What Happened to Apple's 'Why'?

What Happened to Apple's 'Why'?

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?'

That line right there is what used to encapsulate Apple as a company, “We exist to challenge the status quo.” Apple has done this since their inception, challenging the idea of what a personal computer should be, what kind of expertise it should take to use one, and what the experience of the user should be like. Even during the Jobs-less period of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Apple continued to push against the status quo of what a computer was, and what the experience of using one was supposed to be like. Let’s rewind back to ‘80s for a moment. Remember this gem?
This isn’t just challenging the status quo, it’s shattering it (literally and metaphorically). Apple’s drive to inspire users and not just sell them features was as foundational in their company as the idea of freedom is for Southwest Airlines (Sinek has a great writeup on Southwest in the book, won’t get into it here). The point is that, for over 20 years, Apple has stood for something, and it’s something their users have identified with, but now that something is disappearing and we’re no longer as captivated as we used to be.

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.

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Previous comments
Mark James's picture

I have had many lifetime mac users in the graphics art industry try and show me how to do things in one click, that are one click in windows without any luck for many of them. Ignorance is bliss I guess.

Please tell me how to sort by date taken with base mac SW. I can't even find date taken info in the EXIF with finder. I have to use aftermarket SW. I have been trying to get help for over a year and everything I find online or anyone I have asked says you need to buy other SW.

Art Altman's picture

I was disappointed in the new MacBook Pro until I tried it!!! Go to the Apple Store. They have the 13" with function keys on display now and soon the models with the OLED display replacing the function keys.

The new MBP is much smaller than the old one. It looks and feels like a jewel. It feels right.

I ordered the 15". :-)

I am very curious about Windows but when I look at the best options (Surface pro maxed out) how different is the pricing relative to power really? Is Microsoft support as good as Apples? Is Windows as well integrated with iPhones (or Androids?).

I have zero interest in a touch screen on a computer. Much prefer keyboard, mouse, track pad and soon a Wacom.

Some months ago my current MacBook Pro stopped working at around 9pm on a weekday. I went to the 24 hour Apple Store, got it diagnosed, and walked out with a new one to use as a temporary by midnight. (Ok, how many cities have 24 hour Apple Stores like NYC, but still ....).

I think that a lot of what we pay for in the price of the Apple is for service and high quality construction and design. I went to the Dell web site to check on their computers and yes, you can get similar power and features for $1000 less but even just navigating the web site was a pain in the butt and dealing with their "chat" person was agonizing. I have heard horror stories before about Dell support (please post here about your experience, I am curious, probably others as well).

Apple forced me on FireWire800 when nobody had it, I went along. Then Apple forced me on Thunderbolt when nobody had it -- I went along too, bought RAID just because I don't want Donglemania.

Now THIS! USB-C, just 4 ports for the high end, one always used for charging!!

This is completely ridiculous. And I buy new RAIDS or tons of dongles and docks. To have a pristine design marred by the cancer of adapters, dongles... And I get a machine with the second before last technology too.

no way. I resisted the PC world for decades, now I will jump

Apple used to create things we didn't know we needed. Now they seemed more determined to tell us what we do and don't need instead. I have a hard time believing that they ask the consumers what they want. I think a good example of the beginning of this trend was with the iphone. Every other manufacturer was offering larger screen phones. Apple insisted that they had the ideal size for all phone uses. Eventually they caved to pressure but it definitely wasn't the direction they wanted to go.

I am not sure I would like the touch screen aspect of a computer as a photographer. I am having a hard time figuring out how I would use the touch screen. I would end up constantly smudging the screen. I am much more fascinated with thunderbolt 3 and the possibilities of faster external hard drives to manage my 5DSr images.

Scott Weaver's picture

I'm very intrigued by the possibility of retouching photos using a stylus/pen/pencil device directly on the screen surface, at high res. This was why the iPad Pro was introduced last year. Apple needs to begin melding their pad and laptop lines.... if only Jonathan Ive would get out of the way.

I have never jumped on the Mac train. I love the products and the way their work and have been designed. I see the benefits of a closed system, which the Mac/Ipad/Iphones is. And the products are really very well made and beautiful. For a rather steep price tag by the way.

However I can't live with a closed system. I'm an Android fanboy not because I think their operating system is superior to IOS but because it is open. I can setup my homepage as I see fit, not as Apple sees fit. I can install whatever I want if I choose so because I am not limited to the app store. I can install custom roms if I choose so. I own a Nexus 6p with stock Android so I don't feel inclined because I love stock Android. I hate all the skins which most Android manufacturers put on their phones and I think this will be the downfall of Android in the long run. Especially Samsung is notorious for not updating their skins and so you will end up with a really old operating system quite fast. This is the big plus of the Iphone and the big downside of Android devices (which isn't Android's fault since that is developped continuously).

The same for pc's. I don't want to be limited hardware wise by what Apple offers me, I want to choose from the many options available for pc's. I don't want to be forced to change all my peripherals every so often, because Apple decides to change all their adapters. That magsafe was ingenious by the way. I was really a stroke of genius.

I don't hate Apple products, I actually like them. I however hate Apple's policy. And I sure as hell hate their warranty service. I know enough Mac user to know that this sucks. Maybe it is different in the USA but in Europe it is awful. They try as hard as they can not to give warranty.

In the past the operating system of the Macs was really much simpler and easier to operate. But since Windows 10, I think the differences aren't that big anymore.

What about the dongles? That to me is the biggest "Why?' they have no answer for.
Sleek and sexy is destroyed when you toss 3 dongles on a machine to get wired internet, my USB External HD to show up and then my second HDMI display. 3 dongles, that most any other PC laptop can handle with no dongles. I too like you have been a mac guy since the Imac DV+ SE got me into video editing and thus projected me on my life's work and path. Now at work I usually order the new mac laptop, top of the line and send my current into a rental pool. Yet, I really don't need the track bar. I don't want to have to carry dongles with me everywhere. And ANOTHER power cable and plug?
Why do we feel the need to change adapters, ports and plugs every 1 to 2 years for minor speed bumps and major annoyance to all those users before. At least offer a dongle exchange plan and recycle the old ones. I got 3 dongles now that will be totally useless in a matter of 2 weeks.
I agree too on the Surface. VERY interested in that wheel and pen. Could be VERY powerful. What is sad is that all my data, files, work is all on pages, keynote, LR and mac formatted. To change over would be a massive hassle, but sadly I have no choice but to accept the changes from Apple, which feels like stepping on an ocean tanker with no idea it's destination. Besides, my wife's laptop had a quick button bar and it was a HP from 6 years ago.
I think if apple was smart, they'd reinvest in PRO machines. For years they went with easy, for everyone. You got a great grip on the market, but for the love of gawd, talk to the pros who use your machines and build a PRO laptop that weighs more, has more normal ports, with very little dongle use needed, and a gawd damn headphones jack. Save your courage. please.

Andrew Richardson's picture

To be fair (and don't get me wrong, I hear your point) there hadn't really been a major port change until Thunderbolt a few years ago (with the exception of the display port getting smaller, something I didn't have a problem with). USB has been around foreeeever. I think the last major change before that was when they dumped Firewire, which irritated me at first but once I started getting USB-3 peripherals it was clearly worth it.

No two ways about it, the dongle thing sucks, but not as much as wavering between cutting edge and archaic ports for the next few years. I would rather most companies make the jump now and use be settled with USB-C for a while. The dongle party won't last long as more and more USB-C accessories come out. It actually reminds me a bit of when USB-A was really coming on and all the little adapters I had to get to plug my old mice and keyboards into USB ports. Change is never fun but it's better to get it over with quickly rather than drag it out.

Scott Weaver's picture

Very well argued. You summed up much of my own thinking following last week's Apple event. The company is riding along on the power of Jobs's legacy, but that is fading. I wonder if Jobs really thought Cook could innovate, or would just carry out Jobs's plans for Apple? At any rate, they have to begin real soul-searching to find the WHY that you talk about, then figure out the HOW and the WHAT. Jobs also said Apple created products people didn't realize they needed. A "Touch Bar" is a very modest feature that some may feel they didn't realize they needed. But I don't think Jobs would have been satisfied with modest upgrades. Last year Apple introduced the iPad Pro, with great fanfare. This was the future, they said. And it had a stylus ('Pencil"). Now, they hardly talk about the product anymore. The iPad Pro was basically what the new Microsoft Studio is, with the addition of a positioning bracket. Touch should absolutely have been incorporated into Apple's laptop line by now, and the execs who are resisting true innovation at Apple are out of step. Jobs would never had accepted the current situation. Perhaps Apple should be renamed... Pear.

L. C's picture

I have been using Apple products for more than 10 years and have been a huge fan despite being overpriced. A few weeks ago I purchased an iPad mini 4 WITH cell to replace my very old Samsung TabS cell. After it was purchased I was stunned to find out that despite being able to insert a sim card (it is the cell version afterall) it cannot make mobile phone calls - something my ancient Samsung Tabs could do years ago. Without realising it I had bought a piece of modern technology that sent me backwards with No phone - incredible! This is not the Apple company being leaders in technology.