I remember the building-sized white box, a robust, two-story tent, sealed to the outside world until Apple unveiled the Apple Watch a few hours later. That extravagant cube was eye-catching, audacious, and -- something I don't think I understood then -- the beginning of the end of an era.
A New York Times excerpt (opens in new tab) from Tripp Mickle's new book, "After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul," describes how former Apple Chief Designer Jony Ive (the architect of all the iPhones we've used since 2007) fought for that iconic edifice (opens in new tab) as a way of telegraphing the more-than-just a gadget nature of Apple's first wearable technology.
If nothing else, Ive succeeded in getting the assembled journalists guessing about the true nature of the building. With helicopters circling overhead, we wondered if Apple might use one to lift the entire structure up to reveal what we assumed was either one giant Apple Watch model or a sea of normal-sized new Watches.
In the end, the box didn't move. Instead, giant white doors slid away to reveal a cavernous space with watches, bands, and people demonstrating the Apple Watch in action (we had to beg to get a few minutes wearing Apple's first fashion accessory (opens in new tab)).
Beginning of an end
The Apple Watch was, as Tripp notes, Apple's last all-new consumer product category and, arguably, the last Apple device with Ive's fingerprints all over it. Airpods arguably fall into the Ive era, but their initially clumsy design seems just so anti-Ive.
Ive left Apple a few years ago after officially stepping back almost five years earlier. Since then, as Tripp notes, Apple has gradually shifted away from a company that makes inspiring must-have gadgets to one that often builds services you can use on a lineup of deeply integrated gadgets that change only incrementally year after year. In the meantime and under CEO Tim Cook's guidance, Apple has become the most highly valued company in the world.
For longtime Apple watchers like me, none of this news is revelatory. After Apple unveiled the Mac Studio and additional M1 chips, I wrote that Apple silicon has become more important than Apple Design. Some took me to tasks for this opinion, saying that the minimalist look of the Mac Studio proves that Apple still cares deeply about design. I think the Mac Studio is efficient, but not inspired (I'm not talking here about its performance).
The idea that Apple is not the same company as it was under Steve Jobs is no longer conjecture. it's a demonstrable fact. Cook is a tactician and supply chain wiz. Jobs was a marketing genius with an uncanny sense of what consumers would want and love. Jony Ive was the person who gave form and function to Jobs' desires - even if Jobs didn't always know exactly what he wanted.
Ive's design control was, in his time at Apple, absolute. He gave us the iMac, iPod, iPhone, MacBook Air, Apple TV, and iPad. Virtually all of these designs were inspired and appealing. Consumers could scarcely explain why they wanted them, but they did (and still do). Not every Ive design was a home run. There was the impractical Mac Pro trashcan, and the original Apple Pencil, a ridiculously long implement with the weirdest charge plug in recent memory.
Ive left because he was overloaded with management, and tired of fighting design battles he probably wouldn't have been fighting if Steve Jobs hadn't died in 2011. There's no question Cook valued Ive as much as Jobs, but Cook balances aesthetic appeal with strategic business imperatives. He loves a beautiful product as much as the next CEO but is always in search of repeatable business. You'll buy a new iPhone every few years but will pay for services month after month. Plus, it's not certain that the team of Jobs and Ive would've navigated the unique supply and manufacturing challenges of the last two years as ably as Cook.
Of course Apple is a different company under Cook. And the world's a different place than it was when Apple introduced the iMac in 1998, the iPod in 2001, the iPhone in 2007, and the iPad in 2010. It's arguably not even the same place that welcomed the Apple Watch in 2014. The point is, this is Apple for 2022 and beyond: maybe not as exciting as Steve Job's Apple, but one that's even more successful and probably built to survive the 22nd century.
I needed a gut check on my perception of the modern Apple, so I turned to Creative Strategies President and Chief Analyst Tim Bajarin, someone who's been watching Apple for decades and has even consulted with the company. In an email to me, Bajarin acknowledged the differences between Cook and Jobs.
"Cook’s management style is very different than Steve Jobs. However the core of Cook’s vision is still rooted in Steve's vision of what Apple is and should be in the future," wrote Bajarin. As for that future, Bajarin still sees some very big ideas ahead: ''The AR glasses and an Apple car are moonshots, which are the brainchild of Tim Cook. And it would not surprise me if he perhaps has another moonshot in mind before he decides to retire."
I won't lie. I'm ready for an Apple moonshot.