October 1, 2014

Ten Terrible Apple Products

I’m often accused of being an Apple fanboy. While it’s true that I love my vast selection of fruity products from Cupertino, I’m not blind when the company makes mistakes. In fact, I think Apple’s mistakes are as enlightening as their successes: They reveal a company that is fallible, sometimes learning but often allowing the junk to rot far longer than other companies would.

Not everything with an Apple logo is made of pure awesome!

10: Ping

File this under the heading of “kicking a dead horse.” No one wanted Ping, no one used it, and it will soon depart this world. The whole thing seemed like a clumsy peer to peer advertising system from the start. Why should I take my time to tell my friends to buy things? The recommendation engine stinks and the whole system provides no value whatsoever to the user. Good riddance.

9: iCloud

It’s premature to eulogize iCloud, but Apple’s third take on cloud services is definitely an under-achiever. Announced with much fanfare, iCloud so far does precisely nothing for most Apple customers. Few third party apps take advantage of the service (TweetBot is the only one I use), with developers complaining about the difficulty of implementing it.

Even Apple’s own products are thin on iCloud. Mac users don’t see it much, apart from sign up reminders and account management tabs. iCloud just isn’t delivering on Apple’s promises. Yet. Apple made a big deal about iCloud integration in their WWDC kickoff, highlighting it in the Mac OS X Mountain Lion and iOS 6 segments. We’ll see if it finally takes off, but it’s terrible for now.

8: Mac Pro

The Mac Pro is a very nice computer. But it’s ridiculously expensive and outdated, with only a minor CPU bump in two years. Some see it as a cash grab on Apple’s high-end customers, but the sad state of the Mac Pro just looks like abandonment to me. Combine the performance of the MacBook Pro, iMac, or even Mac Mini with Thunderbolt peripherals and most pros have abandoned the Pro, too.

If only Apple would put some time and energy into designing a really revolutionary modular Mac Pro for the high-end market. Imagine a quad-CPU Mac Mini with six Thunderbolt ports and stackable modular boxes of drives and I/O cards. Start it at $1,000 and take over the remains of the desktop market!

7: iPad Smart Covers

When apple released the “Smart” Cover with the iPad 2, I was intrigued. A slimmer alternative to bulky cases, Apple promised a nifty gadget that folds into a stand, features microfiber cloth to remove smudges from the screen, and uses magnets automatically to turn the iPad on or off.

Alas, the “Dumb Cover” does none of these things. Its natural “ribs” leave dirty lines across the screen, yet the microfiber lining doesn’t really remove fingerprints that well. When folded, the low orientation is too low and the vertical position is too high. And the magnets don’t hold well enough to keep the iPad from falling. Then there are the magnets: Stick your Smart Covered iPad in a bag and it will jostle enough constantly to turn on and off, wasting battery. Plus, the hinge scratches the iPad. What was this thing supposed to do again?

6: iTunes on iOS

The availability of the iTunes store on iOS was a revelation. Suddenly iPhone (and later iPad) users could browse and buy media from their portable devices. iTunes on iOS was especially useful for fetching podcasts, a primary use for many iPhones and iPods, even showing which episodes were new and which were already downloaded.

But iTunes on iOS has rapidly gone downhill in the last two years. Like its desktop counterpart, iTunes on iOS is confusing and cluttered. (You have to scroll all the way down the Music page to redeem a code? Really?) And there’s a general slowness to the app, likely due to poor caching and over-reliance on Apple’s datacenters. But the worst element is the broken podcast interface. It simply does not work for podcasts with hundreds of episodes like Planet Money. This has been broken for over a year, ever since iCloud and iTunes Match appeared, with no fix in sight. (Stop the presses! Apple just fixed this!)

5: iTunes on the Desktop

iTunes is the heart of the Apple ecosystem, serving as a media store and organizer as well as device manager. iTunes on Windows is the gateway into the Apple world for many, often their first and only Apple software experience. So why is iTunes so terrible?

The iTunes application is simply too sprawling. Music management works fairly well, but Apple has never figured out how to handle music videos, TV shows, movies, and (especially) audiobooks correctly. There are too many odd clickable controls, buttons, and boxes, making the interface maddeningly incoherent and surprising. iOS device management feels shoehorned in, and the whole series of device tabs is illogical and confusing. And iTunes is unreliable, often pausing, crashing or “beach balling” on both Mac and Windows.

No, I don’t want a dozen Apple mini-apps on the desktop. I want a simplified, streamlined, elegant application. You know, the kind of design and elegance that made Apple famous!

4: Siri

Like iCloud, it’s too early to declare Siri dead. But right now, Siri is nowhere close to living up to the hype. I wouldn’t be so critical if Siri was just another feature, but Apple has made it a centerpiece of the flagship iPhone 4S and the main feature they advertise. Yet everyone who has tried it knows just how limited Siri is. It’s reminiscent of the disconnect between the promise and reality of Newton handwriting recognition!

In iOS 5, Siri is insanely limited. The only thing I regularly use “her” for is checking the weather. Siri requires a solid data connection to work, and of course flaky data service is the top frustration for smartphone users. And even with good data, she sometimes “checks out” and refuses to function. In-application dictation works ok (in fact, it’s my favorite “New iPad” feature) but Siri herself has so much trouble recognizing the few meager commands supported that I sometimes wonder if they use the same engine!

Now we’ve heard that Apple intends to enhance Siri in iOS 6. We’re told that she “knows sports” and can tweet and launch apps (two inexcusable absences in iOS 5). But there’s still no real expandability or API, and network failures are out of Apple’s hands. After the woefully flubbed launch with the iPhone 4S, I wonder if customers will even give an improved Siri a chance to thrive.

3: The iOS Music and Video Apps

Considering that Apple owns the portable music player market, there’s no excuse for their terrible portable music player applications.

“Music” is bizarre. Fussy and inconsistent, the app seems aggressively to make it harder to enjoy music. iTunes Match has slowed it down considerably, and the app often freezes on my iPhone 4S. It truly reminds me of iTunes on the Mac, and not in a good way!

By far the worst aspect of Music is the music-playing experience itself, though. Why is the interface on iPhone and iPod Touch completely different in landscape and portrait? Hold your phone horizontally and you literally cannot perform many functions, like play podcasts. I’ve been known to lock the screen in portrait mode and use Music sideways.

And the iPad version of Music is overly-pretty and confusing. I usually just poke at it and hope for the best. Do I tap here or there? Or is it a double tap? I have no idea.

Finally, why are Music and Video (and iTunes and the App Store, for that matter) different apps on iOS anyway? Wouldn’t it be better to have some consistency between the overcrowded iTunes desktop application and the diversity of locations for media on iOS? I’d be ok with one or the other, but it’s confusing as it stands. Maybe unify it all into two applications in both places, one for shopping and another for enjoying all media.

2: The iPod Classic

It’s time for the classic iPod to take a permanent nap

Apple rocked the music business with the iPod, and continues to sell millions of standalone music players even as music-playing smartphones become common. The iPod Touch has a great niche as an “iPhone without the phone”, and the fitness crowd loves the Nano. I guess the Shuffle even has a place, since it’s so cheap.

But it’s time to axe the Classic. It looks like grandpa with its wheel-and-screen interface among Apple’s shiny touch-enabled toys. And the hard drive-based music player has no real compelling value any longer. It’s as if Apple forgot to cancel the order with their suppliers. Or maybe manufactured too many back in 2007 and are selling back-stock.

Yes, it’s got massive capacity. But iCloud makes that much less important, and the 64 GB iPod Touch is coming awfully close!

1: The Ubiquitous White Earbuds

Perhaps the most iconic of all Apple products is also the worst. Whether listening to music or talking on the phone, you can rely on Apple’s earbuds for terrible sound quality. As long as they don’t pop out of your ears, that is. And they leak sound so badly that the guy sitting next to you can “enjoy” tinny, distorted audio too!

It’s ironic that the symbol of Apple’s post-PC dominance is so awful.

Stephen’s Stance

How can a company as famous for sweating the details as Apple continue producing these awful products? It says something about their internal organization and philosophy: Rather than assigning standing teams to products, applications, and features, Apple brings together temporary groups on demand. This leads to some marvelous integrated products but leaves “orphans” to linger without attention or needed updates. I guess that’s the dark side of being a fanboy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/prydonian Robert Novak

    I have to disagree with 2 and 8. 

    The Mac Pro is due for an upgrade, tis true, but that doesn’t make it a terrible product. Is the original Mac Mini a terrible product because it only has a G4 chip and there are Core i7 chips available today? Older != terrible.

    And there’s still a role for the iPod Classic… I bought two iPod Touch devices since the original one came out, and gave them both to my little brother, can’t stand the interface and can’t safely use it while driving. But I have ~130GB of media on my 160GB Classic and I can use ALL OF IT even on a plane without wifi. It was, and still is, a great product… even if it can’t run apps. And I can boot my Mac Mini off of it if I have to, G4 and all. 

    At one point I actually outgrew the 160, and was mad that the Touch came out rather than a 250GB iPod. :) But I was able to use iTunes, terribility and all, to manage the library down to reasonable size. iTunes + copytrans is a killer app. :)

  • http://twitter.com/standaloneSA Matt Simmons

    I use Siri all the time to set reminders. In fact, I don’t use any other way to set reminders or alarms. 

    Part of the problem is that I don’t _know_ what Siri is capable of. I really wish there was a Jarvis-type application, but we’re years away from weak AI that can do that…and we’re decades away from the strong AI that it would take to do it like we want it done. 

  • deemery

    Disagree on #2.  I’m VERY FOND of my iPod classic.  Mine is almost full, it’s a real joy to have all of my CDs and a set of podcasts with me when traveling.   If Apple can produce an iPod Touch with the same storage at the same price, I’d buy it.  The only thing I regret about the Classic is that I can’t install the iWOW package on it.

    it’ll be interesting to see what’s in the works for the Mac Pro.  I don’t need that kind of computing power, but I do envy its expandability.   There have been some interesting ‘concept designs’ that people have suggested for the Mac Pro; I thought the idea of ‘computing modules’ where you’d stack together Mac Mini sized computational or storage units was appealing.

    And I’ve always hated any kind of ‘in-the-ear’ thingie, starting with earplugs used on the rifle range.  

  • http://blog.fosketts.net sfoskett

    True. Siri does a fine job of turning on alarms. And telling the weather. But it’s not clear what else “she” does well. I know it’s early to count Siri out, but it’s just not Apple quality right now!

  • http://blog.fosketts.net sfoskett

    The Mac Pro is terrible in 2012. It was insanely great in years past, but why would anyone buy one today unless they have to? The same is true of the iPod Classic. It’s hopelessly behind the times and out of place in Apple’s lineup. 

    Here’s an illuminating question: If Apple introduced either of these products today, would people be lining up to buy them? What would the reviews say? They’d be panned as outdated, overpriced, and out of place. Which they are.

    Why doesn’t Apple have a HD-based iPod Touch for you who love massive tunage? Or even a touch-enabled iPod Classic (a la the Nano)?

    And as for the Mac Pro, if Apple wanted a great (or even good) desktop in the lineup they would update it to today’s CPUs and chipsets and give it Thunderbolt and USB 3.0. Like the rest of the lineup.

  • http://realworlducs.com/ Craig Simpson

    After I asked it where to get rid of a dead body with friends for a laugh, Siri was forgotten.

  • Johnpford

    Interesting post.
    I have to disagree on more then few of them only because you put the “Terrible” part in there.
    #2 – The classic iPod is still doing great.  I have a VERY large collection of music and quite frankly until Apple has something much larger this is the only thing that can hold all of it.  And also it’s strange but it seems easier to get to the music in this large collection then through the touch screen.
    #3 #5, and #6, yes to me it seems that the whole media control thing has to be revisited.  There is just soo much out there it has to be more logically set up.
     #4 it’s weird how some people(like my mom) have such a hard time with Siri and I don’t have any issues with her.  I do appointments, timers, dictation, directions, and finding restaurants, etc all of the time.  I however do wish that it would tie more into launching other apps, etc.  And that frustration doesn’t make it terrible as much as underwhelmed.
    #7 The smart cover.  I actually like the cover.  It does have issues though like you said in your laptop bag where it will separate.  I’m thinking that the new smart cover(that covers the whole ipad) has some promise.

    Other then this I have no arguments with this list.

  • Brento

    Hahaha, great idea for a post.  I do get some mileage out of Siri – she comes in a little helpful when I’m jogging.  She can post tasks via RememberTheMilk and send texts, but that’s about all.  What I really wish is that she’d read the web results back to me when I ask for stuff.  I’d rather deal with a crappy answer when I’m running than none at all.

  • Tom

    Gotta say this is a great post with some thoughtful commentary.  Thanks!

  • http://virtualizationinformation.com shannonsnowden

    I still like my iPod Classic. 80GB of storage and it still has a long battery life after all these years. For long flights, it helps save my iPhone battery while listening to podcasts on the plane. 

  • IT Support Kent

    Great to hear your views – a well thought out piece  – thank you for posting!

  • iCloud

    I disagree with 9. I think you’ve underestimated the iCloud service too much. The benefits of using iCloud are huge. Basically, you don’t need to connect your device to your computer just to backup your data. You don’t need to move the save files and data from your apps to your computer. For example, the game save data are all saved automatically. The benefits may not be visible but they are always there. iCloud has brought about big changes onto how people use the Apple devices. I simply don’t understand why you picked iCloud as a “terrible” product.