Last Week on My Mac: Loose ends and details

There’s a popular misconception that lucrative and successful companies are more lavish in their use of resources, thus their products are more ‘complete’ than those of firms that are struggling. According to that, now that Apple is huge, highly profitable, and relatively stable, its software should be more robust, and better finished.

The evidence that I have seen this week, as I have been getting to grips with such basic matters such as the delivery of software tools and help for macOS, says otherwise.

The flaws in turning a product into an installer and creating good help documentation are not shortcomings in engineering. Just like the flaws which remain in macOS Sierra, they are largely the result of inadequate investment in finishing off: product testing, debugging, packaging and presentation, and documentation. Some of those are functions that Apple was far better at when it was smaller, and verging on bankruptcy.

What Apple should provide in the way of installer support is simple. Quite correctly, Installer packages which run in Sierra should be properly signed. Recognising that there is still (and always will be) a need to deliver apps and tools which are not suitable for its App Store, Apple needs to provide a simple means of generating signed Installer packages from within Xcode.

Apple won’t do this, because the time and human resources required cannot be justified against other profit-generating projects. If someone is developing a command tool – which by definition is unsuitable for the App Store – then they are highly unlikely to be doing something which will help to develop any of Apple’s revenue streams.

Once its basic tools to enable the creation of signed Installer packages, in this case the command tool pkgbuild, are sufficiently complete to make it possible to do this, there will be little point in making further investments to integrate it into Xcode’s functions, and no incentive to fund its documentation beyond a basic man file.

It’s a callous decision, but so long as there are plenty of third-party apps selling through the App Store, there’s no good business reason to spend any more money on that project.

The situation is much the same with respect to the authoring of Help Books. The larger developers, whose products are important to the sales of Macs, have developed their own tools, purchased third-party systems, or contracted others to create their help systems. Investing in bringing the documentation for Apple Help up to date has no chance of any return to Apple, and providing its own HAT (help authoring tool), or HAT support for an app such as Pages or iBooks Author, would at best be cost-neutral.

There is a bigger and longer-term picture, though, which Apple needs to consider. It links with hardware updates, and appeal to the high end of the market, in particular creative professionals.

Since their launch, Macs have set many new standards which have resulted in their strong appeal to creatives. Over the last few years, Apple’s tighter focus on design and development which has more immediate prospects of return has lost it leadership in areas which were previously great strengths.

An obvious example is in the use of touchscreens for laptop or desktop computers. I know, and I hope that I have convinced you, that touchscreens are an illusory benefit which, in the fullness of time, we will move away from because of their fundamental flaws. I think that Apple is correct in not rushing touchscreen Macs to market in order to be seen to compete against Microsoft (and others), and that it is much better to develop new input and interaction models which are more likely to succeed, and become enduring and signature products.

Apple could, if it had chosen to invest more of its enormous wealth, have arrived at serious competition for the touchscreen before now. It could equally already be offering us better, faster, and more capable Macs. It could also have been sweetening developers by providing them better tools for making Installer packages and superb Help Books.

The worrying thing is that – with a few exceptions, such as its investment in Swift and the Apple Watch, for example – Apple’s management has fairly consistently opted to maximise immediate profit, instead of backing longer-term goals. This doesn’t make Apple doomed in the slightest, but demonstrates that its corporate vision is now dominated by profit rather than any higher ideals on the future of computing.

It is good that Apple seems to have curbed some of the errors of the past which led to costly waste. But Apple will be judged less by that than by its continuing ability to surprise us with the new, the revelatory, and the enabling – which have also become less frequent.