Challenging Three Apple Myths

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

People love stories. Most of all, people love myths: stories that boil things down to their simplest form, regardless of their basis in actual fact. There’s good and evil, right and wrong, winner and loser. Myths often persist despite strong evidence to the contrary.

For many years now, I would argue that three myths about Apple have taken hold, all deployed against the company by the tech press for clicks. Apple is by no means a perfect company but unfortunately, many of its fans have come to accept these myths and the short-term thinking that underlies them. In some cases, we even start to see a kind of factional fandom, where Mac users persecute iPad users for their preference and vice versa.

At last week’s WWDC 2019, I believe that we witnessed a momentous turning point in Apple’s history: a single moment in corporate communications that challenged the greatest myths about the company. In the following sections, I wish to address each of these myths and how they have been dispelled in the Tim Cook era.

Myth No. 1: Apple Can’t Do Services Well

Ask anyone what Apple does best and they’re likely to answer with hardware. For years, Apple has been famous for its attention to detail: whether the diamond-chamfered edges of iPhone 5S; the fluid, intuitive design of iPod’s click wheel; or the use of curvature continuity in the design of various products, such as Apple TV and Mac mini.

Of course, software has always been the second thing to come to mind, whether it be macOS, iOS or apps such as iPhoto and iMovie HD, which helped to usher in the digital hub of the early 2000s.

Despite the crucial role that services have had in Apple’s playbook for years, they have never been fully understood. Consider the iTunes Store, App Store, iCloud and iMessage: these are massive Internet undertakings that have come to form the basis of an unfathomably huge global ecosystem of products and ecommerce.

To my mind, the argument that Apple can’t do services well was cemented in people’s minds by the failure of iCloud’s predecessor, MobileMe. Plagued by synchronisation flaws for mail, contacts and calendars, anti-fans and devoted fans alike felt that this was evidence for Apple’s services myth. No matter how hard the company tried, it just couldn’t weave its hardware magic on Internet services.

With the App Store and iCloud, Apple really began to dispel this myth, tying together millions (then billions) of mobile devices.

More recently, in March this year, Apple also held its first ever services-focused event. This was a big move that showed Apple’s willingness not only to appeal to different (less techy) audiences, but also the company’s courage to communicate beyond its bread and butter of hardware and software. I wrote about this event at the time and you can read more about it here.

At WWDC 2019, I believe that Apple finally proved that it can do services well and communicate about them effectively. The WWDC keynote is arguably the hardest communications piece that Apple has in any given year, as it must not only address a room of thousands of third-party developers, but also millions of customers through the live stream, all of whom have varying interests, experience and understanding of the company.

With Tim Cook’s opening piece about services and the segue into tvOS, Apple showed that it understands the equal part that services now play in its offerings. Hardware is what made Apple famous, software is what keeps the die-hard fans in the ecosystem and services are the new glue that attracts and keeps new users in its fold.

iCloud, the App Store and Apple ID showed that Apple could create successful services. The March event showed that they could announce more. The WWDC 2019 keynote showed that they could plan new Music, Podcasts and TV apps to make them a tangible reality on their oldest platform. With services now on billions of devices around the world, Apple has proven itself as a services company.

MobileMe was over 10 years ago and Apple and its followers should now consider the services myth dead.

Myth No. 2: Apple Is Doomed without Steve Jobs

This is perhaps the most quoted myth and with good reason—Jobs left once before and Apple almost collapsed. With his return in 1997, the world witnessed arguably the most unbelievable comeback story in the history of business. Apple was the underdog but by thinking different, it rose to become the ultimate tech giant. Again, people love stories and this is a simple one to follow.

Jobs died in October 2011 and despite considerable evidence to the contrary, users, anti-fans and the business and tech press believed only one thing: Apple was doomed without him. Cook had covered Jobs during his medical leave before and not long after taking over, clearly expressed his intention to take Apple further and address major issues such as privacy and the environment. There was Apple University too, a training programme intended to carry on Jobs’s values, yet many still didn’t believe that the company could be as successful under Cook.

Even with Apple University, Jobs reportedly told Apple’s senior management that in his future absence, he did not wish for the company to be paralysed by the thought of, ‘What would Steve do?’. In the years since his death, we have seen (in random order):

  • the release of Swift;
  • the biggest corporate push into augmented reality;
  • the most vocal corporate promotion of user privacy;
  • soaring iPhone profits;
  • the reboot of iPad sales growth;
  • the introduction of an entirely new platform in the form of Apple Watch, which is now the world’s most popular watch;
  • an answer to Spotify with Apple Music and the reintroduction of the white earbuds (AirPods) as a global auditory status symbol;
  • the creation of one of the world’s most popular (yet arguably hidden) social networks in the form of iMessage; and
  • Apple’s achievement as the world’s first trillion-dollar company.

WWDC 2019 showed us that Apple continues to think differently without Steve. With the introduction of the new Mac Pro during the opening keynote, for example, Apple displayed two important things: its ability to apologise and ability to change its mind.

Back at the Mac round table in 2017, Apple explained the failure of its 2013 ‘trash can’ Mac Pro, apologised to its pro customers and committed to making a computer that, until that point, had been all but replaced with the all-in-one iMac Pro. Jobs was (in)famous for changing his mind—think iPod Video—and with the new Mac Pro, Apple also changed its entire pro strategy after listening to customers. Despite many saying that Apple had no interest in ever returning to the pro market, it has made a truly modular computer with upgradeable parts and brilliant display that even the most optimistic fans did not think was possible.

Furthermore, on the privacy angle, at WWDC 2019 Apple announced ‘Sign in with Apple’ and a new, offline location feature under the ‘Find My’ app and service. In a global Internet industry where tech giants have profited from the harvesting, sharing and exploitation of user data, Apple has shown that it’s determined to do the opposite. The iPhone might have been its cash cow for some time but with its diversification of products and services, Apple is finding ways to grow its cash pile whilst respecting the data of its customers.

For the last eight years since Jobs’s passing, despite missteps such as Apple Maps, the earlier de-emphasis of the Mac and everyone’s favourite (cough) laptop keyboard, the company has shown that it is willing to listen to customers and is not doomed without him.

Myth No. 3: Apple Can’t Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time

During Macworld 2000, as part of the introduction of Mac OS X, Steve Jobs outlined Apple’s intention to implement a ‘single-OS strategy’. You can see it in the video below, with his mention of the strategy 30 seconds into the presentation.

This was a pivotal moment in Apple’s history. Mac OS X was described as a system that would take Apple through the next 20 years. Leaving behind years of wasted time and efforts across a confusing product line, Jobs’s strategy was to offer appealing products in a simplified Four Quadrant product grid, with OS X at the core of the digital hub experience.

This served the company well but over the years, the myth took hold that Apple was incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. Apple could never scale its obsessive hardware and software design to the masses without compromise and it certainly couldn’t juggle multiple platforms. Any additional platforms, product or strategies would take the company astray and repeat the disaster of the 1990s.

At WWDC 2019, we saw the final proof that this myth is utterly incorrect. At breakneck speed, Apple made numerous major announcements across all of its platforms, including macOS, iOS, tvOS, watchOS, audioOS (as part of iOS) and even the entirely new and rebranded iPadOS. This doesn’t even get into the amazing work that was done with SwiftUI.

With iPadOS and Project Catalyst particularly—Apple’s effort to bring iPad software to the Mac and vice versa—Apple has shown that it is willing to redefine its own idea of computing on tablets and the Mac and throw out the single-OS strategy. This strategy, whilst useful at the time of Jobs’s return, is now outdated. Instead, we see a world of varying devices, all designed with different form factors, users and contexts in mind. Although it has had great success in its cloud services for the enterprise, Microsoft has inherited the single-OS strategy, attempting to shoehorn the same operating system into devices of varying sizes, without the elegant size-classes or appropriately shaped buttons for each case. This is a consequence of having missed the mobile revolution.

In the place of the single-OS strategy, which was once necessary for survival, Apple has opted for a multiple-platform strategy, all unified by the same code base. By giving developers easier, faster tools and a more consistent development experience for each OS, Apple can now build an even more compelling ecosystem for its varied global user base.

Returning to the point of long-term thinking in the second section, all of these OS efforts have taken an extraordinary amount of time to develop. Moreover, they rely on Swift, one of Apple’s most groundbreaking recent announcements, even to be possible.

Long described as a big company with start-up-style thinking and business practices, Apple has brought together a multitude of working parts over years of development to usher in what is essentially the post-NeXT era. Indeed, Mac OS X has served Apple for around 20 years as Jobs predicted, even as the basis for development on iOS, the company’s most successful platform. We are now moving into a time when Catalyst and SwiftUI will radically transform the way that we think about and use our devices, as well as the experiences that Apple can offer.

The fact that Apple was able to coordinate teams across hardware, software and services to announce simultaneously all of these developments at the WWDC 2019 keynote is simply astounding. Consider the third and final myth officially busted.

One More Thing…

WWDC 2019 instilled more confidence in the Apple developer community perhaps more than any conference before it. Finally, Apple’s years of fruitful labour have been put on show. There’s so much to look forward to as developers tinker with Apple’s newest tools.

As we quickly approach a new decade and inevitably look back at Apple’s explosive change and success in the 2010s, I have no doubt that a new, unexpected myth will begin to spread:

Apple is doomed without Tim Cook.