The strategy that guided Apple to success during the first decade of the 21st Century has run its course, however, no new vision has taken its place. The old strategy powered a revolution; portable digital devices evolved from novelties for nerds to staples of contemporary life. Now that the old strategy has accomplished its mission, what new vision will shape Apple’s future?
Our Old New Digital Lifestyle
In 2001, Steve Jobs took the stage at Macworld and presented Apple’s vision for the coming decade. This was three years after the iMac began to lift Apple out of its death spiral of the late 1990’s. It was several months before the first iPod, seven years before the first iPhone, and nine years before the first iPad. In 2001, Apple still felt like a company who had recently cheated death. The iMac had been a Hail Mary play, executed masterfully by a talented team united around a strong vision. So the question on observers’ minds was, Where is Apple going?
In that now famous presentation, Jobs laid out what Apple called the “Digital Hub” strategy for the Mac. While industry talking heads warned of the iminent death of the personal computer, Apple saw a different future. They saw a burgeoning ecosystem of portable digital devices — still cameras, video cameras, MP3 players — without an adequate means to integrate them into our new “digital lifestyle.” The Mac was the missing piece at the center of the puzzle. More specifically, it was the Mac’s software — OS X, iTunes, and iLife — that would be the glue connecting all our devices in a way that would be greater than the sum of its parts.
The rest of the decade proved how insightful this strategy was. Digital cameras replaced our film cameras. iPods replaced CD players. iPhones replaced dumb phones. By the end of the decade, a majority of people carried at least one digital device with them at all times. As each seachange cascaded across the mobile device industry, it was the Mac that remained the stable island at the center of it all.
It is easy to misunderstand the genius of the Digital Hub strategy. It was not just a syncing solution. Syncing was only a facet of the problem. iTunes and iLife were implementation details. The Digital Hub was about enabling a new lifestyle. Without a vision for how new devices could work together seamlessly, those phones, cameras, and music players would have been stars without a constellation.
From the perspective of a pocket or a purse, the decade spanning 2001 to 2011 changed everything. In 2001, many people did not carry a mobile phone, let alone a smart one. Only fifteen percent of cameras purchased were digital cameras. Portable music players were still a relative novelty. Without Apple teaching the world how to tie them all together with easy-to-use software, it is arguable that these devices would never have become mainstream.
The Digital Hub strategy helped normal people make portable devices a transparent part of their daily lives. You could sync your photos to your Mac with minimal effort because iPhoto shipped with all the drivers it needed to connect to your camera. It just worked. Similar things could be said of iTunes with your iPod, and iMovie with your home movies. It was as simple as plugging in a new toaster or filling the tank of a new car. Apple’s vision made intelligible sense of what would otherwise have been a decade of electronic noise.
The Digital Hub strategy freed Apple to introduce new products and new product categories with confidence; the Mac would be there to weave the new devices into the existing fabric. When Jobs announced the iPhone in 2007, he touted how easy it was to keep your iPhone’s contacts, email, calendars, and more in sync using iTunes on your Mac. Anyone who owned an iPod would already understand how to do it. It wasn’t until the iPhone and the iPad reached an inflection point of popularity that this strategy began to buckle. Syncing to a single Mac was becoming untenable.
In 2011 Jobs took the stage, for what would be his final WWDC keynote, to introduce the world to iCloud, the most complex product Apple has ever made. It wasn’t just technically complex. It was conceptually complex. Unlike Dropbox, it wasn’t a hard drive in the sky. Jobs repeatedly emphasized the multi-step syncing process: iCloud receives new data from one device, and “pushes” it down to your other devices.
The entire presentation is worth watching again, if only to note the following: it’s a forty minute presentation about syncing your data. It’s an explanation of implementation details for a mixed audience of developers and journalists. It does not address the biggest question in the room: now that everyone uses multiple devices in their day-to-day lives, what comes next?
Jobs began the iCloud keynote by hearkening back to the Digital Hub strategy. He made the observation that relying on a wired connection to a single Mac to sync data across multiple smart devices was driving people crazy. The Mac, in his words, needed to be demoted to the status of “just a device,” moving the digital hub “into the cloud.”
Jobs’ revival of the Digital Hub metaphor missed the forest for the trees. The old metaphor was about more than just syncing. It was about preparing a place in people’s lives for the devices to come. But by 2011 that problem had already been solved. The new problem was not just that the hub needed to move. The essential problem was that the digital hub was no longer a useful metaphor for the challenges waiting in Apple’s future.
It’s 2014 and Apple has not yet found a new guiding metaphor. Looking across all of Apple’s current products and services, it’s hard to find signs that they have a vision of a post-digital-hub world. Product lines are either treading water, or slowly drifting in contradictory directions.
Is the cold, rational look of iOS 7 a signal that iOS is going to mature into a more pro-user-friendly platform? The latest iPad marketing campaign, "Your Verse", tempts me to think so. It’s a montage of stories about the iPad as a workhorse for professionals in science, arts, and the humanities. It’s beautifully shot and inspiring.
If Apple wants the iPad to be a serious tool for serious work, why have they done so little to empower developers to build and sell productivity apps? Others have written better than I could about the frustrating lack of interaction between third-party apps, or the inability to select replacements for default applications. Worse still, the App Store is being led by the horns toward freemium business models that are incompatible with the kind of apps that professionals need. A few niche apps may survive, but the iPad is a device with mass appeal. It deserves productivity apps that can be used by all kinds of people.
iCloud continues to be a frustating mish-mash of half-finished services. Photo Stream only syncs a portion of your photos. It doesn’t sync any videos, despite the fact that the iPhone is probably the most popular video camera on the planet. iCloud device backups aren’t big enough to back up all your content. Devices are sold with up to 64GB of storage each, but you can only store a total of 50GB in your iCloud account, shared by all your devices. Data backup in general is too advanced a subject for most users. It needs to “just work,” but it doesn’t. Why isn’t the digital hub in the cloud yet working as well as the old one did?
There is no shortage of other concerns: the decline in the quality of Apple’s own applications1, or the Mac App Store policies that make it hard for top-notch app developers to please their customers, etc. But I think the most important observation to be made requires taking a long view of where Apple has been and where it is going.
Fourteen years ago, Apple had an astonishing gift for perception. It saw two possible futures: one in which digital devices were isolated units of clutter, and one in which our devices were integrated with one another through the Mac, helping us to work, play, and share stories. Apple gave History a shove in the direction of the better future, and changed how we live.
That future is now our past. Where is Apple going to take us next?
Messages on the Mac is the most eggregious example. ↩