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.

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