Hard to digest

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Apple needs to make a range of improvements to modernise the operating system that reinvented the smartphone and revolutionised the computer world. In the past six years, the iPhone has played a pivotal role in kickstarting the smartphone revolution and the associated apps economy.

Even if Apple still commands extraordinary profit per unit – the iPhone has extravagant margins and contributes nearly two-thirds of Apple’s profit – the kings of one era are seldom the kings of the next.

Apple has become complacent. Its users are locked into the device and its tightly controlled app ecosystem, which is mostly good and useful. Very few people have the patience to try a new operating system like Android, and many are intolerant of change. This is giving Apple a respite. But the emperor has been wearing less and less clothing.

Apple once had the unassailable high ground. Theirs was the most beloved of gadgets, the thing the cool kids had to be seen with. Now Samsung has stolen that crown, while a rejuvenated Sony has impressed with the Xperia Z, and HTC – despite its innumerable problems – has also wowed with the HTC One.

Apple’s iOS is looking decidedly aged and long in the tooth. Many of the mutterings about the new iOS due to be announced on June 10 at the annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco have focused on the only tangible thing to emerge from the rumour mill that precedes any Apple event: that there will be improvements to this operating system. And of course, that a few sexy devices will be shown. It’s Apple, after all, and such events have a “one more thing” formula.

The key problem, perhaps, is that of keeping users locked into Apple apps and not allowing them to use the other better and more useful alternatives. Maps is a case in point. Until Apple created its own app last year, the default was the superb service produced by Google. Apple’s product was labelled Mapplegate after it debuted with wild inaccuracies, and this debacle forced new CEO Tim Cook to make a grovelling public apology.

Then there is the unmitigated disaster that is iCloud. Designed originally to be a cloud-based service to keep the various Apple devices up to date with the latest contacts, appointments and photos, it is beyond useless. Steve Jobs infamously publicly humiliated the team that worked on the precursor service, MobileMe. Sadly, not much has changed.

Apple’s greatest attribute for many years has been a simple reliability: it just works. No longer. In an age where a smartphone knows where you are and can provide you with additional relevant information, for instance, Apple’s Maps app remains useless.Greater integration with Twitter, Facebook and recently Google + are all good and well, but what about the changing habits of the iOS users? SMS or iMessage may seem like a logical option, but what if someone wants to use WhatsApp or another instant messaging app? Android allows you to choose that. Apple doesn’t. Instead, Apple ramrods users into using its own clumsy apps when better ones exist. There is a distinct difference between such lock-in when the apps work well (such as previous versions of Maps) and when they are bad.

Unfortunately it doesn’t “just work”. It’s become two or three clicks harder to do the simple things. Bring this to a critical mass and users will start migrating away.

This column first appeared on Financial Mail

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