The Tweet That Ruined A Former Apple Designer's Weekend [Updated, With Response]

Apple-rot is setting in in the post-Steve era. That's the takeaway from some recent attention-grabbing headlines.

Apple's cheeky little TV set-top-box got an update recently, both to hardware and its software—which switched from a simple, attractive linear UI to a more grid-like setup. No news there, you may think. Oh, but how wrong you would be! 

See, late Friday ex-Apple designer Michael Margolis tweeted "Fun fact—those new designs were tossed out 5 years ago because SJ didn't like them. Now there is nobody to say "no" to bad design." In a brief discussion, he went on to say he also didn't like the "top-bar-navigation on the app store UI" and noted that the new Apple TV UI "makes me cry." His word carries weight because he was formerly an Apple engineer responsible for implementing "much of the Apple TV 2.0 UI."

Cue an enormous fuss about how Apple's going to lose its way now Steve isn't there to exert his famous iron-hard will onto almost every design and engineering decision—right down to the color of icons. Apple is, if you believe the hype, about to lose its hard-won grip and slip into doom and chaos.

Well, okay, perhaps it won't be that bad. But an accusation that Apple will lose its way, even if only slightly, indicates that perhaps further down the road it'll end up making some very poor decisions on direction and end up being lost. And that, dear investor, is likely to make certain classes of shareholder a bit nervous.

Thank goodness, then, that Margolis chose to react to the story and add in that most crucial element of any conversation: Context. In a comment on The Next Web's article he added that the Apple TV wasn't designed by Apple design guru Jony Ive, instead coming from one "very talented" designer on the consumer apps team, and that most of the UI actually "remains unchanged since Apple TV 'take 2.'" Furthermore, "that's a testament to how good it was. Great design is timeless," and the redesign actually shouldn't be a surprise to anyone because of Apple's overt push to marry the look and feel of their products. The new UI is thus just more iOS-esque, and while Jobs didn't like the original grid-like array "this was before the iPhone was popular and before the iPad even existed" to champion the iOS grid pattern.

The changes to the UI are in line with Apple policy, and even if they're not to the personal taste of Margolis, he still thinks they're great, and they were "tossed out" by Jobs all those years ago because iOS hadn't happened as a global phenomenon to radically shake up his thinking. This fuss doesn't even dim the prospects of a future Apple television system, because we know Jobs was involved in this project, and it could be a radical departure even from the current TV UI because Jobs thought he'd "cracked it." There are even a clutch of recent patents that support this line of thinking.

In fact the real story here is that Apple is simply following its own plan. Carefully. It's not foolishly dipping back to the past and choosing certain directions that were perhaps suppressed by Jobs, in a dictatorial way. Instead it's actually consolidating its hardware designs, aligning them and taking the strengths of one component and applying them to another. That's not the mark of a firm that's lost.

We can, however, wonder what prompted Margolis to adjust his position on the matter so carefully. Simple surprise may have played a big part of it. (We've asked him via Twitter and Facebook to comment; will update the post when we hear back.) Margolis was simply stating his opinion—design isn't ever a black-and-white matter, and even an ex-Apple designer can disagree with an Apple design decision. His tweets since the news hit suggest that he was hoping for a quiet weekend but then he did something to "accidentally move markets. Whoops." Seeing his name everywhere online also prompted some escapism from him—he took his dog for a walk and tweeted about that instead. We can understand this. Apple is such a big firm it prompted writers to connect Margolis' opinon-led postion "A" to a speculative Apple mistake "B"...and then follow through to a "Z" where Apple fails in the future because Jobs isn't at the helm. Feeling like this is your fault must've been tough.

And you know, it actually is possible—even likely—that Apple will fail one day. Because failure is always an option. Hard to imagine but Apple will, at some point, make a misstep and neither its relentless iMomentum nor iCash will suffice to help save it. It will miss the cutting edge of a new tech, it will get embroiled in complex legal case that impacts its business, it will totally misunderstand the demands of the majority of the tech-buying public, or make a design decision that is shockingly poor. In short, Apple will lose its iShine. Just not yet.

Update: Michael Margolis was kind enough to respond to our query and provide his unique insight on the story. 

This just in: Someone doesn't like something, complains about it on Twitter. News at 11. Tweets can move markets.
A single unsubstantiated out-of-context quote can completely change investor & customer confidence in a company, especially when the company is Apple. If people are forming opinions, I'd prefer they were formed with context and based on reality rather than conjecture. I may not be a journalist but I hold myself accountable and take responsibility for what I say - even replies on Twitter. NextWeb posted a story without providing context and made damning assumptions about Apple that were incorrect. It would be irresponsible for me to not provide some clarification and corrections at the source, especially at the rate it was spreading. A stitch in time saves nine.

Hence we understand his calm response: It was born of a genuine desire to set the story straight after his opinion was taken wildly out of context to draw false conclusions about Apple.

[Image: Flickr user El Alvi]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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2 Comments

  • LukeK

    While the language around the design has changed, it doesn't negate the fact that what works for handheld devices doesn't necessarily work for a 10ft ui. It's one thing to go from a 3.5" screen to a 9.7" screen, which many critics were initially quick to point out as awkward, but I doubt this will feel as natural as the handheld members of the apple family. 

    If there's any take away from this, it's that Apple can sell this product regardless of it's ugly interface - the price point and the Apple brand alone are enough to move this product. This seems to be a lazy attempt at creating a consistency amongst their devices, and the current UI only strengthen's the company's long held position that this device is still a hobby.