Why Apple is just plain mediocre in web services

By , Nov 22, 2012

Recently, a pattern has begun taking shape that I fear signals something worryingly awful is afoot as excellence takes a back seat at Apple in favor of mediocre web services. It’s always been that way, critics might add. Indeed, here we are, at the end of 2012, and yet weekly outages of key iCloud services such as iMessage and FaceTime are still a norm rather than a rare exception.

While iCloud storm is raining on users, Apple seemingly struggles in figuring out how to sprinkle its magic dust on Internet software. With over half a billion iOS and Mac devices straining its data centers, something clearly had to give. The iPhone maker isn’t an isolated example: competitors experience outages, too. But Apple’s different in that its online woes are symptomatic of a much larger set of problems the company faces.

Cupertino’s infrastructure is lacking. For all the computational power its array of super data centers provide, Apple’s software underpinnings are outdated and increasingly incapable of handling high load. Software shortcomings are putting Apple at risk at a time when competitors like Google tap their massive scale and expertise to successfully marry hardware to Internet software in ways Apple cannot…

But don’t take my word for it.

Enter former Apple engineer Patrick B. Gibson, the guy who helped build the original iPad, now an engineer at Tilde.

In a blog post, Gibson offers several data points to support his thesis that Apple’s only begun dipping its toes into the hot waters of advanced web services:

• Apple can’t update its online store without taking it offline first.
• A popular Game Center game was able to bring down the entire network.
• Apple requires you to re-friend everyone on Game Center, Find my Friends, and Shared Photostreams.
• Notes requires an email account to sync.
• The iTunes and App Stores are still powered by WebObjects, a mostly dead framework written almost 20 years ago.
• iMessage for Mac lives in an alternate dimension in which time has no ordered sequence.
Ping.

Gibson’s unapologetic in his critique of a former employer, bluntly suggesting that “almost everything that Apple does that involves the Internet is a mess”.

He hit the nail on the head, didn’t he?

Apple’s lackluster web skills stems from its inability to recruit best engineers for the job. It’s not like Silicon Valley’s brightest web engineers are falling over themselves to land a job at Apple.

Instead, these folks go work for hip startups like Twitter and Facebook.

That’s why Apple should buy Twitter, Gibson opines:

Where Apple falls short, Twitter flies. Not only does Twitter use some of the most advanced web technology, they invented it. They own scale. They know how to send hundreds of thousands of tweets a minute. Further, Twitter is social network with values that (used to) reflect Apple: focus and simplicity.

Apple should buy Twitter not for its social network, but for its talent and technology. That talent and technology could undoubtably help bring Apple and iCloud into the 21st century. The social network is basically an added bonus.

While I agree that Apple is a mediocre cloud player, buying Twitter – as Gibson and others are proposing – is a band-aid solution and here’s why.

Apple’s inexperience and baby steps in online services have cost them reputation (MobileMe, much?). And as design tools nowadays are readily available to anyone, Apple finds itself at grave risk because competitors like Amazon, Google and Microsoft are getting better and better at designing compelling gadgets.

To illustrate the point, Gibson cites his co-worker who observes Google’s getting better at design/hardware faster than Apple is at cloud/services. I couldn’t agree more.

It’s really frustrating that Apple – even with all the web services advancements like iCloud – still is is ill-prepared to challenge Google. MobileMe was a terrible mess. Siri was nice until Google fired back with Google New and an updated Search app with Voice Search.

And if anything, the Apple Maps adventure has proved that club Cupertino has a long way to go before it can challenge Google on its own turf. One can only partially blame the hardware side of Apple’s cloud infrastructure.


Apple’s $1 billion data center in Maiden, North Carolina.

As you know, in addition to the iCloud data center in North Carolina, Apple also operates advanced computational facilities in Prineville, Oregon and Newark, California.

The firm is also building a new facility in the New Territories region of Hong Kong, near the Shenzhen China border, and planning another one in Reno, Nevada. Analysts happen to think that additional super data centers will crop up all over the world as Apple seeks to build a 21st-century broadcast network.

None of that will change the fact that the software at the heart of iCloud cannot compete with what the Googles, Amazons and Microsofts of this world are doing right now. Pointing the finger of blame at Eddy Cue, Apple’s “Mr. Fixer” and SVP of Internet Software and Services, is all too easy.

Cue’s job description basically encompasses everything Internet-related, per Apple’s Leadership page:

Eddy oversees Apple’s industry-leading content stores including the iTunes Store, the revolutionary App Store and the iBookstore, as well as Siri, Maps, iAd and Apple’s innovative iCloud services.

Eddy’s team has an excellent track record of building and strengthening online services to meet and exceed the high expectations of Apple’s customers.

The executive was charged with fixing Maps and Siri only recently, after Apple’s boss fired iOS head Scott Forstall on October 29.

Frankly speaking, if I were Eddy Cue I’d focus on the performance of Apple’s data centers and the architecture of the underlying web software rather than waste precious time sitting on other companies’ boards.

Despite all of the shortcomings, Apple – for better or worse – sure knows how to sell iCloud to the masses, don’t they?

I could watch this ad over and over again.

Now, don’t get me wrong, iCloud out-innovates Google with in-app features like Documents in the Cloud and full device backups. But Apple’s web services overall are in a disarray.

And with issues like Maps and Siri dashing hope that Apple can beat Google on the web services front in the near future, I wonder whether and its users are becoming the victims of de-Googlification of iOS as its offensive cloud strides leave a lot to be desired.

I’d be interested in hearing your opinion down in the comments.

Is Apple’s problematic approach to web service gonna cost them dearly?

Will Apple’s problems with Internet services ultimately trigger Eddy Cue’s downfall?

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  • http://twitter.com/BUSfromRUS Alexander Bus

    You’re plain mediocre.

    • CollegiateLad

      Agreed!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1572956871 Ben Tindall

    Sounds correct. Although a somewhat, not 100%, loyal ~usual~ Apple supporter…

    Apples whole ethos around not having to update before the market is crying for it needs to be refreshed, as what was once their controlling factor may present the death of them. Other options are becoming more and more justifiable and cheaper. Although i still conclude that apples integration of unified services is by far the simplest and most user friendly, people wont wait anymore now there are alternatives. The “cool” innovation in which we wait for doesn’t, based around the last few releases, have the ‘p-zaz’ in which there older ‘revolutionary’ products have.

    For their technology, the dual core CPU is keeping up with the quad core guys and graphics are ahead of the heard but you have to wonder, why are they holding back? Ok it gives them future marketing opportunities one of the main reasons for no retina display in the iPad mini, as its an upgrade point to the mini 2, an obvious marketing strategy. This applies to any company, you can guarantee that they have the iPhone 6-7 or SGS4-5 already planned out, heck the original iPad had a patent out for its design before the first iPhone was announced, just waiting for technology to catch up.

    In summary, they need to stop playing ‘hard-to-get’ and start to open up. But from a buisness perspective, especially with cook leading them, i can see why they are still at this point.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bret.morgan.7 Bret Morgan

      You nailed Ben!

  • Dan

    I have to agree with this article. I tried to love iCloud but it always seemed too awkward for me. The iCloud email is simply awful, it’s laggy and lacks most of the useful tools found in gmail. Half the time, iCloud would not sync the pictures to my PC, so I ended up using dropbox. The online calendar doesn’t cut it for me either. I mostly avoid iCloud now and use alternatives that do the same job more efficiently.

    • Obsidian71

      People still use email?

      • Dan

        Yes we do

  • http://www.destroypixels.com/ Nicolas Arteaga

    I don’t know if it’s just me, but iMessage always work well for me, I moved out from whatsapp because of that.

    My only complaint is that is completely impossible to access my iCloud account from another iDevice that I don’t own. It just shows the “Set up iCloud on this device” page. Plain stupid.

    • Infone

      Just sign in your iTunes account.

      • http://www.destroypixels.com/ Nicolas Arteaga

        That’s not the point, imagina that you lost your iPhone on a trip. You don’t have a laptop nearby, and you want to use Find my iPhone. You can borrow other’s iPhone. For me, it’s reasonable to go to the browser and be able to use that feature from here. Just like the Facebook website works as fine as the app. And youtube works the same exact way. Why iCloud can’t work that way?

    • http://www.facebook.com/bibekghim Bibek Ghimire

      iMessage on iPhones, iPods, and iPads is fine. But when you try continuing a conversation on your Mac, that’s when time loses it’s order and everything just gets messed up.

      • http://www.destroypixels.com/ Nicolas Arteaga

        Actually that’s why I ditched Whatsapp and upgraded my laptop and my work computer to Mountain Lion. Messages work seamlessly, and I can switch back and forth with my iPhone with no problem.

  • http://twitter.com/R_Athie RODRIGO ΛTHIÉ 

    I’m afraid I have to agree to this entry. I am unable to leave Whatsapp because iMessage delays too much to deliver and retrieve messages. Facetime sometimes work and sometimes it doesn’t. :( I hope Apple is working something fast because some Apple users – me included – are dissapointed.

  • http://policydiary.com/ John S. Wilson

    There is definitely work to be done and I think it’s getting better. Scale is very hard when you’re dealing with millions of new users every month. Buying Twitter is a horrible idea. 1) it wouldn’t assist them in what they need, and if it could it wouldn’t do it quickly enough. 2) Twtter is down more than iCloud.

    • Blake

      AMEN!

  • Nizar

    I don’t know about others, but with me everything works Great n Seamlessly.

    “it just works”

  • http://twitter.com/iPod_touch Jordan Dixon

    God I hate you

  • djr12

    Agree and disagree. It’s no longer possible to say “it just works” about Apple’s stuff, and the failures of their cloud services are no small part of that. iMessage and FaceTime have been down far too often lately. The mechanisms for indicating system problems to the users are practically non-existent. iTunes Match is frankly a bit of a joke, poorly designed and deteriorating rather than improving with each iteration. Apple’s vision of doing away with file management by pushing people to cloud-stored documents is impractical and doomed to failure. There is a ton of room for improvement.

    However, that said, Google is hardly a paragon of smooth, problem-free services. I’ve divested myself of using their e-mail because I can’t rely on it getting through. (Arguments that Google’s webmail interface is more robust fall on deaf ears with me — why in heaven would anybody use a webmail interface unless they were forced to? Horrible stuff across the board.) Google Drive is a joke compared to Dropbox. Google Voice is a confusing mess. FaceTime and iMessages have had their problems, but Google has nothing even close to matching them.

    I’d argue the opposite of this article. Apple is clearly experiencing growing pains with their services, but I suspect that they can scale up and improve that experience with time, even including Maps. But Google are a bunch of engineers who wouldn’t know a functional design if it elegantly slid unobtrusively under their noses. Beyond “here’s a box: type your search term,” everything they’ve ever designed has been an ugly hot mess, and I don’t see any signs of that changing anytime soon.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1595420643 Simche Apple Konstantinovic

      With Retina Mac, It truly does “just work” and I’m “just sayin’ “

    • Blake

      It really does “just work” Its so easy to use all of their products. They are so simple and straight forward.

  • nima

    maybe apple is planning on something BIG AGAIN

  • Techpm

    I don’t get that guy, he says Apple is mediocre at web services and then suggests the solution is for Apple to buy Twitter?

    Has he never experienced Twitter’s fail whale?

  • Obsidian71

    Chris …Twitter and Facebook have long since passed the point of being Hip. Truth is more resources “do” need to be put into Apple’s backend services. This is where they didn’t do themselves any favors by not investing in Enterprise technology (killing of their Server and RAID systems) they cannot dogfood this with their own tools.

  • http://twitter.com/GameCenterGames Game Center Games

    These are all very interesting points. I have always wondered why everything has to be complicated. Like having to sign up and connect with friends on Game Center and then again in other apps like you said. Why not just one universal login for everything? It would make everything so much easier.

  • http://twitter.com/vueaudio vueaudio

    I use FaceTime, Skype, iMessage, twitter and dropbox daily and have been using apple mail and gmail both since they started. Apple is way ahead of them all except for dropbox. Facetime is consistently better at maintaining communication than Skype (more than 1/2 my Skype calls will not support video for more than a min without degradation. Gmail’s interface is a joke and their Imap support is nowhere near as good as iCloud. Twitter is a simple service that fails more than anything else and it is just dealing with 140 txt messages.
    Dropbox on the other hand is ell designed system that just works.
    Apple is way ahead of the other big guys. And for the record Webobjects is one of the key reasons why Apple web stuff looks better works better and scales better than anything else.

  • iXanczy

    Apple should buy twitter? YES PLEASE ;D

  • Mohammad Ridwan

    iSheeps… iSheeps everywhere…

  • Hyr3m

    Apple should definitely buy Twitter; A useless piece of hipster crap buying an even more useless piece of hipster crap. It makes sense !

    The one and only thing Apple computers were ever good for was their third party graphic designing software. Nowadays graphic designers move away from Apple to get PCs… Just like people who really need a smartphone gradually move to android. I can’t wait for Apple to become nothing more than a sad part of bullshit-computing history (again)!

    • Blake

      How is apple hipster when more than half a billion of people have there products? When they are the most wealthy company ever. When anyone you asks knows what apple is, and knows what iPhone etc. is?

      • Hyr3m

        *THEIR products

        They’re not mutually exclusive you know… And you can jump to whichever conclusion you prefer but if you really want to know then I’ll stick to “I guess a majority of people on this earth are hip-douches, sheep wannabes and other kinds of morons…”. Oh wait… that’s 1/14th of the world’s population so I guess “the majority” isn’t that stupid and your argument isn’t that valid.

  • Blake

    Ive never had an issue with any of my iPhones, iPads, iPods or Mac. Especially with iCloud. They all work seamlessly together. I absolutely love the fluidity of it all.

  • luka

    bok svima