Meet the new Apple, same as the old Apple

Watching Apple through the lens of public perception, it would be easy to buy into the idea that the company has been under siege of late. But even if that were the case, it’s clear that Apple isn’t buying the hype. Each of the executives who took to the stage on Monday conveyed, to a one, both excitement and confidence about the future direction of Apple—and they brought the announcements to prove it.

In 2011, my colleague Jason Snell likened Steve Jobs’s WWDC keynote to The Godfather, with Apple taking care of all old business. This year’s keynote wasn’t perhaps quite so dramatic, but with major revisions of OS X and iOS, a sneak peek at the new Mac Pro, speed-bumped MacBook Airs, a music-streaming service, and the future of iWork—all in a reasonably compact two hours—you’d be excused from a little bit of brain overload.

The best defense

All this, too, from an Apple that’s been largely silent since its last event in October. Meanwhile, the company has suffered, largely in silence, the slings and arrows from the public, pundits, Wall Street analysts, and even Congress. The company has been under fire for everything from the performance of its mapping software, to allegations of ebook price-fixing, to scrutiny over its tax practices.

The company’s latest announcements are unlikely to divert attention permanently—after all, the litigation over ebooks is ongoing, and it seems that questions over the tax issues have just gotten started.

But it’s clear, from watching Monday’s keynote, that all of that was merely a sideshow. Apple has shifted the conversation back to an arena where it’s far more comfortable, where it can talk about the things that it’s actually making rather than just going on the defensive about all of those uncomfortable, technical business issues.

Tim Cook spoke to Apple's overall mission, which remains creating products that its customers love.

CEO Tim Cook repeatedly drove home the point that Apple sees its mission as designing products that people love. And while he drew upon market share, usage data, and customer satisfaction numbers to bolster that statement, it was the products themselves that stole the show. Applause is normal at an Apple keynote—and even the occasional call or whoop from the audience—but Monday’s event had what has to be a record for the number of times that executives on stage responded to those in the audience.

It’s a far more affectionate rapport than we’ve seen in the past, where Apple sometimes comes across as more of a cool, (usually) benevolent overlord, issuing proclamations to its subjects. Instead, Apple executives seemed more jazzed than usual, like that friend that really wants you to check out the latest album they bought.

Too many cooks

In the years that I’ve been covering Apple keynotes, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an event where the presenters were this relaxed—or this assertive. While there’s no doubt that the late Steve Jobs was a master showman, and he certainly enjoyed poking fun at the press or Apple’s competitors from time to time, the other executives invited to the stage often seemed to dwindle in his presence.

Not so on Monday. In fact, CEO Tim Cook was the most reserved of the bunch, resigned as he was to repeating many of the company’s numbers and milestones, as well as commenting on the company’s big-picture view. Instead, we got the surprisingly dynamic duo of Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, and the veteran Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, who appeared on stage to demo software and hardware announcements, respectively.

Apple's new software engineering chief, Craig Federighi, took on the biggest role in Monday's keynote, introducing new versions of OS X and iOS.

Not afraid of shooting back at competitors—Schiller’s “Can’t innovate, my ass” comes to mind—Apple’s keynote presenters also took plenty of shots at the company’s own recent decisions, especially the skeuomorphic trends that dominated some earlier releases.

“Game Center…we just completely ran out of green felt,” quipped Federighi about the redesign of Apple’s social gaming service. Likewise gone is Calendar’s leather stitching, and Newsstand’s wood shelving—which, as Federighi noted, “has to be good for the environment.”

Overall, there seemed to be a more harmonious—even buoyant—mood pervading Monday’s keynote announcements. It’s the kind of attitude that comes with a clear sense of purpose.

Though it’s only been nine months or so since the unceremonious departure of Apple’s previous iOS head, Scott Forstall, a lot’s been accomplished in that time. Forstall’s removal has seriously changed the creative equation inside the company, and, in retrospect, it seems almost obvious that there were simply too many cooks in Apple’s kitchen. The company does its best work when it’s unified in its mission, and the one-two punch of Federighi and Apple’s design guru Jonathan Ive appears to have the company firing on all cylinders.

Tim Cook’s Apple

There’s also been a lot of talk over the past few months that Apple is behind the game, that the company has lost its innovative drive since the death of Steve Jobs. And while there will always be those who argue that Apple’s best days are behind it, after Monday’s presentation those folks have an uphill argument ahead of them.

Like many other companies, Apple undergoes a tonal shift every few years, revamping its marketing, its aesthetics, and even its terminology. (Just think back to the transition from candy-colored Macs to monochrome black-and-white Macs to the aluminum-and-glass Macs of today.) That’s clearly happening now—just look at the company’s latest commercials, culminating in the one that Tim Cook showed off at the end of Monday’s keynote. This is an Apple’s that talking about the experience of technology. That’s not a departure from the Apple of yesteryear, but it does put the emphasis on it in a different way—it wasn’t that long ago that Apple ads rarely showed anything but the product itself; now we’ve gotten 180 degrees to ads that show people and just hint at a product.

Is this a sign that we’re seeing Tim Cook’s own vision of Apple? Sure. But make no mistake: Tim Cook’s Apple is also Steve Jobs’s Apple. At the core, the company and its focus on products remains the same—we’re just seeing it through a different lens.

Updated at 10:11 a.m. PT with a video report from IDG News Service.

Updated on 6/11 at 10:29 a.m. PT to clarify Phil Schiller's quote.

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