If you spend any time on the Internet, then you’ve probably seen by now that Apple announced their long-awaited updates to the MacBook Pro during an event at their campus in Cupertino. Spend a little more time on the Internet and you’re sure to see the plethora of articles pointing out how Apple seems to become less and less innovative as years go by, many even pointing to Microsoft as a great example of innovation with their really fantastic Surface Pro line of portable computers and the newly announced Surface Studio. Microsoft more innovative and creative than Apple? Let’s dig in and figure out what happened.
In his book, "Start With Why," Author Simon Sinek discusses the concept of a company’s “why,” emphasizing the idea that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Sinek frequently references Apple as a company that established their why from the beginning of the company and have held true to it through the life of the company. "Start With Why" was released in 2009, however, and I am fairly certain that Sinek has a different opinion on Apple’s direction seven years removed from the publishing of his book.
Sinek has a concept that he refers to as The Golden Circle, a way of defining your company that keeps you centered on why.
He uses Apple to demonstrate how they hold true to their why, and what they would look like if they didn’t.
If Apple were like most other companies, a marketing message from them would move from the outside in of The Golden Circle. It would start with some statement of what the company does or makes, followed by how they think they are different or better than the competition, followed by some call to action. With that, the company would expect some behavior in return, in this case a purchase. A marketing message from Apple, if they were like everyone else, might sound like this: 'We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. Wanna buy one?'
Sinek contrasts this example by laying out how Apple actually markets themselves (or at least, how they used to):
Let’s look at that Apple example again and rewrite the example in the order Apple actually communicates. This time, the example starts with why: 'Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. And we happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?'
I grew up as a lover of computers. Our very first computer was an Apple IIc, and I swear to you that thing was magic. A few years later, we moved to PC, and I was captivated again. By the time I was 11, I was foraging parts to build bastardized PC’s in my bedroom, dumpste- diving and hitting up resale shops to try and upgrade every part I could. I was so deep into the PC mindset you wouldn’t believe it. I made fun of Macs and the people who used them. I built my own stuff; I didn’t need some gimmicky purple laptop to feel cool. Did those people even know how to edit their registry? Then I graduated high school, and someone gave me the white MacBook as a graduation gift. I was going to sell it and use that money to get the Alienware laptop of my dreams, when I thought “what the hell” and I opened the box up, booted up my first Mac, and I was done.
You’ll call it being a fanboy or drinking the Kool-Aid or whatever, but I went from thinking Apple was a joke to thinking they might be the greatest company of all time. Everything just made sense. The operating system was intuitive, even for a hardcore Windows truther like me. The aesthetic fit me, the experience was not just enjoyable, but relatable, and I fell hard. No really, I fell hard. Two months later I was working at the local Apple Store where I spent the next year seeing how Apple’s why inundated not just their products, but their culture and business practices. Since then (2008), I have owned four different Apple laptops (and just ordered the new one, more on that later), a Mac Pro, every generation of iPhone, several iPod Touches (and an iPod shuffle, we can all agree that was a mistake), a few iPads, and an Apple TV. I’ve gotten my family on Macs, my wife on a Mac, I’m the guy friends come to with their Apple questions, and I answer them gladly. But for the last few years, I have felt less and less connected to the brand that sucked me in and more like I’m buying a product for the features. Nothing wrong with that, but feeling marginal contentment is quite a dropoff after years of feeling inspired.
At the core of it, that’s what Apple did: they inspired users, not through clever marketing or manipulations, but through genuineness in vision and purpose that came through in their products. Remember that line from Sinek’s book about how Apple challenges the status quo and they do that by making beautiful products that are simple to use and user-friendly? The how of that is still the same; their products are still beautiful, they’re simple to use, and they’re user-friendly, but the why behind that seems to be gone. Why does Apple make beautiful products? Because that’s what they do and that’s what they believe their brand is built on.
So what’s the reason for this loss of why? The easy answer is that Steve Jobs passed away in 2011 and that he was the driving catalyst behind Apple’s why. Well, sometimes the easy answer is the right one. Many pundits and industry “insiders” have said much of the same thing, but it’s not just the simple absence of Jobs that explains the slow decline of Apple and the loss of innovation. He was absolutely relentless in the pursuit of Apple’s why. Users shouldn’t be content, they should be inspired. User experience was everything, not because that would help drive the bottom line, but because it was the right way to make something.
Think about Apple’s advertising. The ads you remember weren’t about features or upgrades, they were about inspiring a certain aesthetic, a certain personality. Remember the awesome “Get a Mac” TV spots? No one wanted to be John Hodgman; everyone wanted to be Justin Long. Well, maybe not everyone, but Jobs (and Apple) would have told you that they didn’t care about the consumers that wanted to be PCs; they wanted to inspire the users that wanted to be Macs.
To do what Apple did in their advertising took balls, no way around it. They had absolute confidence in their vision and in their why. “Here’s a commercial of some silhouettes dancing around on color backgrounds. Why? Because we love to dance to our music. Music should be simple; there shouldn’t be a barrier between you and your music. We don’t have to wow you with the features of our music player because it’s not about how much storage the iPod has or what formats it supports; it just makes enjoying your music easy. Why a click wheel? Because buttons for music are dumb, so we did something better. We think of experience first first, and the features that experience dictates are what we make.”
Apple used to be relentless about its pursuit of features that might seem trivial, but enhanced the user experience beyond normal computer specs. I present as Exhibit A the MagSafe. Yeah, magnetic power adapter, whoop-de-doo, but it was small touches like these that made Apple stand out and that elevated the user’s experience. Do you know what feature I bragged about to people when I took my MacBook places? It wasn’t the processor or the amount of RAM I had put in or even the cool, sleek design of the computer’s body, it was that silly little magnetic power plug that popped into place with no effort at all and popped right off if someone or something tripped on the cord. The MagSafe was one the many tiny ways that Apple told its users: “We get it, we’re one of you, this thing about computers sucks, and we don’t care how other people do it, we’re going to do it better.”
Well, now the MagSafe is gone, and sure, it’s gone for good reasons; USB-C is a great standard, and it needs to be driven forward for the market to adopt it fully. But the MagSafe is more than just a nifty feature that we all need to move on from for the good of the computing industry, it’s symbolic of the mindset of a company that for so many years seemed to be in lockstep with creatives, understanding our needs and operating as a partner and not just a vendor. Watch the video above again; it’s not a spot about a great feature, it’s saying: “Well yeah, our computers do this because that’s how computers should work, we don’t care how everyone else charges their laptops.” And now, that “feature” is gone.
I get it. A large contingent of PC users out there haven’t even read this far and have just scrolled down to the comments to explain all the reasons why they never used Macs, and that’s fine. When it comes down to it, this is just a computer company: they sell a commodity that we buy. But what made Apple different from the IBMs, Toshibas, HPs, or whatever company is making PCs now (is Gateway still a thing?) was how they connected with the needs of their users, and that difference seems to be slipping away, keynote after keynote.
So all of that brings me to Microsoft, who announced their Surface Studio the day before Apple’s MacBook announcement. Sure, the announcement felt more like a dressed up infomercial than a TED Talk, but I can’t deny that I felt that same spark of inspiration that I used to feel from Apple announcements. Of course it’s a touchscreen with a stylus! I don’t want to be divorced from my images when I work on them, constantly looking down at my keyboard (or Touch Bar) while I work; I want to be in my images. And of course the display tilts down to a usable angle! It just makes so much sense! Now, do I think that Microsoft has suddenly discovered their why and are on their way to supplant Apple and take back the creative market from the longtime leader? No, I don’t. I honestly think Microsoft has stumbled into something great with the Surface Pro and now the Surface Studio. I almost get the sense that they don’t necessarily understand why those two products are so compelling, but they sure are excited that they are. If they discover that why and embrace it, then awesome. I have no beef with Microsoft. I want companies to succeed, and I want them to make inspirational products for users and not just iterative ones, so if Microsoft heads that direction, then fantastic.
All of this to say, I bought the new MacBook Pro. I bought an (almost) maxed-out model, and I’m actually pretty excited to see what sort of additional functionality the Touch Bar adds to my workflow, but that’s really it. My current MacBook Pro is three years old, and I need the latest tech features to help maximize my productivity. This was a purely feature-based decision. When it comes down to it, I think that the Surface Pro might be a better product for my needs; I just really don’t like Windows. It’s a decision that was all about features, not about inspiration. The days of feeling like I am buying a product from a company that understands me, that has the same values as me are gone. I no longer feels inspired by my Apple products; I just feel...productive.