Some people willingly overpay for half-baked features in obscure gadgets. These are the early adopters of the world, and they know full well that the things they buy will not work perfectly. Hiccups and glitches are just part of the contract, the accepted trade-off for being first.
Apple's customers are not these people—iPhones are the epitome of a mass-market gadgetry. So why, with two half-baked—and highly touted—flagship features in as many years, has Cupertino suddenly started treating its loyal millions like the world's largest debugging unit?
Apple's best-known mantra might be "Think Different," but anyone who's watched the company through the years will tell you its real clarion call: It Just Works. That's how nearly every Apple product has been described on stage since Steve Jobs returned from NeXT. It may not be Apple's tagline, but it's certainly its biggest selling point.
The remarkable thing is that for the most part, that's been true. Apple's detractors have plenty of sound arguments, but the company could never be accused of shipping products that were unfinished or over-complicated. Babies can use iPads before they can stand. Your grandfather gets FaceTime. People buy Apple because they want to fit in, sure. But also because it's safe.
That may not sound like much of a compliment, but it is. It's maybe the highest compliment you can pay a consumer electronics company. Just like good design is invisible, good user experience should be functional and intuitive. You shouldn't ever have to doubt it, or even think about it twice.
All of which was true of Apple products until last year. Until Apple decided to make all of its customers inadvertent beta testers.
The most ballyhooed feature of the iPhone 4S—remember, there was no new physical design to crow about—was Siri: a "personal assistant" that dominated Apple's advertising all of last fall. It sucked. Its speech recognition could not recognize speech, and its interpretive skills were on par with a competent labradoodle.
The reason for this is simple, and something openly acknowledged on Apple's home page (if not its media buy): Siri was a beta product. Incomplete, by definition. For the first time in recent memory, Apple intentionally pushed a half-baked product out the door. As Mat Honan pointed out last December, the effect was both startling and offputting:
I'm sorry. Beta? Beta is for Google. When Apple does a public beta, it usually keeps it out of the hands of the, you know, public. It typically makes you go get betas. It doesn't force them on you, much less advertise them. Not that it is an effective disclaimer for the vast buying public. For most people who see Apple's ads, and buy iPhones, the word beta means nothing at all. It might be a fish, or a college bro.
Siri could have been easily dismissed as a one-off misadventure; an unfortunate overreach, lesson learned, no harm done. But then Apple Maps happened.
The Apple Mapspocalypse has been well-documented, both here and elsewhere, and it's a fresh enough wound that we don't need to belabor it. But if you haven't upgraded to iOS 6—or read a tech story—in the last week or so, it's worth a brief recap. The iPhone and iPad stopped using Google Maps, which were and are terrific, in favor of its own Maps app, which is enough of a horror show that Apple itself has acknowledged the problem (albeit through a thick veil of PRspeak):
We launched this new map service knowing it is a major initiative and that we are just getting started with it. Maps is a cloud-based solution and the more people use it, the better it will get. We... are working hard to make the customer experience even better.
That's as close to an admission of fault as you're likely to see from Cupertino. And Apple Maps falters for the same reason Siri did; it's a beta product. It's incomplete, in many instances literally so. It's also not going to get better any time soon.
So, Apple released the last two versions of iOS secure in the knowledge that its headline features wouldn't work as advertised or expected out of the box. But why? Why, with so much goodwill built up, with an entire brand built on the principle that it just works, would you knowingly let your most popular product's most prominent feature be subpar?
Actually, the answer's pretty straightforward. And maybe even understandable.
If you haven't chatted with Siri lately—and you wouldn't be alone—you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. She's still not perfect, by any stretch, but she's picked up some handy new features in iOS 6, like making reservations and checking movie times for you. More importantly, though, Siri does the little things demonstrably better than she did a year ago.
She understands what you say better. She returns better search results. Is she perfect, or even very good? No. But Siri has improved the same way all beta programs do: with data and time.
Every time you use Siri, you become a data point for Apple. Siri's success or failure is logged, and used to ensure that future results are more accurate. With a typical program or application, those corrective measures come during the developer preview stage, or from beta testers who get a sneak peek at software and provide feedback. But a knowledge engine like Siri requires hundreds of thousands, even millions of real-world samples to refine its offerings to the point of usability.
Combine the tremendous amount of fuel Siri needs to thrive with Apple's notoriously secretive testing methodology, and it suddenly at least makes sense why this particular top-secret iOS feature came out a few sprinkles short of a sundae.
That reasoning holds up with Apple Maps only to the extent that both Siri and Maps are data hogs, requiring years of usage to become whole. Apple's own statement above boils down to: hold tight. But Maps is far more frustrating than Siri because it's an entirely unnecessary—from a user's point of view—backslide.
Apple wasn't forced into a corner; it had full year left in its Google Maps contract, which could have been a full year of perfecting its own product. But the motivation to bring maps in-house—the long-term financial gain of all that localized advertising and user data—was too strong to wait on. And that's Apple's prerogative. It's a public company, which means it owes its shareholders an earnest attempt to gobble up as much money as it can in as many ways as it can. As early users of Google Maps will tell you, though, it takes years and years to get maps right. iPhone users are in for a long road of terrible.
Eventually Apple will collect enough user GPS data and have enough erroneous business listings huffily corrected that its Maps app will, like Siri, become good. Great, even. But out of the box, both are failures. And Apple knew full well that they would be. That they had to be.
So this is the new Apple: willing to trade a priori perfection for long-term gain. And this is the new Apple customer: an early adopter of unproven features, a beta tester who likely doesn't know what that term means.
Here's the good news, though; if anyone can scale up a maps effort from whole cloth, it's Apple. The company has a hundred billion dollars of cash on hand. It's aggressively recruiting former Google Maps staffers. And most importantly, it has more than five million iPhone 5s on the market already, and countless iOS 6 iPhone 4S devices sending corrective data back to the mothership.
And who knows? Maybe this ends here. Siri and Maps are highly specialized products with specific needs that can't be met in an isolated testing chamber. They need to be used, and used broadly, to function correctly. There aren't many more bells and whistles that Apple could add to the iPhone that fit that category. If that's the case, then think of these two years as ripping off a band-aid, a necessary discomfort that we'll all forget about by the time iPhone 7 rolls around.
But if this is Apple's new strategy—release, then refine—then the answer is simple. You get to strategize, too. If you have an iPhone 4S now? Wait until Maps gets better to upgrade to iOS 6. The next iPhone comes out with a speculative feature? Don't pre-order. See if it's good now or will be good soon. Wait for reviews. You know, like you do with nearly everything else you buy.
If the only fallout from the Siri and Maps fiascos is that the blind trust Apple has built up over the years erodes a bit, and we start kicking the tires a little more? That's a win for us and for Apple, a dynamic that drives innovation and encourages perfection. It just works.