Seducing customers for the keeps

Seducing customers for the keeps

Apple’s new devices work best as part of a team. But it can be a mistake to subscribe to only one tech platform, says Farhad Manjoo.


Late in 2012, when Tim Cook was relatively fresh on the job as Apple’s chief executive, he made a sudden and potentially risky shuffle in the firm’s executive ranks. He fired Scott Forstall, who had been in charge of Apple’s mobile operating system, the most important piece of software Apple produced. Forstall had long been one of Steve Jobs’ favored lieutenants, but in addition to presiding over a couple of high-profile failures - including Apple’s Maps app - he was known for his combativeness within the company.

Cook had little patience for that attitude. As he later explained in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, the reshuffling was meant to “get us to a whole new level of collaboration.” In public appearances since, Cook has repeatedly returned to this idea of cohesiveness. Apple, he likes to point out, is alone among tech firms in producing the entire collection of digital technology that people use daily, from the devices we crave to the operating systems that power them to the applications and services that make them useful.

We are now beginning to see the fruits of Cook’s vision of a tightly integrated Apple. Over the last few months, Apple has introduced a series of devices that work best as part of an integrated lineup. Apple is no longer making lonely individual products. Its phones, tablets, computers and the mobile and desktop operating systems that run them are blending into a single, inseparable whole.

The minute you use one of them, the more sense it makes to begin using several others. And the more of Apple’s stuff you use, the better your experience becomes.

But one note of caution. Apple’s beautiful ecosystem is a bit like the Hotel California: Once you check in, you might never leave. As I explained last February, this can be a mistake. It’s wise to split your computing time and money among the dominant tech platforms, because if any one of them dies or acts in ways you don’t like, it won’t be so tough to escape to something else.
The best strategy remains: Buy Apple’s hardware, use Google’s services and get media from Amazon. That way you get the best of all worlds - Apple’s hardware is terrific, Google’s services are ubiquitous, and Amazon’s media is cheap and works everywhere - but you’ll never have to fully commit to one.

Over the week, to test Apple’s waters, I ignored my own advice and went all in on its ecosystem. I used its latest iPhone, its newest iPad and the brilliant new desktop it began selling last week, the iMac with a Retina 5K display. I also used the latest versions of Mac operating system, Yosemite, and iOS 8.1, the mobile operating system found on Apple’s phones and tablets.

And as much as I could, I tried to shift most of my work to Apple’s apps. I ditched using Google’s Chrome browser in favour of Apple’s Safari, I switched from Gmail’s Web interface to Apple’s Mail app, and I began writing my articles in Pages, Apple’s word processing app, instead of Microsoft Word. I also paid for my goods with Apple Pay.What I found was, for the most part, just what Apple has promised: An integration of hardware and software that works intuitively as you move among the gorgeous devices.In the past, Apple’s two operating systems were distinct islands.
The system that ran the Mac and the system that ran the mobile devices had a strikingly different visual appearance, and what happened on each one usually stayed there. Now, with Yosemite, the Mac shares the iPhone’s overall aesthetic, with many icons across the two platforms bearing a striking similarity.

The result is a blissful reduction in cognitive load. As you switch from one kind of machine to the other, buttons and other interface commands generally look the same, so there’s less guessing what happens when you press each one. If you’re familiar with the Share button on your iPhone - an inscrutable rectangle with an upward arrow - its appearance on your Mac will make perfect sense. In Finder, you click Share to mail a document or post a photo to Facebook. In Safari, click Share to tweet a link. Many buttons work the same way; across devices, Apple’s hardware and software now usually do just what you think they will do.

Until they don’t. Apple’s ecosystem is now so integrated that the places that haven’t yet been meshed together stand out starkly and annoyingly. Some of the Mac’s icons now look unnecessarily different from those on iOS devices, sometimes so different that it seems as if the designers were being malicious. These aren’t huge flaws, but Apple is a company obsessed with details, and these details are off. The most obvious effort to promote integration between mobile devices and the Mac is a set of features Apple calls Continuity. Broadly, they allow you to share resources like your cellular data connection between your Mac and your phone, and also to pick up where you left off as you flit from phone to tablet to computer. At first blush, this might not sound novel. Most phones, including the iPhone, have long had the ability to share their connections with computers. Google already lets you sync your data across devices; you can pull up the Chrome tabs you opened on your phone this morning on your PC tonight. And a variety of third-party programs, Dropbox most prominently, allow you to share files.

But Apple’s implementation of all these features stands out for its simplicity and ease of use. Take the Instant Hotspot feature. When you go to your Mac’s Wi-Fi drop-down menu to choose an Internet connection, you’ll see your phone listed as a way to connect if your phone is near your computer. There is usually no setup and no password required; just select the option and you’re off, your computer now connecting to the Internet through your phone.

Apple’s integration efforts hold a lot of promise for easing one of the most difficult challenges of the digital age: managing the transition among the different screens we encounter on a daily basis.

Still, I was a little crestfallen at how well it worked. I don’t want to have to go all in on a single ecosystem. But Apple’s beautiful prison might be too comfortable to resist.

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