After Steve and the lost soul of Apple

I'm almost done with the book "After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul". It's a painful read, not because the writing is bad, but because you can see how a company like Apple has ossified over the years. I wrote about this in a previous post (Thoughts about "After Steve: How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul") but I feel it bears some repeating, especially after watching the WWDC 2022 coverage and reflecting on what I saw.

I read through the period where Apple released the Apple Watch, which I consider the last innovative product from Apple. Smart Watches weren't really a new idea but packing them with as many sensors as Apple did was pretty remarkable (battery-life and other "rushed to production" issues notwithstanding). It also marked the last time I feel Apple stretched themselves. They started courting the world of fashion to market what is ostensibly a fashion accessory. They spent boat-loads of money to position the Apple Watch into a market that they previously had not explored. You can make the argument that they didn't succeed as much as they wanted but look on people's wrists. The likelihood of there being an Apple Watch there is pretty high. That's in no small part because they staked their claim in an existing market and made it their own.

And this is where Apple has traditionally thrived. They weren't the first personal computer by a long-shot, but they were the first ones to make a personal computer that spoke to a multiple number of audiences (hackers, business-folks, education, enthusiasts, and so on). The Apple ][ didn't create the personal computer market but it defined it. When Atari created their answer in the form of the Atari 400 / 800 they had a hard time competing because Apple had already set the standard. It also helped that Steve Jobs was shrewd in focusing on what he viewed as important and not things he deemed unimportant (like FCC shielding). It's hard to underestimate how much Steve Jobs shaped Apple by redefining the market. Witness how many phones look like the iPhone. Before the iPhone we had a plethora of diversity. Now these machines are uniformly boring save for a few outliers here and there.

When Steve was alive you could expect Apple to stir things up a bit. The various iterations of the iMac attest to that. It hit a zeitgeist where folks were looking for something a little more stylish than their beige machines. It also didn't hurt that Volkswagen came out with the redesigned Beetle around the same time. Those two events are inextricably linked in my mind. Even the goofy looking iMac lamp design had a charm of its own.

I've only owned a handful of Mac machines (Used versions of the IIci and a Quadra 840AV back when they were relatively moribund, along with an Intel Powerbook around 2008 that was my work computer). I had an iPhone for a separate work phone. I loved the interface of the Macintosh. It's part of the reason I use the GNOME Desktop: it's metaphors map closely with those on the Macintosh. The Macintosh had a user interface that was unimpeachable for how solidly everything fit together. It had polish, style, and panache. Everything else felt clunky by comparison. To use a food metaphor, the Macintosh interface had mis en place - everything felt well-prepared and everything was where you expected it to be.

Judging from what I've read from folks who use the Macintosh it's lost a lot of that mis en place since Steve died.

Worse, you can feel that the MBAs have taken over Apple. Apple is highly efficient at getting products out there. They've nailed that part so well it's almost obscene. They have enough money to throw at a problem to make their suppliers jump to attention to fix it.

But MBAs are not creative folks. They see the world as it is. Perhaps the bright MBAs at Apple can see farther than the low-rent MBAs in the automotive industry, but you're not going to get creativity from an MBA; you're going to get a balance sheet.

And this is what makes "After Steve" such a hard read. The computer industry has grown complacent. Few things feel fresh or innovative. You can't point to any technology since 2015 and say "wow, this has redefined how I view computers". Sure, you could make a case for virtual reality or augmented reality, but those have been percolating since the 1990s. We're just now getting the technology to realize those dreams in better detail. They're not innovations on the scale of redefining computing, they're realizations of yesteryear's dreams.

Apple used to be the industry's alarm clock. You can point to Apple releases as being the wake-up call for things like graphical user interfaces (Macintosh, 1984), translucent cases (iMac), Aluminum cases (Macintosh, again), portable music players that didn't suck (iPod), mobile keyboard-less devices (iPhone), and wearables that didn't look like you were channeling Dick Tracy (Apple Watch). You can even point to those dippy-looking Airpods as being a wake-up call for the industry to do better. Apple has been the taste-maker for the computer / consumer electronics industry for a long time now. But that influence is waning. Watching WWDC I didn't get the sense of someone taste-making. Apple felt like it was iterating yet again.

(Also someone needs to tell Craig Federighi that he missed his calling as a morning DJ.)

Apple has become Detroit. They're busy putting new tail-lights and a fashionable grille in old tech and calling it the latest model. Sure, they've iterated on the software side and made some interesting improvements, but they're not the kinds of game-changing technology that Apple was known for.

And that's why "After Steve" is so painful to read. It highlights how this happened, and how Apple truly lost its soul in the process.

I'm not saying Apple will go away any time soon. They have more money than most superpowers. But they've really undermined what made Apple the spicy company that defined the industry.

That's the real tragedy of Apple. They've become the staid iterators like the automotive industry.