It’s not always sunny in Cupertino: How one botched app predicts a cloudy future

apple podcasts app ios phoneSteve Jobs left Apple’s best and brightest in charge when declining health forced his retirement from the company in August 2011. Though many are quite talented and effective, none of them are Steve Jobs. Now, less than a year later, we may be seeing the first symptoms of Jobs’ absence from Cupertino. In the Post-Steve era, each new fumble is cause for concern — to both fanboys and the market.

Apple’s podcasts app

I finally got around to installing Apple’s new Podcasts iOS app last week. I was not impressed by what I found. With its terrible performance issues and questionable design decisions, I couldn’t help but agree with Jay Yarow’s assessment that the app was “horrifically bad.

Someone at Apple must agree. Just a month after the app’s release, Apple on Wednesday issued an update delivering “significant improvements to performance and stability.” While this was a step in the right direction, the app’s ugly design remains a problem.

Apple’s Podcasts app should never have seen release. That it did has me questioning Apple in a way I don’t think I would have during the Steve Jobs era.

Apple without Jobs

An under-delivering Podcasts application may seem like a minor thing. But it’s also a concern for two reasons.

First, we have come to expect far better user experience from Apple. Remember, Apple has always made its hay producing excellent user experiences. After Jobs’ return to Apple, it came to dominate personal media players by delivering a more polished, cohesive product than their competition. The iPod was easier to add music to, easier to play music from, and, in general, offered a less frustrating, more enjoyable experience than the competition. Maybe it’s Apple’s long history of dominance in this field that makes the Podcasts app such a concern.

It feels to me that the Podcasts app never would have seen the light of day in the Jobs era. Jobs had such a mania for delivering great products that his attention to detail extended to every aspect of the experience. Apple’s Podcasts app would have never gotten by him. If this had come across Jobs’ desk, he wouldn’t just have rejected the app, he would have done so with extreme prejudice.

That’s the second reason the Podcasts app is a concern: There was no one within Apple that said “no” to it. Absent Steve Jobs, there may not be anyone within Apple with the cross-divisional power to say “no” when a powerful team produces this kind of garbage. Though there are candidates for this type of “User Experience Czar” role, none have been officially anointed by Apple as the “successor to Steve.”

Jobs’ possible successors

The freshly-knighted Sir Jonathan Ive, who Jobs often lunched with and described as his “spiritual partner,” may be the executive Jobs would have favored for that role. Ive, however, is more industrial than interactive designer, and the demands of his current role likely mean that Ive cannot pick up additional work. And industrial design is so critical to Apple that promoting Ive out of that role would be verboten. Apple’s products must continue to be beautiful, so Ive must continue to make them so.

tim cook scott forstall jonathan ive apple ceo successors What Apple needs is an Ive-level talent overseeing interaction. Apple’s SVP of iOS Software Scott Forstall is the member of senior management seemingly most suitable. Forstall has sometimes been described as Apple’s “CEO in waiting” (amongst more colorful epithets). However, his oversight of iOS Software means Forstall is directly responsible for the team that produced the steaming pile of garbage that is Apple’s Podcasts app. That he either approved Podcasts or let it slip through indicates that he may not have the fine eye for design that Jobs brought to the CEO role.

Jobs’ actual successor

Note — I didn’t mention Tim Cook as a possible User Experience Czar. Though Steve Jobs’ actual successor, Cook will never be Jobs’ spiritual successor.

Cook is a brilliant man, and a terrific CEO for Apple — for the next several years, at least. As Apple’s operations genius, Cook is a terrific choice to lead Apple during this phase of its history. He doesn’t have to be a product genius. With the iPhone, iPod, iPad, and the Mac line, Apple already has the best products (countdown to getting flamed for this claim in the comments, 3-2-1-GO).

Since Apple has the best products, it doesn’t need new products. Instead, Apple needs to iteratively improve the products it has to stay ahead, manufacture more of those products to meet greater demand, and increase efficiency in production and distribution to fatten profit margins. Those tasks, especially the second and third, play directly to Cook’s strengths. The first can be left to the other thousands of geniuses that Apple employs. Therefore, today, as Apple works to bring its products from popularity to ubiquity, Cook is the perfect CEO. (Well, probably.)

apple rumored tvAlso, don’t forget that there has long been rumored to be one last great Steve Jobs product — likely a Retina-display, Siri-enabled Apple television — in the works. That and Apple’s other products should keep the company growing under Cook while Jobs’ while it awaits Jobs’ true successor.

Apple with Jobs

Of course, Apple wasn’t without blunder during Jobs’ reign. I’m writing this column as a fairly satisfied iPhone 4 owner. My phone lives in a plastic case, half to protect the phone and half so that the phone doesn’t drop calls when I hold it improperly.

We largely forgave things like Antennagate because Steve Jobs had a history of delivering great things and dealing with issues quickly and effectively. When Apple did wrong, we viewed it in the context of those earlier successes.

Though anecdotal evidence shows that Cook has the toughness to address problems when they arise, he doesn’t yet have the same public reputation as CEO of Apple. That’s why people like me freak out when Apple releases a crummy Podcasts app, and why the rest of the Internet freaks out when Apple misses its earnings estimates.

It is encouraging that Apple is addressing the Podcasts app’s issues. But, until Apple delivers some wins in the Tim Cook era, blunders like it will continue to be causes for concern.