Apple and Its Ever-changing, Unchanging Ecosystem

Image credit: Apple
Image credit: Apple

In case you missed Apple’s latest keynote this week (not sure how), the company announced the new seventh-generation iPad, Apple Watch Series 5 and iPhones 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max and gave updates on retail, Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade.

Naturally, the event has already been covered to death. The coverage may be summarised as follows:

  • ‘Midnight green? What were they thinking?’;
  • ‘So what’s the point of the iPad Air now?’;
  • Will the game demos ever stop?!’;
  • There’s really nothing that they can do to improve the watch and I doubt that I’d need to buy a new one even if… OMG AN ALWAYS-ON DISPLAY!!!’; and
  • It’s great that they’re giving Apple TV+ away for a year with new devices but yeah I’m not so sure about it… look at Disney+!’.

It’s this last point about Apple’s emphasis on services like Apple TV+ that has really gripped most fans and commentators in recent times when looking at Apple events. So much of it is pure speculation at this point. Reflecting on the event, however, I found the most impressive and important part of the whole presentation to be the video that was shown at the very beginning, called Wonderful Tools. It is an antidote to this concern.

When this started, I was absolutely transfixed. Apple encapsulated its design philosophy and history in under two minutes. It set the scene for the product announcements that followed.

Of course, as the keynote progressed and the new announcements came and went, the Web (Twitter, really) lit up with users obsessing about specific features, colours and the direction of Apple Arcade and Apple TV+. Even with positive reactions to certain elements of the products and services, there is still a prevailing idea that with this big push for services and (perceived) product evolution rather than revolution, Apple is somehow different from what it once was. The event received a bit of a ‘meh’ from many. The hardware focus is apparently at risk.

Yet I don’t believe that Apple has changed much at all. Wonderful Tools is evidence of this and that Apple retains a focus on hardware. Reviewing everything that was featured in the video, the only things that were strictly services were Apple TV+, Apple Music, Find My and (to a degree) Siri.

Apple enthusiasts and analysts say that specs aren’t everything, yet they often focus on tiny details rather than the broader narrative. Looking into the fairly recent past, we can see that Apple has been telling the same story over and over again, reassuring its customers of its commitment to an ecosystem that is centred on hardware.

For example, in one of my all-time favourite Apple ads, Designed Together, Apple showed off its consistent design language in hardware and software with the iPhone 5c.

In the masterful piece Intention, we see Apple telling the story of ‘a thousand nos for every yes’ in what it chooses to make and how it makes it. In my view, this is the epitome of Apple’s brand storytelling.

Now, some will say that Apple no longer lives up to this ideal. How could it? In a world where services are now on the rise, Apple will attach a fee to whatever it can. Apple simply wants to turn everything into a service and is hellbent on creating new ways to make money out of its existing customers, as it sells fewer iPhones each quarter over time.

Sure, Apple will never say no to more cash but the thing is: none of these services are really new; they are just old ideas recycled.

Look at Apple Music and the more recently announced Apple TV+ and Apple TV Channels. They are not new services; they are the inevitable streaming replacements for iTunes. You know how people say that Apple has never been able to do services? Apple built the world’s most successful mainstream digital music service and it’s now dying a slow death as people turn to streaming. Something has to replace it when people eventually stop buying and owning music.

What about Apple News+? Well, back with the launch of iOS 5, Apple launched the clunky and now defunct Newsstand. In addition, during the early days of iPad, Steve Jobs announced the first iPad-only digital publication with News Corporation, The Daily (also gone). Right, so Apple isn’t really in any new territory here; it’s just a different app with a rejigged distribution and payment model.

What about the way the company takes users’ money for extra iCloud storage? All of this cloud stuff is sort of new! Well, again, before iCloud there was eWorld, iTools, .Mac and MobileMe, which all offered some different take on the same old idea of an online service that bound products together. Apple has long charged for this kind of thing.

Aha! What about Apple Arcade?! That’s a new service entirely! Not exactly… remember Game Centre, Apple’s earlier idea of a gaming service? Game Centre’s intention was to provide a way for Apple device users to play and compete in games through the App Store, encouraging them to buy more games. (It continues to hang around kind of invisibly today.) Apple Arcade is just a clearer, more comprehensive subscription service that does away with the confusion of old. It’s like Apple Music but Apple just funds the content.

Let’s not forget that the App Store in general is also perhaps Apple’s greatest service, in addition to iMessage, which is in itself a social network—the definition of a service. Oh, now that I think of it, Apple Maps is also a service, along with the entire Apple Store experience, including sales, support, classes and Today at Apple sessions, spread across physical and online environments.

Back in June, I wrote a piece called Challenging Three Apple Myths, discussing the following common ideas:

  1. Apple can’t do services well;
  2. Apple is doomed without Steve Jobs; and
  3. Apple can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

Looking back and taking all the aforementioned services into account, I can now see that I missed the great modern myth about Apple, which appears in much of the reporting about the company today:

Apple is turning increasingly into a services company.

Observing the video examples above and tracing Apple’s evolution of the same service ideas over and over again, the reality is in fact the opposite:

Apple has long been a services company.

People are so obsessed by what is new and shiny or more specifically, that which is rebranded, that they forget what came before. They fail to see how the same ideas are recycled. It’s the only way that Google fans could possibly forgive the company for so many cancellations of online products and services, which then come back in some other form down the line.

Especially since Steve Jobs’s announcement of the digital hub strategy, Apple’s focus has always been hardware that runs its own software, all tied together by integrated services.

Apple hasn’t just realised that it needs services and must charge for them because the iPhone is a maturing cash cow; instead, Apple has finally worked out how to make high-quality, long-term services to replace older ones and that also fit the overwhelming trend of the subscription model. Apple didn’t get games and now it kind of does. Apple was slow to the catch onto the idea of streaming but now it’s getting there.

As Apple’s ecosystem continues to transform and grow ever more complex, in essence its basic philosophy and foundations has really remained unchanged: create beautiful objects that are underpinned by great software and joined by useful services. That was the point of Wonderful Tools. Services aren’t distracting from hardware; they’ve always been there and now they’re just getting better (for a more obvious fee).

For those who still aren’t convinced, they should ask themselves this:

If Apple sees itself as a services-only company in the future, on what hardware would it actually run?

Although much of the user experience rests with systems macOS and iOS and the connective tissue that is iCloud, without hardware, there is no Apple. It is the company’s identity.

Rumination 50: Will Email Ever Die?

A number of things have come up this year in my feeds that have discussed the history, value and disadvantages of email.

First of all, I watched the movie You’ve Got Mail for the first time. Yes, I know… I left it for a while after its release. This film presented the tool in a way with both caution and hope for the future.

Second, over the past few months, I’ve seen fellow Twitter users voicing their frustration about email and how their messages build up quickly, leading to anxiety in the workplace. How can they ever get through it all?

Third, on the matter of relentless promotional material in inboxes, the recent episode 257 of The Talk Show with John Gruber featured a discussion about how our email clients have become faux web browsers and a kind of ‘non-consensual technology’, which attracts various security risks and breaches. Spam and dodgy services are an unfortunate reality for just about everyone.

It’s the way that email as a communications technology has influenced our social lives and behaviour at work that interests me the most. In each of the roles that I’ve worked, I’ve seen people obsessively check their emails, worrying about losing track of the latest conversation or decision. I don’t think that email was ever intended to be used this way. It’s not really supposed to be a messaging platform for natural, turn-taking conversation. It’s literally what its name means: electronic mail.

Email is not the best tool for modern work and ongoing digital conversations. Instead, applications such as Slack, Yammer and Microsoft Teams offer better workspaces that enable you to communicate, share files and work on projects in a way that is more fluid than the reply-all method of shooting written messages everywhere. Even more casual apps like iMessage are more appropriate.

ABC News published a great article about how to approach your daily deluge of emails and what to do when you return from time away from the office. You should definitely take the time to read it, as each of the quoted contributors suggest strategies such as bulk-deleting unimportant emails that arrived whilst you were away and rewording your auto-reply to have more personality. There is also caution about the use of tools like Slack, which I mentioned above, as over-reliance on them can lead to similar problems or even a reduction in face-to-face communication between colleagues. I think that’s a fair argument, unless you work remotely all the time.

My own system is simple: if I’m at work and I’m writing something that is to be sent within the organisation, I will share it and attach any necessary files with a chat app, unless otherwise instructed. If it’s external or part of my personal life and there’s no other way to get in touch with someone reliably, then I will use email. If emails are important, then I keep them. If they’re not, then I delete them. When I’m on holiday, I remove my email account from my iPhone entirely, so that I’m not tempted to check it or accidentally stumble on something with the wrong tap of a button.

My biggest suggestion, however, regards the use of app-icon badges and lock-screen notifications. It’s also very simple: don’t use them. If you have your work email on your personal smartphone, do not enable such notifications for that account. If you must have some form of reminder or easy access, leave notifications enabled in your notification centre or equivalent pull-down pane, so that you can check them with intention.

So much of the anxiety in our daily lives comes from our devices flashing a number of useless things in our faces. If something is an emergency at work and someone needs to get in contact with you, they will send you a message in a chat app, flick a text or (dare I even suggest?) call you on the phone. Furthermore, if you’re at work, your email client is going to be open in front of you anyway.

Our smartphones and tablets are meant to be tools of creativity, productivity and daily empowerment, not vortices of distraction, depression and despair. Email will probably never die… but that is a good thing. Email offers us a way to receive the information that is important to us and get in touch with people around the world. It’s a kind of standard and just needs to be used moderately and appropriately.

If we choose to have email access on our portable devices, like the social networks that have taken over so many other aspects of our lives, then let’s be deliberate in the way that we use it.

Remembering iBook: the ‘iMac to Go’

This year is a major anniversary for the beloved iBook, which was first announced and released in 1999. 20 years! Along with iMac, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018, iBook helped to reinvigorate Apple’s product line with a cool, new take on the clamshell design that has come to define laptops, along with a focus on wireless computing and bold colours.

The website apple-history.com does a great job of summing up the role that this device played at the time:

Announced in July 1999 at Macworld New York, the iBook was perhaps the most anxiously awaited Apple computer ever. Aimed at the same consumer market as it’s [sic] big brother, the iMac, the iBook filled the 2×2 consumer/ pro/desktop/portable matrix that Steve Jobs had first detailed more than a year earlier. Its specs closely resembled that of the iMac, with the same ba- sic i/o options, and the same “closed system” concept. In order to bring the price down as far as possible, the design team removed the PC slots, IR, video-out and audio-in ports. The iBook also lacked a high-speed data-port, such as SCSI or firewire.

Mac user Linus Edwards also wrote a retrospective piece in 2013, which was featured on 512 Pixels by Stephen Hackett. I particularly enjoyed this excerpt, which describes why the device was so distinctive:

I remember bringing the iBook home and it looked like a miniature UFO had landed on our dining room table. It was so much smaller than any com- puter I ever had, and it seemed very futuristic. I remember opening and closing its lid, in wonder of the fact it had no latch, and also that when you closed it, it would automatically go to sleep and a tiny light on the outside case would dim in and out, as if it were breathing.

Whilst I was too young in 1999 to own or afford my own computer, I remember seeing them advertised and appearing in public when I was a kid. Being a child of the late Classic Mac era, watching Apple’s transition from a world of beige to a new age of colourful, translucent hardware and its Aqua-themed Mac OS X was very striking. My wife, Natasha, was kind enough to find an iBook for me online a few years ago. Fortunately, she picked the best colour: tangerine. (Fun fact: Jony Ive kicked off his design career with a firm by the name of Tangerine.) You can get a closer look at the device in the photos at the bottom of this article.

Approaching design as a broad concept, the following quote by Steve Jobs has been featured countless times on Apple blogs:

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.

Although iBook’s success was very much tied to the way that it worked, such as its emphasis on wireless Internet, it is perhaps more often remembered by users for how it looked. Like it or not, Apple has come to be known as a company that is known for how its products look more often than how they work and the new technologies that they help to popularise.

I love the aluminium-unibody design that has come to define modern Apple, however I would welcome the return of more colour to the company’s design lan- guage. Products such as the iPhone XR and bands for Apple Watch, with their range of bright colours, are a sign of hope in this space. It may be a stretch to hope that Apple would do the same for its laptops and other more traditional computers again, although I believe that enough time has passed since the original iBook to do it again—not with plastic, necessarily, but in a way that will help to keep Apple’s product lines fresh and innovative as we exit the Jony Ive era.

Notice the curved edges that set iBook apart from so many boxy devices at the time. Today, the use of curved corners persists on devices ranging from iPhone to Apple TV.
Like iMac, iBook shipped with an included handle. This design element first came with the original Macintosh in 1984, helping to humanise the computer and make it more approachable and portable.
For years, Apple’s keyboards on desktop and laptop models shipped with the typeface Univers. iBook ushered in the use of VAG Rounded, which persisted across models until the introduction of Apple’s own typeface, San Francisco.
Showing the time of transition that Apple was undergoing, the model name ‘iBook’ appeared above the screen rather than underneath it and was also presented in Apple Garamond, rather than the later corporate typeface Apple Myriad Pro.
iBook is (in)famous for shipping with an upside-down Apple logo at first. The idea came from Steve Jobs, who wanted the logo to be the right way around when people opened the box—yes, all a part of the unboxing experience. Not long after this, Apple reconsidered this and decided that it was more important to present the logo to *others* during active use instead.
Apple’s laptop adapters with later models were praised for their compact design, which allowed the cable to be wrapped around two prongs that you could pull out of the main body of the adapter. This earlier design matches the curviness of iBook, with the cable coiling around the entire adapter.