Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Apple simplicity myth -- iTunes/iOS upgrade is a kludge

The Macintosh was the first affordable personal computer with a graphical user interface (GUI). Doug Engelbart invented the GUI and Xerox refined it at their Palo Alto Research Center, but they could not make an affordable machine with a GUI -- the Xerox Star failed. The first time Apple tried (the Lisa), they also failed, but the Macintosh succeeded. The Mac embodied creative hardware and software design and was a significant innovation. The early Macs were underpowered, but they were much simpler to use than DOS PCs and could run unique applications.

That innovation earned Apple their ease of use reputation, but the world has caught up. Today, Apple's ease of use advantage is a myth. Computers are complex devices and Apple is fully capable of building kludges. Let me give you an example.

Yesterday I installed the NBC Olympic Games app on my wife's iPad -- the tablet that is so simple your Mom could use it.

Maybe, if she had a degree in computer science.

I will give you the step by frustrating step account of the process below, but the bottom line is that it took about two hours, several nervous moments and several trips to Google because I had to upgrade iOS and install a new version of iTunes before installing the app.

I think my wife is a typical iPad user. She likes it, but has not upgraded anything since the day she got it. I can imagine thousands of folks just like her trying to install that Olympic app and either giving up or zapping their iPads.

As you see below, it is a daunting task and far from self-explanatory.

Perhaps the saddest part is that the process is obscure. Two computers are involved -- why? What is the data flow between them? What happens when I click a button? Dealing with technology you do not understand is alienating. It makes you nervous and forces you to rely on others.

Intented or not, the "simple" iPad/iTunes design seems to be a good way to keep customers paying for extended support contracts and making visits to the "geniuses" who work in Apple stores.

Well, enough of that. Here is the step by step account of my installation of the NBC Olympic games app:
  • I found the app in the App Store, but when I tried to install it, an alert box told me that it required iOS 5. I suspect that my wife is typical of iPad users -- she was using the verison of iOS that came with the machine.
  • No big deal, it just said to plug the iPad into a PC or Mac and follow the upgrade instructions. <snarky aside> I can upgrade my Windows PC without plugging into an iPad </snarky aside>.
  • I plugged it in and tried to upgrade, but then it told me I needed iTunes version 10.4 or better on my laptop to upgrade iOS on the iPad.
  • After a bit of hunting around, I found the iTunes upgrade button and clicked on it, but nothing happened. No user interface feedback.
  • So, I fired up a Web browser and downloaded iTunes from Apple.com. The file was huge and it took what seemed like about half an hour to download and install it.
  • Once that was done, I started the install, only to be told that my wife had purchases that would be lost if I did not move them to the library. Not being an iTunes user, I did not understand that, so had to go to Google to see what "library" they were talking about and how to move things to it.
  • I moved her purchases to the library, then started the update. Things went well for a while, but when I came back half an hour later to see what was up, I found this error message:
    An error occurred while backing up this iPad (-54). Would you like to continue to update this iPad? Continuing will result in the loss of all contents on this ipad.
  • That error message made me nostalgic -- it reminded me of the blue screen of death.
  • Another trip to Google ensued, and I learned from various threaded discussions that others had seen good old error 54 and there was no consensus on what it meant or what to do about it.
  • At that point, I did what any 17th century witch doctor would have done, I rebooted things and started the install again.
  • It worked!
  • But, wait, the iPad "bookshelf" was empty and the issues of the New Yorker and Economist my wife had downloaded for a trip were gone.
  • I plugged the iPad back into the PC and it tried to synch. Nothing much seemed to be happening, then it told me it could not find some file, so it could not synch photos. That was fine with me because I did not want her photos on my laptop.
  • But, when I went back to the iPad, the bookshelf was stocked once again. The New Yorker app asked me if I wanted to re-download the back issues, and the Economist app had developed amnesia and asked me if I would like to subscribe.
  • When I went back to my laptop, I discovered a lot of new cruft had been left there by iTunes -- tons of directories each containing a single file.