When Tim Cook opened the latest Apple event yesterday, he didn’t beat around the bush in addressing the topic everyone has been clamoring over. “We built the iPhone for you and we know that it is a deeply personal device. For many of us the iPhone is an extension of ourselves,” he began, before calling for our nation to rethink “how much power the government should have over our data and over our privacy.” Because Apple is currently engaged in an active judicial battle with the FBI, the words weren’t surprising. Still, the strong rebuke of government surveillance is yet another indication that the company is trying to make the fight for privacy rights an integral part of its brand identity.
Indeed, privacy was something of a theme throughout the event, catching a mention during the update on the popular Notes app, which will now allow you to password-protect everything you write down. Privacy was also stressed during the lengthy presentation on Apple’s move into healthcare. The company has developed a number of tools to aid health professionals in conducting research and tracking patient progress outside a formal clinical setting. This naturally lent itself to the subject of security, as many customers are concerned about the safety of their health data. In these areas, Apple shined. Many industry insiders have been surprised to see the company attack the issue with such gusto, but by owning it and making it about protecting the customer, Apple has been able to parlay it into a potentially powerful branding tool.
At a time when the company’s business trajectory feels mired in small ideas, the FBI lawsuit and grand talk of fundamental rights make Apple feel like it’s presenting a big, bold vision again.
Unfortunately, while the rhetoric around privacy might have been big, most of the new technology Cook had to show off was small. Small in scope, and—more literally—small in size. The primary products the company introduced were the new iPhone SC and the new 9.5 inch iPad Pro, both of which are just smaller incarnations of already-existing Apple products. The iPhone SC is essentially an update to the iPhone 5S, bringing modern processing power and new tech to the smallest iPhone currently available. In a world where phone sizes seem to be endlessly increasing, it is nice to see Apple thinking of customers who simply prefer smaller phone screens. Cook noted that the phone—which starts at only $399—is most popular with first-time iPhone buyers and those in developing countries where more expensive iPhones are financially out of reach for many people.
If all this sounds utilitarian but not very exciting, that’s because it is. Privacy talk notwithstanding, there was a pervasive feeling of sameness throughout most of the presentation. When the biggest releases are just smaller versions of pre-existing products, it’s hard to feel impressed. As such, this was yet another recent Apple event that’s lacked the wow factor of years past, a fact many have linked to the death of Steve Jobs, but probably has just as much to do with the maturation of the smartphone and tablet markets it pioneered. The company is minting more iPhones than ever, but Apple hasn’t felt truly innovative since the release of the iPad back in 2010. No matter how much Apple dresses it up, a 4-inch iPhone and a 9.5 inch iPad Pro aren’t the same as unleashing a brand new product category, like the original iPhone or iPad. Even the company’s recent attempt at innovation, the Apple Watch, hasn’t taken off in the way the company expected, selling only 7 million units since its introduction according to a report from Forbes.
Of course, these are lofty expectations, and Apple is doing fine financially on its current path of incremental updates. To that end, new software like the sleep-saving Night Shift and the color-adjusting True Tone felt like smart additions to the ever-growing arsenal of Apple tools and features. Other minor updates, like folders for your apps on Apple TV, or new bands and a price drop for the Apple Watch were also welcome, if unflashy, developments.
Such is the reality of Apple in 2016. The world’s most valuable company might not be wowing us with flashy new product categories anymore, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really need to. The shaky performance of Apple Watch and the slower-than-expected sales growth of iPads show that innovation hasn’t exactly been paying the bills, or at least that the company doesn’t have quite the savant-like grip on emerging consumer electronic trends that it once did. Meanwhile, Apple’s main business of smartphone sales is practically printing money.
This is why Tim Cook’s move to embrace the privacy fight with the federal government seems like a wise choice to liven up the brand. At a time when the company’s business trajectory feels mired in small ideas, the FBI lawsuit and grand talk of fundamental rights make Apple feel like it’s presenting a big, bold vision again (even if, in terms of the technology, it doesn’t seem to be). Still, if the biggest thing people remember from the event is the that Apple is fighting the FBI to protect our fundamental right to privacy, then Cook’s attempt to tie Apple’s identity to the issue will have succeeded. Consider it big ideas to distract from small innovations.