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 54: Quail Bags

Just over a month ago on Micro.blog, I posted a photo of an amusing shop sign, which you can see along with my caption below.


Mmmm… Kentucky Fried Handbags are fingerlickin’ good…

I loved the idea that a shop would not only come close to using the full name ‘KFC’, but also go for a design in red and white. Of course, they didn’t sell chicken there as far as I could see but it was fun to consider.

Fast-forward a month and I spotted this sign in a different local shopping centre, which aroused my suspicion about the true nature of their business.

Sure, they dropped the red and white for this sign, however there’s an important spelling mistake here that could change everything. They didn’t write ‘quality different’ (whatever that means); they wrote ‘quailty different’. I checked the Oxford English Dictionary and no such word as ‘quailty’ exists there.

I see two possible answers to this mystery. The first is that the shop owners have absolutely no idea how to spell and the people who made their signs don’t know how to spell either. (That’s the boring answer.)

The second possibility is that ‘quailty’ is in fact a bizarre fusion of ‘quality’ and ‘quail’, suggesting the use of tiny birds in the production of the handbags for sale. Whereas the hint of poultry came from the use of red and white on the first sign, the second sign also includes another strange visual element to suggest this. The graphic next to the text may look purely like some odd version of the initials ‘KF’ but I believe that these are in fact supposed to be feathers.

Let’s be serious now: I’m being totally ridiculous about this. Of course, there’s no way that these bags are actually made from quails, nor are these shops preaching a love for KFC. My point here is that if you don’t bother to spellcheck your signage or carefully consider the presentation of your branding, consumers’ imaginations can run wild. If you’re thinking of launching a brand, product or service, take the time to make sure that your messaging is clear. Otherwise someone who spends way too much time thinking about this stuff will write about you online.

Rumination 53: Needless Storytellers

I work in communications and believe very strongly in the value and power of narrative. Humans are social animals and whilst we live in an obsessive age of data and measurement, we still make sense of the world through stories that we share with each other.

Every individual, family, culture and organisation has a narrative that underpins it—a history. Increasingly, we see corporations developing and sharing their own stories to become more relatable, change public perceptions of themselves and simply make more money.

Fairly often, these stories work well. Consider the stories of tech and consumer companies like Tesla, Braun and Apple, for example, which (sometimes incidentally) position themselves around a kind of cult figure (i.e. Musk, Rams and Jobs) or some kind of design mission. Uber and Facebook, for all of their faults, end up convincing people that they are in fact revolutionising transport or connecting the world. People buy all kinds of stories.

Many other corporate storytellers, I believe, are less successful in their messaging. Their proposition is so simple and straightforward, their products so clear in their utility, that any kind of attempt at storytelling seems utterly contrived, embarrassing and needless.

I spotted such an example of needless, contrived storytelling at Max Brenner in Sydney.

In case it’s too hard to read, it presents the following as ‘Max’s Story’:

‘More than anything, I’m in love with chocolate. Chocolate is part of my childhood memories, reminding me of Mom and Dad returning home from trips abroad with a suitcase full of chocolates wrapped in crackling colourful paper. It reminds me of Grandma, hiding chocolate candies in a tin box inside a big wooden cupboard. It is part of my youth, and it always reminds me of Anna, my first love.

I’m mesmerised by the history of chocolate, and I’m entranced by the nostalgic stories around it which carry me back to long gone romantic days. Chocolate is passionate, it’s sexy and prestigious, and I always start my morning by eating some milk chocolate with nuts. For more than seven years I worked in small workshops that make chocolate. I heard of rare recipes, and of stories that pass from masters to pupils. I collected old books and utensils that tell the story of chocolate, and I travelled to Central America to get a sense of where the legend of chocolate began.

For more than 10 years now, I’ve been making by own chocolate. I invite you to watch, smell, taste and feel my love story… Max.’

This is some of the most cringeworthy corporate marketing drivel that I have ever read. What’s particularly disappointing to me is that I have no doubt that the founders of Max Brenner do have a passion for chocolate, yet they justify it like this; why else would they have started to produce and sell it?

When Max says that he loves the history and memories that surround chocolate, I believe him. The problem is that he says barely anything of any consequence and doesn’t share any of these interesting details. What are these rare recipes and are they now less rare since he’s probably making them? What are these stories from the chocolate masters? Why on Earth does chocolate specifically remind him of Anna? Did they just eat it together like everyone else or was she in fact made of chocolate? Never has a story referred to so much history in such a short space and actually said so little about it.

Before it closed in Wollongong, the Max Brenner café there displayed only the final sentence and every single time that I saw it, I felt slightly put off by it. I don’t care how much Max loves chocolate; there’s no way that I’m interested in watching, smelling and particularly tasting his love story… not going to happen.

Clearly, Max has some unhealthy views and this is perhaps most evident in his suggestion that milk chocolate with nuts is a decent breakfast. It doesn’t really matter when you eat it but you can bet that it isn’t his only portion for the day.

I do understand the value of this kind of bizarre prose: it’s an attempt to humanise the brand and remind people of the real person behind it. It does add value, in a way. My issue is that it’s just too try-hard. Rather than relying on the quality of the products or selling the feeling of which Max speaks (the one that he has cherished since childhood), he now needs to spell out this feeling to his customers and tell them how to feel about his products.

My argument is simple: a product should tell its brand’s story and create the intended special feeling as it is consumed. A feeling needs to be experienced. Declaring the story in the manner above only serves to draw attention to the sales technique and destroy the feeling that you sought to create in the first place. A hot chocolate should make me feel warm and cosy; you don’t have to tell me to hug the mug.