For Apple, tech isn’t about the gadgets

It’s the time of year when tech companies and the media flock to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. But not Apple, and for good reason.

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Credit: Martyn Williams

Ah, the Consumer Electronics Show. Home to smart fridges, video games, automotive technology, and a whole lot of technological gadgets and junk. It’s bad enough sifting through all the news from the comfort of my own office—I just heave a sigh of relief that I haven’t needed to actually set foot at the show in almost a decade.

And the reason that I’ve been able to avoid the Las Vegas Convention Center is because Apple isn’t really a presence there. Oh, sure, there are plenty of companies developing iPhone add-ons or showing off their new apps, but Apple itself doesn’t attend in any official capacity. That’s in large part because the company is perfectly capable of making its own splash whenever it wants to, simply by calling a press event.

But another big reason is that Apple simply doesn’t see itself as a “gadget” purveyor that needs to compete with any of the other companies at the show. Because when it comes to CES, gadgets are a lot of what draw the eye.

Vapor where?

While there are plenty of gadgets at CES that are available for purchase—or soon will be—the overriding feel of the show is often a bit like those concept cars that auto companies always seem to trot out: something that looks incredibly sleek and cool, but will never actually be a product that you can buy. That’s diametrically opposed to Apple’s own philosophy, which is to generally not even talk about a product until it’s actually ready to ship.

Vaporware is one of a few types of products that seem to grab most of the headlines from CES, another being the sort of kitschy ridiculous things that even the tech enthusiasts like to laugh at: smart hairbrushes, smart pet feeders, even smart underwear. In some ways, CES begins to feel like a technology flea market—and not the super nerdy but kind of cool sort where you can find old vintage technology.

That’s just not the image that Apple wants to promote to its customers and potential customers. Its brand has been, at least for the last decade, about elegance, luxury, and understated cool. That no longer computes with cavernous exhibit halls full of ugly gaming PCs and people hawking battery packs by the dumpster load.

Commodity market

Many gadgets of the kind you see at these tradeshows also have a whiff of commoditization about them that Apple would probably like to avoid. Think of television after television that gets rolled out at CES, all with the latest and greatest stats and buzzwords: 4K, HDR, SUHD. (Just in case you were wondering why Apple never decided to get into the TV market.) It’s all about the revolving door of the newest and most updated devices, and that’s simply not the way Apple rolls.

In fact, Apple’s been trying to get away from “speeds and feeds” since back when the Mac’s PowerPC processors were constantly being stacked up against their Intel rivals. Such quantitative comparisons are ultimately unavoidable: in the mobile market we’ve moved from talking about processors and memory to screen size, battery life, and camera megapixels. Obviously, it’s a lot harder to stack up qualitative comparisons of usability and design than to just simply compare two numbers and say one of them is bigger.

Go go gadgets!

That’s not to say that Apple entirely shies away from the gadget space. Two of the company’s most recent products, the Apple Watch and AirPods, could easily be described as “gadgets.” Apple, of course, would probably rather see them as luxury products, little different from an iPhone or a Mac.

So is Apple in the gadget business, despite its best efforts? Crazy as it might sound, I might argue Cupertino should make more gadgets. I’ve been intrigued by some of the standards that Apple has pushed, like AirPlay and HomeKit, but those protocols have occasionally been limited by lackluster or slow support from third parties. Apple could lead the way by producing its own products using those technologies—eating its own dog food, as the saying goes. (In the case of AirPlay speakers, the company might also realize how...uh, sub-par some of its implementation is.)

Not to mention that Apple’s dedication to creating best-in-class gadgets would help provide exemplars for third-party devices to live up to. That’s one reason I’m still bummed by the rumored demise of the AirPort line: they might have been commoditized gadgets, but heck if they weren’t good ones.

Apple’s certainly not about to turn on its heel and start exhibiting at CES; that would be ridiculous at this stage in the game. But with the AirPods and the Apple Watch, perhaps it can remember that the best thing about “gadgets” is that quite often, they’re just plain fun.

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