It’s said that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. Well, it’s said in The Usual Suspects. It’s not like it’s a quote from Wittgenstein or Descartes or Oprah.
But perhaps the greatest trick Apple ever pulled is convincing the world that it’s an innovative company.
In one sense, this is an argument so well-worn it’s actually a bit silly we’re still talking about it. No, Apple wasn’t the first to make a personal music player, a smartphone, a tablet, even a computer with a GUI. Its magic is and always was in wrapping the right set of compromises up in something that looked irresistible to the discerning, affluent, and often mildly technophobic audience it wanted.
In Monday morning’s keynote, though, there was something else at play. Despite being held aloft on a frothing fountain of bombast, some of what Apple launched at the opening of WWDC was…old-fashioned.
With News, we got yet another attempt to present and package up newspaper and magazine-style content, and it will strike anyone who works in those industries as perplexing, if welcome, that Apple is still devoting time to solving that problem, given that we’ve been told for a decade or two that newspapers and magazines are history.
And deep in history, as it happens, is where they came from. We’ve had newspapers since the 17th century, and it’s a testament to the robustness of the basic idea that Apple, a company that for most would be synonymous with the most advanced consumer technology in the world, still thinks newspapers are relevant.
Look too at Beats 1, Apple’s new radio station. A radio station?! Is there a less sexy mass communication platform in the world? For me, it conjures up images of a chap in bow tie standing behind a plate-sized microphone, informing you in a cut-glass accent that the old King has died.
For all Apple’s ballyhoo about how innovative Beats 1 is—it’s 24/7! it’s coming at you from three cities!—it’s still basically a format that we’ve had since we kids. Sure, there are frills around the edges that are novel—I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when millions of people all over the world listen to a song at the same time. But there’s no getting away from the fact that, again, the core technology and model here is hardly new. Worse, if like me you’re in the U.K., thus far it looks and smells exactly and specifically like a BBC radio station—something between Radio 6 Music, 1Xtra, and Radio 1.
Even one of the welcome new features on iOS 9 on an iPad, picture-in-picture, has a distinct whiff of the retro about it.
One one hand, of course, none of this matters a damn. A good idea transcends the basic logistical technology that originally delivered it, which is why we’re still reading newspapers even though we don’t use hot metal type, and why we still listen to “radio” stations even though they’re delivered over the internet rather than using radio waves. (Pleasing aside: Of course, if you listen to an internet radio station wirelessly over Wi-Fi, you are using radio waves. And a second: My parents’ generation would have called a radio set “a wireless.”)
But on the other hand, man, Apple has to be careful here. Technology companies are killed not because they make bad products but because they fail to recognize and embrace wider social changes sweeping everything along. Famously, Bill Gates acknowledged that Microsoft never saw the internet coming, and you could argue the company never quite recovered from that misstep.
My favorite Apple exec is Phil Schiller. Dude looks like he went on a journey of self-discovery and liked the affable, jeans-wearing uncle figure he found. And yes, even if they roll their eyes, lots of people like Craig Federighi’s dad jokes, and oh my word I’ve just remembered Eddy Cue’s actual dad dancing. Everyone loves their dad, right?
Stay hungry, though, Apple; stay foolish. Stay young. Stay curious and open. Stay relevant.
This isn’t an “Apple is doomed” piece; I am bullish as always that the company generally knows better what it’s doing than some schmuck on the internet, and I will happily attribute to coincidence the peculiar conservatism of some of Apple’s next big business plays contained within a single keynote.
I like things that are old-fashioned, including but not limited to Old Fashioneds themselves. And “innovation” doesn’t mean you dogmatically refuse to incorporate anything that existed before you sat down with a latte and a Moleskine notebook, ready to change the world. Just be sure you’re building on the best of the past, not retreating to it.