On the occasion of Apple's 37th birthday, the question must be asked: How far has the company come?
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
"When you move forward sometimes people don't understand," Steve Jobs told Neil Cavuto on Fox News a day before the first iMac's launch in 1998. Jobs was speaking about the company's then unpopular decision to release a computer without a floppy disk drive. The transition away from floppy disks was not just a matter of inevitable obsolescence to look back on with folksy disbelief that we ever relied on corruptible diskettes to carry 2MB of our most important data. Disks were concretizing intermediaries that allowed users to feel a sense of control and privacy over the things they'd created with computers, that the best part of a computer was something you took with you when you turned it off. The Apple mantra was the opposite, to make people feel like there's something missing when whatever they're doing doesn't involve a computer, and so the company sailed through the decades slowly chipping away at Moore's Law and software engineering principles to create a user interface flexible enough to apply to everything, fostering a nervous twitch of missing out when not in front of the computer.
From "Think Different" to "It Just Works" the company was built around the ethic that the computer is a catalyzing force in a person's life, something that that makes speed and efficiency interchangeable with creativity. It was a solution to the problem of how work could be made to feel pleasurable, and all of the company's technologies have evolved around that ethos, not finally engendering creativity, but adding a degree of emotional satisfaction to mundane tasks like jumping between applications and scrolling through documents. It is a paradox of owning Apple products that interfacing with them often feels more satisfying than the laborious tasks those interfaces are built to support.
Apple products don't make new things possible, they make old things accessible in new places, this was the magic of the transistor radio, and it's the magic of the iPhone and the Macbook Air and everything else Apple does.
iPhone owners may be familiar with the pointless intimacy of the touchscreen, sliding across it without any particular need but just to see the instant reaction. Mac owners may likewise be drawn into the tactile illusion of usefulness offered by OSX's variants on the alt-tab feature, swiping a finger one way to see all open applications in organized clumps that can be jumped between, an act that over time starts to feel better than the actual in-app work it's meant to support. It is, in fact, a pure play interface stripped of rules and score objectives, one that could be given points and goals to guide the user—go to Safari, now Excel, now iTunes, now Photoshop—each successful switch earning a point or two. The absence of these directives are, in part, what make Apple operating systems so hypnotic. One feels always on the verge of a breakthrough, of a significant action, a different thought, a revolutionary innovation that never actually arrives.
Steve Wozniak, who left the company in 1985 to finish his undergraduate degree, said in a Forbes interview all of his work with Apple was based on his youthful awe of the transistor radio, a gift he received from his parents when he was eight. "To this day, I view every gadget in terms of [that radio]: How well it fits in your life," he said. "I remember that radio so well! It was so important to me. You might say, 'all it was was a radio.' But I don’t know. I think it touched me because it brought me music—any time, day or night. To me, a gadget has got to be entertaining first to be the best."
Wozniak's model for the computer is an almost entirely passive one, based on what the radio "brought" the user, the magical moments of feeling connected to other places and other lives simply by turning on the device, tuning in to a particular station, and dropping out of engagement with one's present surroundings. This ethos permeates Apple's culture, and Jobs early fixation on John Sculley and his work identifying and exploiting the Baby Boomer generation as one that would be best marketed to in terms of identity consumption was a clear byproduct. Apple products don't make new things possible, they make old things accessible in new places, this was the magic of the transistor radio, and it's the magic of the iPhone and the Macbook Air and everything else Apple does. The company's famed emphasis on industrial design, with expensive components that drive the price of its products into the realm of aspirational purchasing, where a few immaculately crafted products mask all the grotesque inefficiencies that computers and networking have brought into other areas of life, from impenetrable walls of corporate bureaucracy to the wild flourishing of identity theft.
Jobs was right, that people don't usually understand what is happening when they're pushed to move forward, but the reluctance that lack of understanding produces can be illuminating. It was not luddism to want to hold onto an old paradigm of computer technology that supported clearly delineated boundaries between computer and non-computer time, and which gave concrete physical objects to consecrate the opening and closing of one's work with a computer. It was an instinctual statement about the kind of life people wanted to live, which was coming into conflict with the kind of life a computer manufacturer wanted people to lead. Apple's success as a company for the last four decades has hinged on a magical ability to win that argument whenever it's come up, to have people accept pacifying new uses of technology that transform the computer from a discrete object to an irreplaceable access point, the benefits of which have never been especially clear. But in every case where conflict arises, the Apple trump card has been sensual. Even if carrying a mobile computer everywhere leads to as many new problems as it solves, it sure feels nice to run my finger across this smooth, cool glass. I guess I could do that forever.