too of course and it reached a level of zen-like completeness with the Apple Watch and its S1 system-on-a-chip.

So it is perhaps no big surprise, but definitely fascinating, to see the same change begin to occur with the Mac, and where this is going is the subject of much speculation.

It began with the MacBook Pro’s introduction of the Touch Bar, which I personally find I rarely use or even notice though the technical achievement is admirable. Apple developed a custom chip, the T1, to handle the Touch Bar but it also handles a lot of the security associated with the laptop including Touch ID and the Secure Enclave for fingerprint data. Ars Technica wrote a great piece on the T1 if you want to learn more.

Which brings us to the T2 chip inside the new iMac Pro. Most reviews have focused, not unreasonably, on the performance of this beast with its multi-core latest generation Xeon processors. Also on its ridonculous price, starting at $5,000 and available in BTO configurations up to a cool $13,000.

Jason Snell has a great write-up on the multiple duties the T2 is handling, including thermal management, disk controller, audio management, FaceTime camera and more.

Now this could end up being nothing more than Apple wanting to simplify and control even more of the bare metal of Macs, just as they have been doing with iOS devices. But it could also intriguingly be much more than that – anything from the ability to run a more fully-featured version of iOS and its attendant apps all the way up to perhaps being on our way towards a fully ARM-based Mac.

This is going to be fun to watch in the next few years…