On average, 2013 has been a quiet year for Apple in terms of announcements. The arrival of the World Wide Developer Conference in early June ended an increasingly concerning drought on announcements. It was the longest period of time in recent memory without a major product announcement.
WWDC delivered. On top of a major redesign of iOS, Apple not only delivered a monster of a new MacBook Air, they performed major design surgery on iOS, teased us with radical new industrial design on the Mac Pro – a product many thought dead – and, most importantly, they launched an ad campaign reminiscent of their Think Different campaign of 1997. The recent iPhone event held in Cupertino finished what WWDC started, releasing the hardware that would surround the newly realized iOS 7 and, as expected, released a lower end iPhone with less beefy hardware, but a bevy of new colors.
There was another announcement this summer, and I found it to be the most interesting. See, Apple hired Paul Denève, who is the former CEO of the French fashion house Yves Saint Laurent.
First, the bad news. In my opinion, much of what Apple has built since the passing of Steve Jobs has come from his playbook. While amazing products were introduced at WWDC, these products (save for the Mac Pro) are clearly evolutionary, not revolutionary. The MacBook Air might be the best laptop in the history of the portable computers, but the compelling features were all introduced while Steve Jobs was still alive. The iPad Mini, announced in November of last year, is a far superior compact reading experience compared to its big brother and like the Air is a technological feat, but to the average human is simply a smaller iPad.
None of this is exactly bad news. Since a late June flirtation with $400, Apple’s stock has steadily climbed to $500 before the iPhone event, though this was $200 less than the stock’s peak of $700 just a year ago. This does represent an optimism Wall Street hasn’t felt in over a year, but Wall Street trades in the same realm as where the pundits and fanboys worry: the future. While it’s clear that Apple can follow the Steve Jobs playbook, the question remains whether he was the only person who could effectively wrangle the personality, people, and politics that come with the dogged pursuit of the legitimately truly new?
Apple needs to remind Wall Street and the faithful that the company is far more than Steve Jobs, and the only way they can do that is to successfully launch a brand new product. You’re going to giggle when you read this because I’m giggling as I type it, but Apple needs the iWatch.
Enter Paul Denève.
Somewhere at the Intersection of Design, Fashion, and Technology
One of the biggest design triumphs of iOS and iOS hardware remains its painless approachability. Famously, a two-year-old can deftly traverse the operating system because anything resembling an operating system has been abstracted into a handful of obvious and natural interactions: touch it with your finger and a predictable action will occur. No, you don’t need to understand what a file system is, nor a menu item. The triumph of iOS is that the technology gets out of the way and allows the user to act without friction.
Wearable technology is inevitable and its success will be a function of two interrelated design goals: a) it will be fashionable, because b) the supporting technology that powers it is invisible. I remain firmly in the camp that believes that if you wear a Bluetooth headset then you are a dork. Good news, this dorkitude isn’t your fault, it’s just awful design. The black piece of plumbing hanging out of your ear is distracting to the rest of the humans – it calls unnecessary attention to the fact that you may or may not be on a phone call right now. I don’t know, I have to sit there for a second and watch to see if you’re staring off into space talking to no one in particular. These headsets have a definite useful purpose and well-defined value, but the social friction they create is a function of crap design. In their current form, Bluetooth headsets will never be fashionable.
I have the same issue with Google Glass. I can see the technology. It’s RIGHT THERE hanging off your face. Again, I am enthralled by its potential, and we have to start somewhere. I believe these types of wearable devices are inevitable, but mainstream success will only be achieved when we can no longer see the technology; when the object retains its usefulness, but the technology becomes invisible.
I don’t have a clue about the design or feature set of the alleged iWatch, but I do know two things. First, the name iWatch is a bad name because the least interesting thing this device will likely do is tell the time, but we got over iPad, right? Second, it’ll go on your wrist and when people see it (and they will, as it will be designed to be easily visible), nearby humans will either think or say, “OoOOooooo. They have an iWatch,” not primarily because of what it does, but how it makes them feel.
The September Issue
Until this year, Apple was releasing their tentpole products with amazing regularity. March for iPad, September for iPhone. This update cycle is far faster than the consumer’s need to upgrade. The products are well designed and support years of active usage, but every year – same time – another release. There is another industry known for its consistent and defining annual releases. Each September, like clockwork, this industry releases their product lines, which no one needs, but many desire. I’m talking about the fashion industry.
Apple does not aspire to be the fashion industry; they build products that people use to get things done. Moreover, as evidenced by the margins their products command, Apple has proven that their products are not simply defined by what they allow you to do; they are well architected objects of desire.
My question is: what do the products look like when the technology isn’t obvious? They will look like an object you already know, that you already wear. I’m not saying that Apple is going to start selling shirts, but I can imagine a world where you’re cleverly sliding a device somewhere into your shirt that provides iPhone-like functionality. Furthermore, I believe that part of what will make this wearable object desirable will involve intangible aspects of fashion that are completely foreign to me, but a familiar and intimate part of a fashion house’s success.
Paul Denève didn’t come out of nowhere. According to Wikipedia, this is Deneve’s second stint at Apple, having served in multiple positions with Apple Europe, and Apple is famous for welcoming back former employees. However, Deneve’s pedigree since his departure remains intriguing. Apple is well versed in exceeding expectations when it comes to delivering luxury tech, but how is it at thinking different about luxury products where the technology must fade into the tapestry of everyday objects?