I’ve been thinking a lot about the new releases — Watch 4, the iPhone Xs, IOS 12 and Mojave. In watching the discussions around the net, I see a lot of similar reactions.

It’s not that people are upset with the new releases, or that there are serious problems. It’s more that we’re, um…

If you’re not overwhelmed, and you’re not underwhelmed, what are you? You’re — whelmed.

This is the challenge of the maturing technology; the shift from every release having major improvements that ticket your fancy and generate excitement. Instead… it’s smaller, incremental improvements, smaller things that make it better, but not in ways that generates — the Thrill.

With Apple, it seems, the Thrill is gone (for now). And that’s just fine, but it’s also a challenge, because we become accustomed to the Thrill, and when it goes missing, we find we’re a bit addicted to it, and it’s loss leaves us feeling…

Whelmed.

I’m suffering from being Whelmed by Apple right now. I realize
it’s good, because there’s nothing particularly bad about the new releases, to me the lack of major gosh-wow features means other aspects of these need to come together to create satisfaction.

To me, Apple’s strength here are found in three key pieces: they focus on solving real problems, they focus on building good, useful and simple interfaces, and they focus on a clean and attractive design that ties it all together and makes it work.

These are the smaller tent poles of any release, the ones that set the foundation that the bigger gosh-wow features get built on. The problem, for me, is that I keep seeing gaps in how well Apple are creating the finishing details that define these foundational features.

It comes down to sweating the details and solving the complications.

Complications and Details

Or sometimes, creating the complications and sweating the details in them.


I just bought the series 4 watch, upgrading from a series 2. I love the screen. It feels great on the wrist, it definitely doesn’t feel or look larger on my wrist. The migration and setup are massively better.

But the watch faces and complications are a hot mess. Marco Arment has written a great criticism of this which I suggest you read.

Me? I agree with Marco but I’ll go even further: to me, the faces and complications Apple have created look programmed not designed. They feel like the kind of things programmers do not designers; especially not watch designers.

The new faces are too busy even turning some complications off. It makes me feel like a rainbow has barfed on my wrist and the configurability to let me customize colors or build some consistency onto the face simply isn’t there.

I immediately installed the Better Day app to replace Apple’s calendar complications because they’re ugly.

And discovery? How can you tell which forms of which complication work in which widget spot on which face? You do it by trying out different faces and poking at complication spots to see what shows up and how it looks. Discovery and configuration of complications is a usability disaster to me.

That’s not even getting into the reality that Apple announced a new watch with new complications with two weeks of warning to developers before ship while making the older, existing complications not compatible with these new faces. So they shoved a surprise on developers at the last minute to be ready for launch.

Can we say “burn goodwill with your developers?” — it’s something Apple does pretty consistently and it’s a good way to discourage developers from adopting your technologies or cutting you slack when you need them to help out down the road.

To me, the new watch is a mixed blessing; the hardware upgrades are nice, the faces and complications let it down. What could have been awesome ends up being perfectly okay but it could have been a lot more if they’d sweated the details. And the complications.

Homekit

I’ve been experimenting with HomeKit a fair amount recently, and again it’s this combination of really great capabilities surrounded by frustrating complexities and functionality gaps.

It’s nice Apple finally added a HomeKit app to Mojave. It’s too bad the app is really poor but that’s a side effect of it being tied to the really early days of Marzipan.

I keep running into random reliability issues. We just had a day where the neighborhood power was turned off by the utility to do maintenance on a couple of deteriorating poles. When the power came back on? Everything came up fine but two timed scenes stopped working until I adjusted the time they triggered by a minute to reset them. Why? I have no clue. And Apple doesn’t seem to have thought about making debugging logs available to help sort out issues. Homekit was built around the “kick it until it cooperates” or “burn it to the ground and rebuild it” mentality.

When it works it’s awesome. And when it breaks you have no effective way to know what to fix beyond poking at things at random and hoping.

And then there are the gaps. Basic (to me) functionality that isn’t there that make me wonder how a product manager couldn’t define this as a core use case?

For instance:

I have three lighting setups in my office: Full on, Video mode, and dark mode (yeah I know. But it amused me). I tried to install a motion detector. My wishes were, I thought, fairly simple I thought. If the room is set to dark mode and there’s movement set the scene to full on. If the room is set to full on and there’s no movement for some period of time, set it to dark mode. If the scene is set to video leave it alone.

That’s basically a simple if-then-else. Homekit implements the if-then, but no else? Or nested if-thens? Or maybe stretch a bit and go for a case decision setup?

It’s not there. The activity monitor constantly overrode the scene I set and when I left the room it couldn’t switch scenes, it could only turn the scene off.

95% of the code and functionality is already there but did nobody on the product team think about that last 5%? My use is clearly trivial and silly but for very little effort there could be a lot more power and flexibility and it’s not there. Why not?

I dunno but I ended up removing the motion sensor and giving up, and having to remember to turn off the room via Siri and the HomePod when I leave it. Hashtag first world problems.

But in reality I’ve found myself bumping into these kind of basic functionality gaps all over the place. Maybe I’m being too picky, but home automation isn’t really viable if it can only do 80% of the task I want and can’t do that reliably because it randomly breaks. Did I mention that I have my office fan on a homekit switch and for two weeks Siri forgot how to turn it on and off? (Worked fine from the homekit app), and instead started turning the fan in the family room on and off instead? And then just as mysteriously, fixed itself?

That’s how you make me trust technology to be there for me when I need it…

While I’ve homeKitted (is that a word?) my office, it’s use in the rest of the house is much more limited. Apple has yet to really come to grips with the reality that a house has a family, which implies multiple people with multiple identities.

So what do I take out of this? That all of Apple’s homekit engineers live alone? Or only outfit their offices because their families got tired of it randomly breaking things in the house?

When it’s not randomly breaking things or annoying me with tis gaps I really like HomeKit. But… it’s not remotely ready to become the automation center for the entire house and support myself and Laurie using it together much less random guests who might need to turn on a light.

Well, unless you add wireless HomeKit switches next to the powered ones which is what I’ve done.

CarPlay

While I’m here let me get a few more of these off my chest…

Like CarPlay. When I bought my new car it came with CarPlay. And CarPlay with IOS 11 had some glitches but worked pretty okay. And with IOS 12, all those glitches are gone (thank you).

But while I’m driving down the road, if I get an idea I want to fire up something and dictate that idea to myself for later reference. So I go into CarPlay to fire up Voice Memos and… and I remember for the 50th time it isn’t there.

That seems like such a painfully obvious use case how can it not have happened? And I haven’t found a reasonable alternative that doesn’t involve unlocking the phone, which well CarPlay is supposed to make unnecessary, right?

I realize I should do more research on this to find solutions, and I’ll bet the answer is on the watch not CarPlay. But Voice Memos isn’t on the watch, either. And every time I’ve thought about this I’m driving, and I can’t make memos for myself to remember later when I’m driving for some reason…

(How do all of you do this anyway?)

Apple TV, HomePod, audio and video

One final one and I’ll shut up.

When I rebuilt my office, I installed an Apple TV 4K, and a 4K monitor for it to drive. The monitor had no speakers. No problem, I thought, I’ll add some bluetooth speakers and connect the TV to them.

Except the TV kept forgetting about the speakers so I was always going in to reset that. No problem, I thought. I’m getting a HomePod to drive the HomeKit stuff in my office (and to experiment with Siri finally) so I’ll just set the TV to use the HomePod as speakers.

Which sounded awesome when it worked. Except like the bluetooth speakers, it was constantly forgetting they were paired. And worse if I took my iPad and Airplay video to the TV, the Apple TV would unpair from the HomePod and send the audio out through the speakers, which don’t exist.

I’m of two minds on that last one. The nerd me has some understanding about the technical challenge of having the Apple TV take in an Airplay stream and send out an Airplay stream to another device WITH the lips synchronized? That’s a really tough ask.

But the user me? I don’t care. I have an expensive Apple TV an expensive 4K monitor, and an expensive HomePod speaker, and I just want it all to work, because my expectation of Apple is to sweat the details and make it work.

And here I am, telling the TV that yes, it should use the HomePod as speakers again. For the fourth time today. That’s one of those small usability friction point that keeps me from wanting to use the Apple TV and leaves me feeling frustrated that it’s just not as good as it really is. It seems like a minor point — and again hashtag first world problems — but it’s the kind of thing that turns someone from a massive fan of a product into an “oh, it’s okay” person.

Which, from what I can tell is 90% of Apple TV users. For some odd reason.

My solution? I hooked a $30 speaker with a 3.5mm plug into the monitor speaker port. It doesn’t sound nearly as good as the HomePod, but it just works.

And sweating the detail and getting back to “It Just Works” is something Apple needs to strive for, because when your product lines mature and you stop having those killer tentpole features everyone is dying to get their hands on, it’s your complications and details — the fit and finish — that push people towards “great” or “meh”.

And more and more, the reactions seem to be “meh”. Even from me.

It may seem like a weak criticism, and I think in fact it is, but I think Apple had gotten a mindset of “yeah, it’s okay” is good enough, and I think that’s a mistake.

A big part of what made Apple successful in its turnaround was a commitment to sweating the details and living or dying on “it solves your problem, and it just works”. And over the last few years, Apple’s lost that level of detail and commitment to quality. It’s all about sweating the details, and bluntly Apple’s not doing a great job of that right now.

It needs to find it again.

And I think the watch faces and complications of the Apple Watch 4 is a perfect example of it.

Would a watch designer at Rolex have shipped those watch faces? I don’t think so, so why did Apple?

For now I’ll put up with having rainbow barf on my arm, but god, I hope they figure out how to give me watch faces as beautiful as the hardware displaying it. It deserves it.

And so do us, the people wearing them. And what we have — I can’t see how they thought this was remotely good enough. But evidently it was.

And that’s a problem, Apple.