Monday, July 26, 2010

Has Apple gone from darling to demon?

I'm not sure what the statute is on a blog post's length, but for this one, I'll confess up front to making this a lengthy discourse on something that's troubling me: is everything OK with Apple?

Last month's launch of the iPhone 4 turned out to be a larger-than-usual seismic event in the Apple chronology. It came with foreshocks and aftershocks which continue to generate acres of newsprint - yes, that quaint old thing - examining and exfoliating Apple and its messianic CEO Steve Jobs.

Given that Apple's own epicentre, Cupertino, lies almost on top of the fault lines than run the length of California, it's ironic that the company has been the source of more tectonic activity in the consumer landscape than any other in the last 12 years or so. Few are as admired and revered amongst myriad industries as a shining example of How To Do It Right. However, the tsunami of think pieces and op-ed that has followed the iPhone 4’s arrival must have given even the most seasoned Apple PR reason to reach for the painkillers.

As with all Apple launches, the noise began long before anyone had parted cash for product: but more than normal, there was the somewhat heavy-handed hue-and-cry over the alleged 'theft' of a prototype. The hullaballoo was enriched further by murky tales surrounding the phone's Chinese manufacturer. Then, no sooner had the first handsets been snapped up by the customary snake of people outside Apple Stores than the first murmurings of disquiet emerged over the phone’s reception quality. All this led to the sound of Apple masticating on humble pie as Jobs admitted: "Of course we're human, of course we make mistakes”, followed by a giveaway of $1 rubber bumpers to fix the problem.

At the same, hastily convened press conference, a clearly flustered Jobs opined that: “We're not perfect. We know that, you know that.” The trouble is, many believe Apple IS perfect, or at least, has perfected the art of revolution to the extent that it positively mass produces game-changing products.

For the last two decades I’ve watched Apple with awe and amazement, not to mention a little pride. Like the Dylan fan who maintains he liked Bob before he went electric, I’ve seen Apple evolve from a vendor of nice but expensive professional computers for professional creatives, to the world’s largest technology company by value. When, as a journalist, I first sat before an Apple word processor 23 years ago, I had little idea that by the turn of the century I’d be buying into an Apple-shaped 'digital lifestyle'.

In buying an original iMac - my first ever personally purchased computer - I became hooked like a dime bag addict on the Apple proposition, becoming drawn into a world of seemingly endless creative possibility. It appeared to be pretty groovy in Apple's domain of digital self-expression.

That first 'Blueberry' iMac was a genuine revolution - forged by the brilliant design simplicity of a Londoner called Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs' geeky bravado. It not only laid the cornerstone of consumer technology for the following decade, but a core element of culture, too. Creative types bought up the funky blue icon in their thousands; Adland and Cool Central became peppered with its cheerful lines and near-perfect proportions. It dared to be shown off, not hidden away under a pile of blankets in the spare room.

Most importantly, it simply wasn't a computer. It was a "digital hub". And it made it OK to like technology. It brought an acceptance to technology ownership comparable with the renaissance we football fans went through in the mid-90s thanks to Nick Hornby and Britpop (Heysel and Hillsborough, you might recall, made admitting to being a football fan an acute form of social suicide). No sooner had football replaced property prices as the dinner party discussion du jour, than people were openly admitting to making iMovies without fear of a public stoning for being so uncool. Apple's digital hub had triggered a perfect, bloodless revolution.

Now, as Thomas Jefferson said, every generation needs a new revolution. Apple, clearly felt one revolution wasn't enough, however, and no sooner had it turned the letter 'i' into the prefix of the modern era, it tore up the rule book yet again with iTunes. Rarely had a software launch been delivered with such pizzazz and baby-boomer knowing. Compressing music into audio files was not new, and nor was turning a personal computer into a digital jukebox. But just as the iMac made the computer attractive and simple to own for mere mortals (rather than those with an advanced engineering PhD), iTunes made a subtle but significant difference to the idea of digital music management.

When iTunes launched in early 2001, I had just moved to Silicon Valley. I appreciated good quality hi-fi. I appreciated the difference speakers, cabling and amplifiers made to the enjoyment of music, but not, you understand, to the extremes of those heads who profess a love for the smell of vinyl in the morning. File sharing and early MP3 players like Diamond's Rio and Creative's Nomad, were, to my dinosaur mind, the preserve of the Tuesday lunchtime Science Club. I just didn't relate digital music to the musical experience I knew and loved, which began with opening a packaged disc, studiously pouring over the sleeve art and notes, and then putting needle to groove or CD to 'play'. iTunes made it more acceptable, novel and convenient and, well, fun.

Apple's next revolution came even sooner: the iPod’s launch in October 2001 was a muted affair. Coming just five weeks after 9/11, America was numb and the world still dazed. Really, you couldn't have picked a worse time to chirpily offer "1000 songs in your pocket". Naturally it generated the usual wave of excitement in the technology world, despite it being an audio product made by a computer company, and therefore not all that good. The despondency of the times, though, didn't make allowance for the Apple effect.

Got the iMac? Bought into the lifestyle? Then your experience won't feel complete without one. So I had to have one. Apple's narcotic brand appeal worked its wonders again. I had to have an iPod. Just as I had to have a Nano. And a new iMac to service them. And then another Nano with video. And a new MacBook. And an iPhone. And I will want an iPad (when it gets a video camera, note to Product Development Dept.). Oh, and don't forget all the accessories - the Bluetooth keyboards and mice, the docks and headphones, the power chargers and...finish the list yourselves.

"Cocaine," Robin Williams once brilliantly reflected, "is God's way of saying that you're making too much money." It's easy to draw the same opinion of the Apple junkie. Like coke, Apple products will give you an inflated sense of your own cool while blowing a hole the size of Lake Geneva in your bank balance. It’s also easy to regard Apple as a religion, with Steve Jobs some black turtleneck-clad Messiah. He's not.

There are those who dote on Jobs' every word, who queue for days outside San Francisco's Moscone Center to hear his keynote, and who line up through fair weather and foul to own the subject of his latest announcements. This doesn’t a religion make. Apple is just a very clever company. Driven by fanatical focus to delivering experiences from a relative handful of product lines and platforms, each conforming to a unique and singular view of what people want or aspire to owning.

Long before it became the giant it now is, Apple was frequently dismissed as an exclusive irrelevance, with their computer products struggling to break out of a market share of less than 5%. There were those who dismissed Apple, unwisely as it turned out, on the basis that it’s a PC world and get used to it. Now who’s laughing: Apple, now valued at $237 billion, has eclipsed Microsoft’s market cap and is second only to Exxon in America’s corporate league table.

Apple’s dominance of what you and I enjoy doing most – enjoying music and movies, taking pictures, surfing the net and engaging with our fellow human beings – is undeniable. And credit to them for doing so, for coming up with products so brilliant and so exciting that even opening the packaging of an iPhone or iPod is virtually an erotic experience.

There is also plenty of innovation left in the tank. Will the iPad and iBooks service do for publishing what the iPod and iTunes did to music? My view is 'yes'. Most major record companies were taking the Canute approach to online music until the iTunes model convinced them otherwise. The publishing industry has been doing the same. It all sounds very familiar…

So why should I worry that Apple might be losing it? After all, its handling of the iPhone 4 issue was a fiasco, but hardly a PR disaster, or “a BP” as it’s now known.

If anything, it’s added a degree of humanity to the company. Apple certainly isn’t losing its business, and despite his grumpy press conference on July 16, Steve Jobs certainly won’t be losing that much sleep. What lets Apple's reputation down is things like the secrecy around Jobs’ health issues. The PR diffusion may have maintained share price stability, but it struck a discordant note in Apple’s otherwise resplendent shine.

Apple is still, though, exceeding expectations. In the second quarter of 2010 it earned $3.25 billion profit from almost $16 billion in sales. It sold 8.4 million iPhones in the year to June, a 61% increase on the previous 12 months. And despite the ‘Attennagate' furore, it still sold well over two million iPhone 4s in its first month on the market. The iPad – Apple’s latest revolution - has already sold over 3.3 million pieces in its first three months on sale, and continues to be on back order with a promise of "weeks" before shipping to eager owners.

Such numbers are the making of sniping, envy and suspicion – just look what happened to Microsoft. And while my glasses may appear to have a rosey tint, one has to acknowledge that Apple's products simply ARE good. Its consumer loyalty has been justifiably earned by coming up with stuff that works better and looks better than anyone else's.

Recent events may suggest a blemish on the shine, and it may only be a matter of time before Apple's cocky swagger is knocked asunder by an issue more damaging than how to hold a phone. But for now, all the time it continues to create desirable consumer experiences like the iPhone and the iPad, Apple can still do no wrong.

As Jobs himself commented: "I look at this whole 'Antennagate' thing and say 'wow'. Apple's been around for 34 years. Haven't we earned the credibiity and trust from some of the press to give us a little bit of the benefit of the doubt?". He’s got a point.

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