Apple’s second mile

I think of Apple as a company that cares deeply about the end user experience, the physical product and the on-screen experience they create. Both the late Apple cofounder and many others involved in the process have viewed Apple as a “final mile” company.

The term final mile refers to the final push of putting together disparate forms of technology and packaging it all together in a seamless and easily understandable, unbreakabe and simple package for the customer. Most of these final mile technologies are clearly tangible and often visible: the display, the interface of an app, the design of the physical product, the choices of materials, packaging, the speed of the hardware.

However, there is a second class of disparate forms of technology that are becoming increasingly hard to control. I often think of these pieces of technology and services that need to be conformed to serve the final product as the second-last mile. The most obvious example would be cloud based services.

These second-last mile technologies are not very visible to the end user, one cannot see the underlying code base of an application but can understand the look and feel based on the design of the user interface. Many users have zero knowledge or care about whats happeneing under the surface in regards to traditional software.

As connectivity becomes a crucial if not necessary part of the future of software, more people become aware of some sort of background or behind the scenes underworkings of their software and unexpected behaviour can be blamed on the remote end of the exchange: the Internet side of things. This area of cloud based technology has to work as predictably and effortlessly as if it were local. The penalties for not doing so result in frustration and a lack of trust on behalf of the customer. Apple has yet to build the sort of “cloud trust” that someone like Google has based their entire company on. The argument also stands that Google is becoming better at traditional design more quickly than Apple is becoming better at “big data”.

When a user invokes an action in a traditional application, most if not all of the variables that can cause an undesired outcome reside locally and may be easily predicted or understood. Is Final Cut Pro moving at a snails pace? Close the 50 tabs in your browser to free up local memory. Aperture behaving oddly? Probably because your machine is years past what would be considered a minimum specification to run the program. Maybe free up some space on your hard drive while you’re at it.

However, repeat the same scenario in a tightly controlled cloud based situation and it becomes far less simple to trace. Open tabs failing to sync between your iOS devices? Did you close your macbook before the sync completed? Does your macbook have the powernap feature to negate this? How do you find out? Is that even the problem or is the cloud service just slow to respond? Opened a document in iA Writer and waiting for the new revision to sync down? Is it syncing the right version? Is my LTE connection on my iPad poor? Is it a problem with the App or with icloud itself?

Before, one could point their finger to a number of local variables as to why their favourite program was behaving poorly or slowly. Now, as crucial elements of an application are moved off of a device and into the cloud those elements become much harder to predict and understand. The result is that it becomes much easier to point a finger and blame the creators of the service for the poor or unpredicable performance of an app, or in the case of Apple who owns both the local device and the service the blame becomes easier to pass. Worse yet, assuming a user has no knowledge of their app being cloud based (why should they?), any unwanted behaviour is now blamed on the local device itself and by association, iCloud.

In a way Eddie Cue, Apples new cloud guy, has a monumental task ahead of him. As the reasons why a service doesn’t “just work” become increangly hard to understand so too does the level of frustration when things arent happening as they should.

This is why it is doubly important Apple focus on getting “big data” right just as they’ve become masters of design. The future is in thinner and thinner clients and devices which offload more and more of their critical functions to the cloud and if Apple wants to provide an extremely polished last mile experience, they need to be masters of the connected mile before that.

If Apple were to suffer the same fate they did at the hands of Microsoft in the 90’s it will be because the quality of final mile products from competitors who specialize in second last mile services will be good enough that most customers won’t care. This is not a scenario I’m looking forward to.