The Thing That's Missing from Apple

- 22 minutes -

As simplistic as it seems, it’s easy to pinpoint exactly the times when Apple’s culture underwent massive shifts. Those times are when either Steve Jobs vacated or occupied the CEO position at Apple. Whenever he was in charge, he personified Apple, and Apple personified his beliefs. Whenever he wasn’t its leader, its direction was (and is) questioned, maybe rightfully so.

It’s been almost five years since Tim Cook took over as CEO, and since then the company has changed immensely. Cook has spearheaded a more inclusive culture, as well as a more environmentally-conscious one, furthering Apple’s already tightly-held principles. We see this manifest itself from pride rallies, to changes or additions to their image (The notions “Inclusion inspires innovation” and Apple being “a force for good” are particular examples, things often said by Cook himself), to increased time dedicated to social, health, and environmental causes in their keynotes. In addition, Cook continues to implement the logistical and operational expertise that got him his previous position, Apple’s COO, alongside Apple’s current COO, Jeff Williams.

These are all welcome changes that I believe were hard-fought by Cook and Apple, and very worthy of fighting for. But this post addresses the things that seemed to disappear from Apple along with Jobs - the things that elicit the tired phrase: “If Steve Jobs were still alive…”.

First we should understand exactly what his roles were at Apple. While both have been CEO at a point in time, Jobs operated very differently than Cook does now, and we can see that the impactful, notable changes that they’ve made (in Cook’s case, continues to make) at the company relate to very different things.

Jobs was known for being two things at Apple: its visionary and communicator. The loss of Jobs vacated these roles, and were never filled or delegated outright since. Perhaps it was Jobs’ own fault for advising against Cook to not follow his footsteps and to forge his own path at Apple — and that’s clearly what he’s doing now. While noble in a way, it left a largely unaddressed void that — while not signalling doom and gloom for Apple by any means — makes it somewhat frustrating knowing how confidently and assuredly Apple presented itself back then; how Jobs presented Apple back then.

Visionary

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he famously scrapped the product portfolio at the time, which consisted of dozens upon dozens of models of computers that Jobs couldn’t tell the differences between. He replaced it with just four product lines, each satisfying a position on a tiny 2 x 2 matrix, like so:

The act of funnelling the number of products Apple were selling at the time to just four main product lines, in itself was crazy. But the fact that this was Jobs’ solution to take Apple out of near bankruptcy made it crazier. Turned out that his product strategy, as simple and as human, or user-centric, as it was, would end up to be absolutely instrumental in orchestrating one of business’s greatest comeback stories that continues to manifest itself today. That’s even crazier.

Why? Because he had a vision and then executed upon it. Same with the first iPod: amidst the criticism it received at the time, his and Apple’s relentless drive to improve it and fulfil their vision led the product from the size of a deck of cards, to something many times smaller the size of that in the iPod nano, all in just four years. Their drive and proficiency for execution exists today, if not more than ever before, but without the vision to work upon, the end result seems to just be another computer.

I’m not saying that today’s iPhones are just another phone, the MacBook is just another laptop, or the iPad is just another tablet. They’re clearly not, they’re the result of Steve’s clear vision and those product lines, among others, benefit from that greatly because Apple is so great at realising that vision. But without a visionary at the helm, I think we’re seeing Apple flounder a bit (emphasis on “a bit”) without someone with such an understanding of technology’s potential for improving the quality of life as Jobs had.

If you’re still not convinced of my point, here’s a thought exercise. Think of a modern equivalent of Jobs’ famous “cars and trucks” analogy, one still referred to and used today (which, I should add, was spawned mostly on a whim while interviewed onstage).

 
 

Has anyone, even from Apple, been able to describe so succinctly the roles of computers at the time? I feel like this is something we need more than ever as technology ventures out into new fields like VR, AR, autonomous vehicles, machine learning, AI, and so forth.

What about the original iPhone introduction? Could you think of anyone today who could’ve said the things he could on stage about the iPhone, even the modern smartphone it helped create, in a way that made it obvious that you would absolutely need it today?

 
 

Communicator

That leads me to address his second big role at Apple: their communicator. You might already have a good idea what I mean from the videos linked above.

What he said onstage and in interviews oftentimes pertained to two main things: design and the user. Design was and is everything at Apple - it’s their central tentpole, often ignored but integral nonetheless. Steve made sure you knew about the lengths they went to achieve their designs. When introducing the iPhone 4, he compared its construction to that of a Leica camera. When introducing the iPad, he consciously had an armchair placed onstage to demonstrate just how the iPad was designed to be used (perhaps also to differentiate it from other iOS devices, having it be more comparable to a magazine or a good book than a “big iPod touch” as it was often accused of being).

With today’s Apple, you get a few comments here and there from Apple’s executives that they still obsess over the minutiae and scrutinisingly think things through, but no one seems to know the fundamental role each product plays. It seems they just know that they can make the best device in its market, and if they work really hard on it, it will sell well. But in terms of what exactly they want people to use it for, they seem to want to figure it out later, and maybe create a tasteful marketing campaign out of it. It sounds bizarre, even to myself, that I call them out like this even as I’ve followed them for years and praised their intentional design, but as good as they are in so many respects, it’s hard to ignore the vibrating needle in their compass.

An example of what I’m talking about is how Apple has presented to its users Live Photos. On paper, it’s stupid: animated GIF’s that just take up more memory. That’s what many thought it is. But when I tried it out for the first time, it was almost a revelation. Seeing the context of a photo in that regard was, in the best sense of the word, profound. It made me wonder how Apple hasn’t attached the word “revolutionary” to it yet. When the thought crossed my mind, I realised instantly that this was a feature with Steve Jobs written all over it, and if he were the one to present the feature onstage, he would absolutely gloat about it and say how cool and how valuable it could be — that’s what I felt it is.

(I could go on and on with examples of mind-blowing technologies Apple has introduced but hasn’t fully capitalized on — Apple Pencil, 3D Touch, Touch ID, Apple Pay, sketchable messages in the Apple Watch, and even the iPhone itself.)

Perhaps the biggest example I could draw your attention to is the Apple Watch announcement, their one major product line that was launched after Jobs’ death and created without his direct influence. In my opinion, it is still the best in the market, simply because they knew that the Apple Watch had to totally embody the watch, an object with rich history, as we already knew it — as a fashion and expression accessory — and for that I will credit Apple. That’s why Tim Cook called it their “most personal device”. That’s why they offer a plethora of watch bands, most of which are extremely well-made.

But the question remains: What is it really for? A year and a half on from its announcement, I’m still left wondering that, and what role it’s meant to play in my life. To me, it’s probably one of the best watches out there, and it just so happens to do a few things with your iPhone. That's not a product narrative I can buy, especially coming from Apple.

In addition, there are many things that competing products can do perfectly. I haven’t seen a single task that the Apple Watch does that another smartwatch or fitness wearable can’t do to the same degree, besides the system level stuff it can do with the iPhone like notifications. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the complaints about the Watch’s software, namely its lack of intuitiveness and the near-unusability of third-party apps, both of which I think signal a fundamental lack of understanding at Apple of its functionality.

What it all boils down to is potential. As good as the Watch is, has it reached its potential? If not, is it reaching it at the pace it should? It would help if Apple had a Jobsian communicator (or communicated at all) to let its users know, even now, how far the Watch can go in improving our quality of life, rather than relying on developers to figure it out or let the media come up with the narratives.

Speaking of narratives, perhaps the best example I could compare this to is, again, the original iPhone introduction made by Steve Jobs. Here it is again:

 
 

He had a real sense of what the iPhone was meant to do. Sure, it helped that it was massively different and better than any other purchasable phone out there, something that the Apple Watch was not to the same degree, but he communicated what the iPhone was and what it could do in a way that made it almost garishly obvious how a person’s life could be improved by it. How? He sold the iPhone like he was telling story — his presentation had a gripping beginning (“This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two and a half years…”), a climax (“These are not three separate devices!”), comic relief, a conflict (an explanation for why styluses and hardware keyboards were inferior to Multitouch), etc.

His keynotes conveyed an immediate and fundamental understanding of what was being presented onstage, to a point where they were a performance art in itself. Today’s Apple keynotes are not that at all.

I think that’s indicative of how Apple perceives the products they present. I think they’ve become somewhat complacent, relying too much on refining the Apple brand and appearing monolithic and infallible, even while being a start-up at heart.

I used to call Apple a product-company, and that’s what they referred themselves to as well. In many ways, they still are, that’s where the profit trail leads. But now there are several forces pulling them away from being just that, including the company’s own culture. There’s less emphasis on the product; on its design. Not the stuff that makes their product shots crystal clear, or the stuff that locks every virtual line into place, not the stuff that satisfies their OCD and maintains their perfect façade. The stuff that matters, the stuff that looks at the individual and answers their questions about their products, the stuff that attempts to solve their problems in a significant and meaningful way.

That was Steve’s ultimate goal, and he knew the easiest way to do that was to tell a story, the story of how an Apple product could change the way we live.

Conclusion

WWDC is next week. They could be announcing a new MacBook Pro, or a Siri API, or more refinements to iOS and OS X, maybe even name changes. Then by September they’ll be announcing a new iPhone. Maybe an iPad Pro update. Then that’s 2016. Maybe several years from now they’ll come out with a car with the potential to change everything we knew about the car. When I think bigger picture, you see Google, Amazon, and Facebook, among others, actively building what could be the new paradigms in technology. I look at all of technology today, and all of it needs people to point it in the right direction, rather than have it exist for the sake of it being able to exist. It needs visionaries and it needs communicators.

In the midst of all this, Apple continues to push out updates to existing products — if not that, then refinements that offer small conveniences. The one time they came out with a totally new product, the Apple Watch, they followed it with radio silence until new bands and minor software updates would come out every now and again. I’ve been trying to stick out for the Apple Watch, but honestly, it could disappear tomorrow and I, sadly, wouldn’t care.

I read back at what I just wrote and I constantly catch myself wanting to disagree with all of it, thinking I’m being self-contradictory. I remind myself that Apple obsessively preserves every part it can of its culture and underlying principles, even having a “university” serving as training for employees, effectively teaching Apple to itself. I’ve conveyed optimism for Apple many times on this blog in the recent past, even disagreeing with Marco Arment’s piece on Apple’s apparent lack of expertise in data and AI. Then I look back at the days of Jobs and marvel at the way he eloquently communicated, even in the simplest fashion, why their products exist and how they should fit in our daily lives, many times never even mentioning a single word of technology jargon.

It then becomes clear to me that in one form or another, Apple needs to bring back the art that Steve Jobs created with his keynotes: the art of the product narrative.

 

Further reading: My follow-up piece written after WWDC 2016. Things are looking better in the vision department.