Thursday, September 11, 2014

Try to keep up - you're on Valley time

Apple Watch picture courtesy of Apple

The irony wasn't lost on me: just as Tuesday's Apple event was getting underway at what appeared from the air to be a large crime scene tent in Cupertino, I was just a few miles down the road at the Intel museum, looking at, in many respects, the history of Silicon Valley.

© Simon Poulter 2014
The museum tour commences in front of a giant photograph of the company's original staff - men in suits and ties, and a large and progressively encouragingly group of female employees in beehive hairdos and horn-rimmed spectacles. That was 1968. 46 years ago, perhaps, but a blink of an eye in a part of the world that still boasts the largest distribution of dinosaur fossils.

It's one of the things you are conscious of when visiting America in general: time and history are relative. Years ago I was with a group of American journalists visiting Bruges, where we went past what is believed to be the world's first stock exchange, the bourse, which opened in 1309. They genuinely appeared to struggle with the concept of 1309.

And yet here in Silicon Valley, ten years is a lifetime. When I moved into my Sunnyvale apartment almost 14 years ago there were protests - not against me, you understand - but against the condominium complex which had been built on the site of one of the last of the town's original agrarian cherry orchards. That was when I realised that Silicon Valley, as a concept, dated back no further than the 1960s - and I had grown up in a suburb of London that had evolved during London's great concentric expansion in the 1930s.

Since I was last here five years ago companies have come and companies have gone. Shiny corporate headquarters have sprung up while others have been torn down to make way for $3,000-a-month condos catering for the junior end of the Valley's über-wealth scale. Even the San Francisco 49ers have moved from San Francisco to the recently inaugurated Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara.

The contrast of fortunes is even greater since 2003 when I left the Valley to move back to Europe. Then, the local economy was still reeling from the twin effects of the dot com bubble bursting and the post-9/11 impact on Bay Area companies.

In 2003 companies like Sun Microsystems and Palm were tech bellwethers. Today, neither exist. Yahoo! was the search king, and Google was simply a start-up built around smart mathematics. Facesmash - Mark Zuckerberg's college prank predecessor to Facebook - was barely a dorm room idea. Netflix had just got going with a clever postal-based DVD rental service. Tweeting was simply something birds did.

And Apple? Even in 2003 there were plenty in the technology industry dismissing Steve Jobs' yet-to-be behemoth as a boutique business. It's hard to remember this now, but the prevailing view was that Apple had a share of less than 5% of the personal computing market back then. The PC - in the Microsoft sense of the name - was still king.

Apple's products were, then, just making the transition from expensive but highly desirable professional tools to being expensive and desirable devices for the new 'digital lifestyle'. The foundation of this transition, of course, was the 1998-launched original iMac.

But on October 23, 2001 Apple launched its first iMac peripheral, the iPod. It was met with a relative murmur of excitement: 9/11 had occurred just over a month before and the world - and especially Americans - had other things on their mind. And critics weren't slow to recognise that Apple's click-wheel MP3 player was simply a nicely packaged interpretation of other entrants to the nascent 'portable jukebox' industry.

Things have come full circle. As Apple's current CEO Tim Cook was introducing the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch on Tuesday, his company were quietly retiring the final incarnation of that original iPod. In 13 years it had shrunk, physically, but expanded its capacity from 5Gb to 160Gb, catering largely for the serious muso who has to carry their entire music collection with them at all times. Today, it is something of an anachronism: a bulky, hard drive-based music player, lacking Internet connectivity, still using the click-wheel (which was never all that good to begin with), and even still using Apple's old 30-pin connector. Yes, it's that old.

But it's been interesting to use this week's Apple event to reflect on how time passes in Silicon Valley. Indeed, this is the first time I've been in the area during an Apple launch since that original iPod unveiling in 2001. Back then, Apple had a share price of just over $10. Currently it's hovering around $100, with the company worth an extraordinary $550 billion.

Despite it's enormous value, the question remains - can Apple truly continue to innovate? And by innovate, I mean make jaw-droppingly interesting new products? Hacking into our iTunes account and giving us a free U2 album whether we want it or not is not innovation. In fact, it's the ultimate example of the fears critics expressed when iTunes was launched, that the platform could become too-dominant and unhealthy for consumer and many artists alike.

Indeed, U2's appearance on Tuesday had the air pseudo-rock'n'roll marketing. The idea of a group of middle-aged technology executives, dressed more for the corporate barbecue than the corporate boardroom, trying to connect with a disinterested and disaffected youth market. I mean, U2?

The band and the brand have been close friends for some time, so to be honest, there wasn't that much to be seriously impressed by. And I'm not altogether sure it worked: after all, there were only two stars of the show on Monday, and neither were much of a surprise anyway.

iPhone 6 picture courtesy of Apple
The iPhone 6 - long expected and much rumoured - will no doubt do well. Apple consumers are stupendously loyal. You can argue all day long as to whether it's Apple's world that Samsung are chasing or the other way round, but there are enough of us who bought into the Jobs/Ive world when the iMac came along in 1998 and were then seduced by the iPod three years later.

From those two devices - hub and add-on - we've willingly added iPhones and iPads, MacBooks and Apple TVs. There is no such thing as "the cult of Apple" - there is just a slick marketing machine, one that is happy to build on its own formula.

The Apple Watch is an interesting idea, but like the iPod to begin with, an amalgamation of others' ideas. It was possible to buy a wristwatch-style case for the previous square iPod Nano, which you could then wear as a watch. It just didn't have all the healthcare and fitness tracking stuff. Nor did Apple have an expensively-acquired Senior Vice-President of watches overseeing it.

The idea of wearable electronics is interesting as well, from a long-term health and fitness point of view. But as much as I appreciate the benefits of such technology, this whole 'machine-to-machine' and 'Internet of things' business starts to get creepy after a while. After all, isn't an electronic tag something you attach to prisoners out on parole?

It's now two full days since Apple held its event. This means two things: one, the first queues are probably already forming outside Apple Stores with (mainly) bearded hopefuls sitting in lawn chairs anticipating being the first to walk out with their new toy on the day it goes on sale next week. And second, the rest of the world will have moved on to the next new subject of fleeting excitement. Because, as the marketing and PR cliché goes, it's no longer revolution, it's evolution. And, really, that's just not as interesting.

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