Apple is famous for its elegant design sensibility. The industrial designs of, say, the iPhone 4s, the iPad, the iMac and the MacBook Air are breathtakingly good.
Apple Stores are fantastically well designed, as is the apple.com web site.
So why is Apple increasingly putting fake wood paneling and funky leather trim on its apps?
In the iOS 5, the optional Find My Friends app, which enables you to track family and friends in a similar way as Google Latitude, looks like it was made from a leather craft kit at summer camp. The iCal app offers a similar homey leather look.
A blogger named James Higgs spells it all out in a new post, calling some of the new designs "saccharine," patronizing, "Disney-like," "sinister in their mendacity," a kind of "regressive aesthetic infantilism" that has the "opposite aesthetic sensibility than the plain devices they run on."
I don't know if they're "sinister," but they sure are ugly.
Don't get me wrong. I love the direction of cloud-based everything, where you take a picture on your iPhone, and whomp-there-it-is on the iPad without any effort for the user. I'm as lazy as the next guy.
Unfortunately, iCloud causes more problems than it solves, at least on the phone.
Where to begin? OK, I first noticed this with Siri. It couldn't remember my relations, so after training it to know who my wife and kids were, I would say: "Tell my wife I'll be 10 minutes late." Siri's reply: "I don't know who your wife is. In fact, I don't know who you are."
The reason is that I sync to Google email, calendar and contacts. In order for Siri to remember relations, you need to also sync through iCloud.
People who are all-in with Apple services, and not Google ones, will probably not experience issues with iCloud synching. But for the majority that use Google stuff, the iCloud integration is a problem.
I'm also not sure iCloud even works. I spent hours writing a column the other day on an iMac using Apple's Pages application. Just before I was about to submit it, the Pages app vanished.
It didn't even feel like a crash. It just...vanished.
When I went looking for my column, that was also just gone. And it wasn't on iCloud either. What's the point? I had to re-write the column from scratch.
That's just my experience. I'm told that with a lot of configuration work on every machine, plus a lot of trouble-shooting, you can get iCloud working almost perfectly.
But that's not how it was sold to us.
Before I launch into Siri's problems, let me first say that I love Siri. It's the single best thing about the iPhone 4s, and the sole reason to upgrade to this phone.
Some 80 percent of my interaction with my phone now is via Siri. I send SMS and emails, check my calendar, get the weather, set timers for cooking, set my alarm for waking up in the morning, and answer random questions by simply asking Siri.
The problem is that it's exactly what Apple says it is: an unfinished beta. While Siri is famously uncanny with natural language, it also occasionally stumbles with understanding. Simple questions are often totally misunderstood. And even when they are understood, that understanding isn't always carried over to the action.
Another problem is that so many people are using Siri that the servers are often overloaded. Sometimes Siri just says it can't reach the servers.
After living with iPhone 4s since the morning of its launch, my conclusion and recommendation is that unless you're really excited about Siri, as I am, do not buy this phone.
I'm less concerned about this particular phone, and more concerned with both the ability of Apple to continue its winning streak, and also with the direction of Apple product design and engineering.
The iPhone 4s feels like they chose to release an unfinished product in order to satisfy Wall Street, and used as the main selling point an unfinished virtual assistant they knew people would love anyway.
I just hope the iPhone 5 is a phone I can recommend.