Behind the WWDC Glitter
Jun 14, 2013 5:00 AM PT
Going into WWDC I think Apple enthusiasts were so pent up for some Apple awesomeness -- myself included -- that we let the soft and low-voiced cooing of design knight Jony Ive lull us into a receptive state more akin to the wooing of a potential partner than a critical study of design principles. It's not like we had beer goggles on going into the iOS 7 portion of the WWDC keynote, but I have to say. . . on the next day, iOS 7 isn't something I'm going to want to touch every night before I fall asleep.
It's not that iOS 7 is bad. In fact, it's pretty damn good. It's just not insanely great.
Still, despite its irritating pieces and parts, it shows that Apple has made some strides, and when paired with the sexy new Mac Pro and the defensive/offensive posturing about Apple's identity as a business. . . I remain pleased. Apple has proven that it can refill its mojo.
The Mac Pro Innovation
Apple took one of its least popular Mac models and totally redesigned it, turning it into a product that stokes desire not only for the powerful processing brains on the inside but also for the slick body on the outside.
On the surface, this seems like a dumb move, unworthy of the time and effort. Apple could have simply slammed new processors and graphics cards into the old rectangular tower just like everyone else, painted it piano black, and called it good. The pros would have bought it.
So how is innovating madly on a product that's not expected to sell gobs of units really smart? After all, it's not mobile. Sure, you can pick it up, and it might be quiet enough to sit on top of your desk rather than under it, but seriously, it's just a desktop-based workhorse computer. Isn't it?
No, no it's not.
Apple turned it into a flagship model of design. Most people aren't going to buy the most expensive car from their favorite manufacturer, but they like to see it. Why? It's cool. It's reassuring that someone knows what the heck they are doing, that someone wants to build things they are proud of, that deserve to exist in the world.
This is pure Apple. This is part of Apple's mojo. By not neglecting the Mac Pro -- and in fact, bringing it to America for manufacturing -- Apple is absolutely refusing to let anyone consider Apple an old and fading company.
Is it over engineering? No. As long as the Mac Pro doesn't turn out to be a portable heating device that grandma will hold her hands out to while visiting, that triangular core and tubular venting system represent a rejection of the engineering status quo.
Practically, the Mac Pro becomes a unit worthy of placement in Apple Retail Stores. People who will never buy one will touch it, and their opinions of Apple will become stronger.
The iOS 7 Juggernaut
iOS 7, on the other hand, is a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't challenge. For starters, Apple has millions of users who already know the interface inside and out, who can swipe and tap without really thinking, who want something new and fresh but don't want to get lost. The challenge? Deliver freshness and vitality without making existing customers rewire their brains. I get this. But how? Where do you start? What is the organizing principle?
Some critics have said the Ive is not a software designer. Not his expertise. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Right now, iOS 7 is enough of a decent leap forward that it shows that Ive and Apple are thinking seriously about iOS 7 and how to modernize it. Insanely great? No. But iOS 7 has something far more important going for it right now, and that's an organizing principle. As near as I can tell, Ive brings clarity of the organizing principle to the table -- to strive for simplicity, to "bring order to complexity."
Apple has taken the notion of layers and is using it as a development standard: "Distinct functional layers help establish hierarchy and order." In addition, the layers let Apple create visual depth and a sense of vitality -- Ive's words, not mine -- which Apple will be able to refine and enhance with all the core functions and apps.
Seems like esoteric stuff, yes? Kind of. It takes time for a group to come together, to work through technical hurdles, to iterate through silliness and mistakes and find perfection. If a design team -- or any team -- doesn't have organizing principles that direct their creativity and thought, they'll never create anything amazing. Never.
So while iOS 7's design gives me groan, what I've seen so far gives me hope. There is a framework for the future, and with a framework in place, building is possible, and if Apple finally gets confident in its organizing principles, it might loosen its claws and allow users the ability to customize their experience.
The even better news? We've got a few months before iOS 7 will ship. There's a good chance that Apple will take a step back and realize that the soft palette of purple and pinkish colors makes the iPhone look like it was designed for teenage and tweener girls. If Apple doesn't figure this out, I'll try to create my own background wallpaper of some bold and deep color -- a dark red or deep green or charcoal and hope like heck the translucency doesn't make me think of falling asleep in Unicorn Land surrounded by pastel lava lamps and the light blue species of butterflies that like to land on horse poop.
Apple on Offense
As the largest and most successful consumer tech company in the history of the universe, Apple finds itself at the top of the mountain. Since so many of us are playing king of the hill, we're throwing rocks and charging the top.
This is an issue separate from the loss of Steve Jobs. Criticism of Apple has been at an all-time high -- not so much due to the facts of Apple's delivery schedule of products, but more so do to Apple's crazy success. Had Jobs still been running Apple, the criticism would have come anyway -- but Jobs would have been able to address and divert with his shiny charisma and piercing eyes.
Apple doesn't have those tools any more, so it has to adjust.
Consequently, we get to hear Apple CEO Tim Cook repeat himself again and again, as if Wall Street analysts, investors and naysayers are small children who aren't listening to his words.
"Our goal at Apple is to make amazing products that our customers love," he says repeatedly. Apple even created the aforementioned design video with Ive just to show that Apple is thinking seriously about everything it does. Even more so is the new video ad, "Designed by Apple in California."
Is this defensive backpedalling?
I don't think so. I do think Apple's executives are baffled at the negativity they've seen over the last year -- especially when they look at all the metrics that say how much more usage online and in stores the Apple iPad and iPhone get despite all the raw numbers of Android-based sales. Isn't that proof that Apple is doing something right?
Isn't Apple's massive profit advantage in the smartphone space a proof-point of success, too? But Apple can only mention these studies and these numbers, and Cook did so at the WWDC keynote. I believe that Apple realizes if it leans too heavily on those sorts of studies and numbers, the company will seem shrill.
If Apple doesn't get this right, doesn't make the world re-see Apple as a company that puts incredible effort and thought into design and its goals, it'll get beaten down into the least common denominator of expectations -- build cheap iPhones, pump out products faster, and turn into a Samsung that creates a new smartphone each month as if it's throwing products against the wall to see what sticks. That can work; it's not a terrible strategy. It's just not Apple and never has been.
So when I see things like the somewhat trite and manipulative "Designed by Apple in California" ad, I'm pleased to see Apple working harder to drive this kind of message further into the world's consciousness.
It refills Apple's cup of mojo, both for employees and customers alike. And now I think it's half full.