Death by Brand Fusion

Image source: SOHO (ESA & NASA)

Last week, M.G. Siegler wrote a fantastic, punchy article on why Apple should acquire Nintendo. He has written about this before, however the argument has come up again due to Apple’s recent announcement of Apple’s new gaming subscription service, Apple Arcade. Let’s face it: he has a great point and perhaps if Apple had bought Netflix, it would not be trying to enter a highly competitive streaming market with Apple TV+ and original content. Therefore, buying Nintendo is a perfectly sensible suggestion and it would bolster Apple’s gaming efforts at exactly the right time.

Apple has long been accused of not getting games, particularly in the face of longstanding PC and console manufacturers and their respective ecosystems and devotees. Apparently, gaming just ‘isn’t in Apple’s DNA’. With Apple Arcade, the company is showing signs that it perhaps does get gaming and is willing to commission developers to produce high-quality content.

Siegler puts Apple’s general attitude towards gaming and its more recent success in the mobile space well in this section:

In the past, Apple has treated the gaming business quite casually, even though it has seemingly been right there for the taking, given the popularity of the format on iOS devices. Now they’re diving in. And yet they still don’t have such expertise in-house. You know who could get them smart, quick? In that way, it wouldn’t be too dissimilar from the acquisition of Beats to get Jimmy Iovine and team in the mix.

It was the reference to Beats that caught my eye in Siegler’s article. When Apple bought Beats, it surprised many devout Apple fans, largely because of the perceived cultural mismatch of the two companies. Sure, Apple has apparently always had ‘music in its DNA’, but Beats was a company and service that was generally obsessed with bass and made less-than-premium headphones. Although both companies shared a passion for music, how could Apple have bought a firm that made such brightly coloured plastic products?

Over time, people came to understand that the acquisition was more about the absorption of personalities like Iovine and Dre and the fusion of streaming technology and smarts into Apple’s product offerings, as iTunes and digital music purchases die a slow death. Apple used the Beats brand as it needed.

Interestingly, as a consequence of this purchase, the Beats brand has been suppressed somewhat, although not yet entirely killed. Since 2015, we have no longer heard the name Beats Music, instead we hear Apple Music. Yet Beats headphones and other audio products persist for the moment, in order to retain the coolness and cachet that the brand has held among consumers. Apple realised a number of years ago, as Spotify was on the rise, that the days of white earbuds in the iTunes era had waned. Apple needed outside help to re-inject brand coolness into its music offerings.

With the success of AirPods since then, Apple has shown that the white earbuds can indeed make a comeback and that it does not really need the Beats brand on the hardware side either. AirPods are now absolutely everywhere. Over time, I believe that Beats will die and the brand will vanish. In the near future, we may perhaps even see very much the same Beats products simply redesigned or recoloured to fit the more accepted Apple aesthetic.

Looping back to gaming, I agree with Siegler that it would have enormous benefits for both companies, taking Nintendo stories and characters to a stratospheric level on mobile devices and cementing Apple’s position in the gaming market. Who knows? Apple could even try in the console again. How about the Apple Pippin II?

On the other hand, considering the way that Beats has been integrated, I think that this poses a very interesting question for how the Nintendo brand would be handled over time. Let’s be clear: Nintendo is a massive and truly beloved brand that has more history, IP and relatability across demographics than Beats ever did as its own company. Nintendo is a cultural icon in its own right.

Still, it is not Apple—not everyone is into gaming but everyone is into smartphones.

For those who love Nintendo and would be keen to see its hypothetical acquisition by Apple, thereby integrating it into a broader subscription offering such as Apple Arcade, there must be the willingness to accept that one day, Nintendo would probably die.

Some may argue that Nintendo is such a strong brand that Apple would have to keep it around. At first, that would certainly be the case. Apple would take advantage of the Nintendo brand and associate its service with their popular games and characters. Nintendo fans would be happy to see their favourite characters flourish and Apple fans would be pleased to see even more cool stuff available to play on their devices.

How would this death occur? It’s fairly simple. Years into the future, assuming that such an acquisition and combined service were successful, Apple may gradually reduce the emphasis on its Nintendo brand and perhaps even remove the logo or any reference to the name from its marketing materials and the App Store.

Steadily, those gamers who knew characters such as Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda as Nintendo characters would lose that strong association (or more bluntly, die) and a new generation would come to know them as Apple game characters. In addition, new characters may even take their place. This is what we’re gradually seeing with the Disney purchase of Star Wars, with investment in new films, TV series and games. Sure, Darth Vader isn’t going anywhere, but he may no longer be the centre of the Star Wars universe for future generations. These are not just transactions, they are cultural shifts.

What was once a beneficial brand fusion for both Apple and Nintendo would become a brand and gaming market victory for Apple. In the end, this would not really matter and is the very nature of acquisitions. If Apple had indeed bought Netflix years ago, as I suggested in the first paragraph, you might have seen the creation of something like the name fusion of ‘Apple Netflix’, but over time, that would have become something more like ‘Apple Flix’ or even the new moniker of ‘Apple TV+’. In the early days of the iPod, did Apple release Apple SoundJam to respect the lesser-known MP3 software or did it rebrand it as Apple iTunes?

Those who wish for such an acquisition but also hold such strong brand relationship and sentimentality with that which is acquired should perhaps be careful of what they wish for. Change is inevitable and whilst consumers tend to view corporations as static entities with tangible offerings, corporations are really just stories—intersubjective realities that transform themselves over time, both in response to consumer demand and without even realising it. Apple was once Apple Computer and entirely dependent on the Macintosh. That company is now more successful that it ever has been… and yet now almost unrecognisable. Nothing is forever.

Rumination No. 34: Barista in Beta

These days, we constantly hear about the inexorable march of artificial intelligence, which is fuelling the Fourth Industrial Revolution and will make humans useless in most (if not all) jobs.

Accountants, lawyers, labourers, whatever… you’ve probably heard about how positions in a range of fields will meet this fate, regardless of the required education level and qualifications.

Well, we can now add the role of barista to that list… or can we?

Shortly before boarding a flight home from Melbourne’s Essendon Fields Airport, I felt like a coffee at the terminal. It’s a very small building, in contrast to the larger Tullamarine Airport, so there aren’t any coffee shops. Instead, there was this…

Automated coffee machines aren’t really anything new but this is no ordinary coffee machine… this is Jonnee Coffee: best barista coffee in town (according to the sign).

Jonnee is no coffee machine… he’s an AI barista.

Jonnee looked like he had plenty of options and wasn’t too expensive, so I thought that I would give his coffee a try. I soon found out that Jonnee is not the best barista in town. In fact, he is utterly incompetent.

I tapped my debit card, then selected a flat white. Jonnee then yelled at me (in a female, robotic voice) to tap again to confirm the payment. Subsequently, he sprang into action, making buzzing noises and dropping a paper coffee cup into the tray for my desired flat white.

Once he was finished, I pulled the coffee cup out and was surprised to discover that no milk had been added—it was only a shot of espresso coffee. I was confused as to why Jonnee had done this but then concluded that I had not pressed his milk button to complete the recipe. This seemed odd, considering that the icon on Jonnee’s flat white button showed white milk in the cup, but I thought that I should try to resolve this rather than just blame him straight away.

I requested another cup of hot milk only, intending to pour it into my half-finished Jonnee Coffee flat white. Jonnee charged me a lower fee for the milk by itself. Everything seemed to be going fine, until I heard the buzzing stop and I was left with nothing but an empty cup. The issue, so it seemed, was that Jonnee had no milk whatsoever and Jonnee had presented no warning that this was the case. I felt like John Cleese in Monty Python’s Cheese Shop Sketch, discovering that there was, in fact, no cheese at all.

At this point, I’d like to go back to the point about artificial intelligence taking over the world. Jonnee Coffee, supposedly the best barista in town, was unable to offer the basic ingredient of milk in my flat white, nor was he able to warn me of the milk shortage and replenish himself.

What else on Earth could possibly have achieved the difficult process of stocking, offering and blending milk in an ordered hot beverage? Oh, I know! A human.

In 2019, as we all get whipped up about a magical future of super-automated robots that will fulfil our every desire and render work human workers obsolete, remember this: computers today are not conscious or aware of anything. For all of their amazing computational abilities, they are in fact totally stupid and require humans for maintenance and programming.

I drank my coffee, but couldn’t help feel frustrated that the advertised best barista in town was a fraud, a total sham! Jonnee needs a paid human to fill his milk supply. Jonnee is an idiot.

Daily Rumination No. 33: Takeaway on a Plate

Late last year, I wrote about how café workers have the ridiculous habit of soiling your napkin by placing it between your food and the plate.

Recently, I encountered an equally strange service situation. Observe the photo below.

You’re looking at a salad that I ordered in a dine-in context, presented in a black takeaway container upon a ceramic plate.

What?

I’m not sure of the reason for this. It’s almost as if they wanted to present the food formally but also discourage me from making the plate dirty, so as to save themselves the need to wash up.

Perhaps instead they wanted to give me the option of running away with my food quickly in the container, in the case of an emergency situation. There’s nothing worse than hearing a fire alarm and having to leave your meal behind.

Whatever the reason, it was wasteful and you can’t recycle black plastic, since the sensors can’t detect them. Maddening!

Daily Rumination No. 32: ‘Liveable’

Flowing on from yesterday’s Daily Rumination on urban planning, I’d like to discuss briefly the notion of ‘liveability’. In our data-obsessed society, we now strive to measure everything, even broad, subjective and ambiguous human experiences. Liveability is one such broad concept that must be broken down into many smaller components in the hope of measuring it.

Melbourne was ranked as the world’s most liveable city for seven consecutive years until 2017, when it was beaten by Vienna. These rankings are determined in a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit. According to website Only Melbourne, 140 cities are receive scores out of 100 in the important areas of health care, education, stability, culture, environment and infrastructure.

I am currently in Melbourne for work, and with infrastructure in mind, I would like to draw your attention to this photo.

What you’re looking at is a queue of Melbourne commuters (as far as the eye can see) and it isn’t even in the centre of the city.

I understand that large cities battle with congestion. Melbourne is fortunate to have a fantastic tram network and other public transport and yet this is still the case. What’s concerning though is that this is the city that won the top spot for global liveability for seven years and is now in second place, including data on infrastructure.

If this is what the best in the world looks like, I’d be shocked to see what things are like in much lower-ranking cities around the world.

Apple and the Craftsmen

Image source: Apple (2019)
Image source: Apple (2019)

On 25 March, Apple invited celebrities and members of the tech and entertainment press to the Steve Jobs Theater for a range of special announcements. What made this event a little odd, however, was that it was entirely focused on services. There were no hardware announcements and the only software that was demonstrated on stage were existing (yet refreshed) apps as the delivery channels for new services.

I’ve read numerous articles and listened to various podcasts that have all meticulously analysed Apple’s new offerings: Apple News+; Apple Card; Apple Arcade; Apple TV Channels; and Apple TV+.

Aside from the lack of hardware and software announcements, many analysts, commentators and journalists have been perturbed the lack of any pricing information and the delay in public release, with the exception of Apple News+. Furthermore, many were bothered by Apple’s decision to have celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon onstage to discuss their projects, rather than show off trailers and original video material for Apple TV+.

The most common question that I have heard online is this: if Apple has almost nothing to release right now, be it a full service or pricing, then what was the point of this event?

Some have come to what is perhaps the most natural answer to this question, in that Apple needs to show Wall Street that it has a considerable new revenue source, beyond the iPhone. Still, people persist in asking why these announcements couldn’t have been made when more concrete information could be shared.

I agree with the assertion above that Apple is keen to reassure and impress Wall Street. I do believe, however, that it is deeper than this. Wall Street was not the only audience during this event. I posit that there are two major cultural reasons that underpinned Apple’s decision how to hold this event, even without completed services or full pricing announcements.

The first reason relates to how Apple sees itself in relation to various other tech players in the global (but really US) market. Apple has always seen itself as a tastemaker and a inventor of tools for the masses, enabling and connecting with creative prosumers and professionals alike—consider the #ShotoniPhone and Behind the Mac campaigns. They either feature content created by customers with Apple devices or famous people using Apple devices. Apple wants to reinforce this connection to humanity and creativity in a world where people are increasingly losing trust in faceless tech corporations, most notably Facebook.

Underpinning this notion of trust in modern tech, we need to look at a more philosophical definition of the term ‘technology’. A recent episode of ABC Radio National’s podcast The Philosopher’s Zone, titled Techne-logy featured Western Sydney University academic Jason Tuckwell, who explained the root of the word ‘technology’. He defined the root ‘techne’ as‘skill’ and discussed how Aristotle defined the word technology:

‘Aristotle tried to think about technology in a way that’s a little bit unfamiliar to us now… and how he tried to think about it was essentially in the terms of a craftsperson… Technology is a way that human agents change the world around them after their own design… Aristotle had a complex notion of causes and one of his original contributions was to think that purpose or intention was required to explain how things come into being, if you like. If you’re going to be a shipbuilder and you want to make a good ship, you need buoyant material and you need a skill to shape the craft, so that it will move through the water.

Apple sees itself as Aristotle’s ‘craftsperson’ (building the collective ship of hardware, software and services) and continually aligns itself with a range of other creative craftspeople who add further buoyant material and skill to the mix.

This event was about Apple showing the world (as transparently as possible) that Apple is a trustworthy, transparent, technological craftsperson that empowers myriad other content craftspeople. Consider each of the services that were presented:

  1. Apple News+ — This service was sold promising tool to rejuvenate journalism and human curation in an age of fake news and mysterious algorithms. Named journalists were identified as the content craftspeople, feeding quality content to Apple’s new service. They proudly discussed their passion for their work. Furthermore, Apple promoted specific publications, rather than focusing on a feed of algorithmically-driven articles;
  2. Apple Card — Apple happily promoted its two partners, Goldman Sachs and Mastercard, as its financial craftspeople and specialists. Along with its budgeting and monitoring tools in the Wallet app, the presentation of Apple Card gave consumers the impression of transparency and individual power over their financial lives. There doesn’t appear to be any shady tech happening in the background and people will be more willing to trust their finances with Apple, knowing who is involved;
  3. Apple Arcade — Similar to the Apple News+ video, Apple took the time to showcase committed game developers who enrich the App Store and push iOS devices to their graphical limits. This was perhaps the greatest display of creative craftspeople;
  4. Apple TV+: Rather than showing trailers for complete and yet-to-be-finished shows, Apple used decided to show off its star power. Bringing people like Spielberg and Winfrey on the stage showed the company’s commitment to the American entertainment industry and its creative craftspeople, in an era when such entertainers and producers are sceptical of the power of Netflix; and
  5. Apple TV Channels — Whilst this is almost identical to services such as Amazon Prime, Apple’s intention here was to highlight the range of quality creative content by other studios and channels and make itself appear as a convenient, one-stop-shop for consumer choice.

It is the fourth point above—star power—that brings me to the second reason that Apple chose to host the event:

because it could.

Apple not only wanted to show how its work with various creatives and firms fits into the current culture of tech, it wanted to show that it is a cultural institution in its own right. I believe that this is what many tech writers and commentators missed during this event, with their typical focus on Apple as a product company. Apple is broader and more multifaceted now than it ever has been before and it has enormous brand power. Whilst iCloud was its first step, with these new services, Apple has officially jumped into the world of intangible offerings.

Whereas tech commentators are often happy to accept the need to address multiple types of consumer during the WWDC opening keynote each year, for example, they seemed less certain about this event. Yet, funnily enough, they answered their own questions about the event in many of the podcasts that I listened to, stating their intention to probably get something like Apple Card or Apple TV+ anyway, because of their long-running Apple purchases or the services’ easy integration into the ecosystem.

Apple doesn’t need to announce pricing or display content early, because it has such a devoted fanbase that will most likely pay or subscribe anyway. All of those writers, podcasters and YouTubers who were incredulous about or critical of certain aspects of Apple’s event, inadvertently end up promoting the very brand that they have critiqued. This very blog piece is a sign of Apple’s unbelievable cultural capital. I’ve now spent quite some time discussing it.

Truly, Apple is no longer just a corporation—this event’s purpose was to tell the story of Apple and its craftspeople and show just how invaluable its technology is to various markets and art forms. The featuring of creative celebrities onstage was nothing new; Apple associated itself with those who ‘think different’ back in 1997. Pricing and release dates don’t matter; it’s the story that counts, and people have already bought it.

Of course, as I stated before, this event was largely about showing Wall Street that Apple has other ways of making money. What is the purpose of a corporation other than to make money? Wall Street, however, was not the only member of the audience. This audience was made up of people with varying interests and backgrounds, hence the spread of service marketing messages across gaming, journalism, television, film and even finance.

In a global tech market and culture that is often about racing to the bottom or chasing market share, at this event, Apple showed us that it continues to be a global tech culture unto itself. It plays by its own rules.

Daily Rumination No. 31: Regional Vision

Whilst munching on dinner this evening, I read this fantastic article by Vox: Barcelona, Spain, urban planning: a city’s vision to dig out from cars. It tells the story of Salvador Rueda, a biologist, psychologist, engineer, ecologist and the so-called father of the ‘superblocks plan’ for Barcelona. Superblocks represent the revitalised idea for a more pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly city, with large areas made completely free of private vehicles. It sounds like a fantastic, long-term plan and you should definitely read the article.

This made me think about the state of Australian cities. For example, I used to work in Sydney and as a pedestrian in the CBD, I had to contend with narrow, one-way streets full of frantic drivers. Sydney is virtually beyond repair at this stage, with highways weaving underground, overhead and between skyscrapers. It’s ridiculous. Whilst Melbourne, as Australia’s second-largest city, is arguably more functional with a better grid system and tram network, it is also choked by traffic.

What does this mean for smaller (yet growing) regional cities in Australia? What are their plans? My coastal home of Wollongong, with a population of approximately 200,000, is nowhere near the size of Sydney and it is limited in how far it can sprawl by a nearby mountain escarpment. There is no large public transport network, except for private bus companies and a limited free shuttle. How will such places grow sustainably without such infrastructure?

When I look around a city like Wollongong, I see enormous potential for open, liveable spaces like Rueda’s superblocks, which could alleviate future issues with density and pedestrian access. Too often, I think, cities leave it too late to realise the value of accessibility and clever urban design. Wollongong’s Crown Street Mall has long been semi-controversial for its lack of vehicle access, yet it hosts two fantastic food markets each week and a strip of well-visited retail. Other parts of the city don’t always enjoy this amount of diverse activity.

I hope that regional centres around Australia are looking at reports such as Vox’s and listening to their own residents. Whilst a vast country like Australia still largely depends on private vehicles to travel between cities, there’s no reason not to rethink how we travel within our cities.

Daily Rumination No. 30: Screenshots

Ever since the early days of iPhoto, I have used Apple’s photo-management software to collect, edit and share my family memories. Today, that software comes in the form of Photos on iOS and macOS and for all of its early controversy (i.e. the concurrent death of Aperture), it does a fantastic job of storing and synchronising images with iCloud Photo Library.

Earlier today, I was chatting with a fellow Micro.blog user about the value of the Photos app on iOS and macOS. When used properly, it is a great way to store one of the most important intangible elements of your life: digital family photos. Increasingly, however, I have noticed that people treat their Photos app as a dumping ground for horrid duplicates and screenshots. Naturally, how people manage their photo libraries is none of my business but I find it a little bit sad to think that people aren’t taking them seriously.

Apple has made certain efforts to encourage effective image management in its Photos app, most notably with the design of the Years > Collections > Moments interface and the automatic Memories feature, which turns your photos and videos into beautiful, short films with machine learning.

I can understand the issue with duplicates, as people generally can’t be bothered to review and delete them. Screenshots, however, are crying for a solution from Apple. On macOS, screenshots are sent directly to the desktop, so that they are accessible and easy to act upon. On iOS, they go straight to your Photos app, which are then sent to every other device via iCloud Photo Library (if you subscribe to it). Why are screenshots, which are arguably less valuable and certainly have different uses, being stored in the same library as all of your most important family photos?

I’d love to see Apple change this, preferably by changing the save-destination to the Files app. Ideally, a user should be able to specify in the Settings app whether they are stored locally or go to a folder on iCloud Drive.

Imagine how clean and usable everyone’s libraries could become!