Apps are Apple's Achilles' heel

Apple's failure to properly target its apps is a major liability in the new platform war

Apple has neglected its iWork suite of office productivity apps -- Pages, Numbers, and Keynote -- for half a decade. So when Apple CEO Tim Cook said in September that a new version was finally coming to the Mac, as well as to iOS, users were happy. But that new version quickly angered Mac fans as it dropped a bunch of functionality to be more like the iOS version, which was improved over its predecessor. And we all had to ask: Why does OS X have to suffer for iOS to succeed? Doesn't Apple get that these apps need to get much better?

Eighteen months earlier, Apple released Final Cut Pro X, a new version of its industry-standard video-editing software used by all the Hollywood studios and effects houses that dropped a lot of pro functionality, creating a huge outcry among one of Apple's most loyal user segments -- and one of the industries that served as an ethusiastic poster boy for Apple. Although Apple decided to bring back the old version, today it has largely lost the professional video-editing market (Adobe Premiere has supplanted it) after wounding those users too deeply. It made sense to treat iMovie as the movie editor for the rest of us and Final Cut Pro as the movie editor for Hollywood pros; it didn't make sense to cripple Final Cut Pro X to target ... I don't who, maybe film students?

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These apps reflect what I call Apple's Goldilocks problem: Some are too much, some are too little, and few are just right. When it comes to apps, Apple isn't getting the right fit.

Likewise, it didn't make sense in 2005 to target iWork to Microsoft's negotiators rather than to users. And it certainly didn't make sense in 2013 to make iWork less capable on the desktop than it had been, even if Apple's stated reason (compatibility across all version) is to be believed. If anything, the goal should have been to make iWork for Mac an Office-killer, taking advantage of Microsoft's bloatware flaws in Office 2013 and its lack of a good office product for non-Windows devices. Yes, iWork for iOS should have been improved, but it should not have defined the Mac version's functional ceiling. I guess we're lucky that Apple didn't use iWork for the Web as the compatibility ceiling. Although it's a very slick Web app, it's a shadow of the real thing, especially in its poor support for key metadata, such as styles and revisions tracking.

Apple should have focused on making each version "just right." And it should have focused on document portability. Portability is a big deal, and Apple is usually bad at it. For example, iTunes playlists were only recently made compatible across OS X and iOS in iTunes, photo albums remain incompatible across the iOS and OS X versions of iPhoto, groups don't work the same way between iOS and OS X for Mail and Contacts, and there are similar gaps across iOS and OS X for GarageBand and iMovie.

A history of mainly mediocrity
Apple's track record in the world of apps has been uneven for years, sending the clear message that the apps are the redheaded stepchildren for the media, computer, and mobile giant. Those of us who followed Apple in the 1990s remember the on-again, off-again commitments to Apple Works and FileMaker (later spun off into its own company, still owned by Apple, where it has thrived in its niche). Even after Steve Jobs' reinvention of Apple in the early 2000s, that conflicted relationship has persisted.

But not completely. iMovie and iPhoto on the Mac are key apps for most home users, bringing unprecedented functionality and ease of use for activities that have long had terrible apps from dozens of companies, both no-namers and marquees like Adobe Systems. Apple's Mail and Calendar apps for OS X have improved dramatically in recent years, making Microsoft Outlook unnecessary for most Mac users. It's true that Apple's large set of included apps in OS X and iOS are far better than what Microsoft and Google provide on their platforms, even though Microsoft's paid apps rule both Windows and OS X,, and Google's many services (and some apps like Chrome and Maps) are widely used on many platforms.

Still, Apple's track record with software has been half-hearted. When Apple reinvented the dormant Apple Works as iWork in 2005, the intent seemed to be to create a backup option in case Microsoft stopped producing Office for Mac. You might recall that a key part of the 1997 deal betwen Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple's just-returned Steve Jobs was a five-year commitment to developing Office for Mac, a must-have for Apple to have any hope for business use, even if just for work-at-home use. Once that deal expired, Microsoft's public commitment waffled, and Apple needed both a backup and a stick in its Microsoft relationship. Microsoft continued to develop Office for the Mac, though always with inferior capabilities, given its need to hedge its bets both in terms of where the PC growth was and to fend off antitrust regulators.

iWork started with not much focus on its users' needs, but the 2008 version was a major leap forward and began to suggest that Apple could develop a world-class office suite of its own. Then it came out with a minor update a year later and ... that's it, until this year.

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