Get the ECT News Network Editor's Pick Newsletter » View Sample | Subscribe
Welcome Guest | Sign In
Women in Tech

Apple's Obsession With Simplicity Can Really Complicate Things

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Feb 28, 2013 5:00 AM PT

Apple makes powerful products that do complicated things very simply and easily, and are mostly intuitive. You don't need an owner's manual to figure out how to use most Apple products. Apple aggressively whittles down its products so they become the essence of the most important things they do.

Apple's Obsession With Simplicity Can Really Complicate Things

The floppy disk drive? Gone from the Macintosh before some customers were ready for it. The CD/DVD drive? Similarly gone from the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina Display. Even the buttons on the trackpad on the MacBooks were simplified by turning the entire trackpad into a button. Nice. Makes sense.

Sometimes, though, Apple's design moves in hardware and software don't make sense. And worse, this all-consuming desire to simplify products -- to distill them to their core essence -- sometimes fails to create a product and a user experience that lives up to its potential.

Long-time readers might be recoiling here: Whoa, wait, what's with the crazy talk?

What's Samsung Up To?

It started when I read a single sentence in the third paragraph of Wired's news story on the upcoming Samsung HomeSync Media Hub, which is basically an Android-based set-top box for your HDTV. The sentence?

Samsung’s streaming supports profiles for up to eight different people, allowing you to store your content privately or share it with the rest of the family.
In addition to providing a potentially more usable set-top box than Apple TV -- primarily because it comes with on-board storage -- Samsung seems to recognize that households are made up of widely different people with different needs. Adults are not children, grandparents are dissimilar to their adult kids, teenagers are not children, and friends don't need to see everything.

Let's put this another way:

Wait, what? It's OK to have a single shared device that can be used with wildly different users? Privately? Reasonably securely?

Back Up the Truck

This little detail about user accounts on the HomeSync Media Hub sparked me to wonder if Apple truly understands the realities of its customers. And more importantly, why not?

Perhaps its principles of simplicity and design get in the way. It can't be resources and ability. Apple has billions in the bank, access to the world, and wicked smart engineers. So Apple is either out of touch or woefully ignorant of household realities. I don't like either lines of thought, but they need to be explored.

Here are some examples:

  • Apple Has to Connect Your Credit Card to Your Apple ID to Make Everything "Seamless"

    First off, Apple creates an astoundingly fun and easy-to-use iPad, but fails to recognize how its own business partner developers will take advantage of its customers through in-app purchase schemes, particularly those targeted at children.

    Apple eventually made some changes to iOS that let parents turn off in-app purchasing -- and is settling a mediocre lawsuit -- but frankly, Apple's ability to communicate those controls to parents? It sucked then and it sucks now. In fact, my Amazon Kindle Fire is better in this regard. Sad, but true.

    How does this happen? By focusing so hard on the end goal of collecting hundreds of millions of credit card numbers, and accounts with Apple Ids, and easy ways to buy apps and media, Apple makes it simple -- but forgets that its customers don't live in simple, static situations.

  • The Shareable iPad That's Really Only Good for One Person

    Apple's promotes the iPad as a great mobile device, but it has no clue as to how much damage a family member or friend could do with such a device. Kids want to play with them, and you want to share them with friends -- maybe even just to play music, a video, or surf the web -- and boom: Reminders is showing off your dirty laundry. Of course, you can turn this stuff off, but there's tons of private or business-related content on your iPad that's hard to protect.

    The built-in Mail client works great, except you can't lock it down. In a world where a guy can get fired for the wrong tweet, built-in Twitter integration in an iPad is a nightmare waiting to come to life. It virtually guarantees that you have a wonderful device that you can't really share with others. The more you use your iPad, the worse this becomes.

    All Apple has to do is create a method for locking down sensitive apps but enabling all others. You could even create multiple user accounts. But no, that would not be simple enough. That could get in the way of enjoying the iPad. What about this: Hand my phone to a crying kid on a plane? No way. One deleted email or calendar event could wreak havoc with my job.

    With Apple, locking anything down in iOS is mostly an all-or-nothing prospect.

  • Apple TV Loses Its Hard Drive and "Evolves" Into a Puck

    Meanwhile, there's the Apple TV. It started out with a hard drive, but to push the cost down and make it simpler, Apple got rid of user-manageable storage in favor of a streaming media device. As if everyone lives in California connected to super-fast and super-reliable Internet with perfect WiFi routers.

    Basically, the Apple TV of today requires a constant WiFi connection to function. Want to store a movie or two on it to watch? Photos? Can't. You have to stream them from a connected Mac, or worse, from iCloud, as if I want to store thousands upon thousands of photos in the cloud in a way that's barely secure if even private. Since many households are becoming MacBook as well as iPad-centric -- mobile oriented -- your streaming Mac-to-Apple TV scheme disappears the moment you walk out of the house with your MacBook in your bag.

    If you bought some content from Apple, you can stream it from Apple's servers in the sky. That's nice, but it's not a replacement for a small measure of control. Worse, Apple's love affair with simplicity means you can't even add your own onboard storage through a thumb drive or memory card.

    Samsung, on the other hand, seems to realize that people might like to have a device on which they can store media. Surprise: Support profiles for up to eight different people, letting the consumer decide what to share with other family members. Let's see: Do we really want a young child watching Homeland? With the Apple TV, it's right there and hard to hide. How about South Park? Looks like a kid-friendly cartoon, does it not? Speaking of cartoons, does an adult really want to navigate through a bunch of kid content to find the adult stuff?

Dusting Off the First-Generation Apple TV

I have an old 40 GB first generation Apple TV. I connected it to a 24-inch Samsung HDTV that I placed on a shelf in my house for the sole purpose of using it as a live photo slideshow, so that friends and family can see thousands of photos of all of us exploring our world and getting out and about in it. It's like a photo album in a frame. It's a reminder of who we are as a family, of how we like to live our life and what's really important.

The first-generation Apple TV works great for something like this, but the newer Apple TVs? They're ripe for connection problems with our WiFi router and for losing a connection to iTunes on a MacBook.

While on the subject of the MacBook; not only does it have to be powered on, but iTunes has to be launched. Even then, a couple of times a month the wireless signals get crossed and confused, and I have to unplug things, restart, log out and log back in to get them talking to each other.

How simple is that?

Now that many households are almost entirely mobile -- MacBooks, iPads, iPhones -- using an Apple TV to stream content from an Apple ID connected device becomes vastly less simple than on-board storage. Where's the centralization in a household in this situation? With an iMac or a Mac mini? Is that Apple's answer?

iCloud? Oh man, like I want to upload 50 GB -- and growing -- of family movies to iCloud and be locked into specific access over which I truly have little control.

Some Humble Suggestions

The problem is that the answer to these basic sorts of needs is simplicity in itself. The iPad just needs a PIN-based method for securing apps. Dump them in a protected folder. Lock them up individually. Provide the ability to have a "guest" mode. For a company with Apple's resources, none of this should be hard.

The Apple TV? Let smart users add on-board storage. Offer a "pro" model. Worse yet, I'm wondering how Apple is not seeing its consumer base become increasingly mobile . . . and yet doesn't see a need for a central media storage system? The Apple TV could easily be a place where iPhone-packing family members store videos and photos; a place that remains constant no matter where in the world the family's biggest MacBook is working.

I would drool over just such an Apple TV, with 1 TB of on-board storage. I would happily pay more than $99 for it, too.

It's true that Samsung's product is physically not as simple as an Apple device. But when it comes time to match it up with a household, might it require less family gymnastics to utilize? I am a long way from wanting to deal with the other vagaries of an Android existence, but as these sorts of gaps remain unplugged and seemingly ignored, I start to wonder if Apple even recognizes them.

Does the secrecy of Apple's Cupertino campus mean that it can't see what its best and most loyal customers need?

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at

Subscribe to Tech News Flash Newsletter
download NICE inContact Remote Agent Checklist
Which tech fields currently offer the best job opportunities in light of the pandemic?
Call Centers
Contact Tracing
Online Learning
Video Event Planning
Virtual Reality Development