Apple can still return to its golden age

Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a regular contributor to CNN Opinion. He co-hosts the podcast “They Call Us Bruce” and is co-author of the best-selling book “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the 1990s to the Present” and author of “The Golden Screen: The Films That Made Asian America.The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) is just a few days away, and as usual, the technorati are excited about what could be revealed at the company’s annual groundbreaking technology event: An updated iPhone operating system with a heavy AI focus? New Mac hardware? A wildcard ‘One more thing’?

Jeff Yang - CNN

Jeff Yang – CNN

Naturally, Apple has kept the details of the revelations it plans to make public beyond Fort Knox on Monday under lock and key. But the feeling among many observers is that whatever they are, they better be good. Because since the beginning of the year there have been signs that the fruit factory’s future prospects could be bleak.

The company’s sales in China fell dramatically earlier this year as the iPhone faced strong competition from local offerings like the Huawei Mate, forcing Apple to offer aggressive discounts there. In 2023, the International Trade Commission ruled that Apple was exploiting medical device maker Masimo’s existing patents by building a pulse oximeter into its latest Apple Watches, prompting the company to halt sales of those versions of its wearable in December until the function could be temporarily stopped. removed, pending appeal against the decision. And in March, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Apple, alleging that the company engages in a wide range of anticompetitive practices related to its dominance of the U.S. smartphone market — lawsuits that are core to the company’s business. to threaten. (Apple denied the allegations.)

Of course, by most standards the gadget maker is still a massive global success. After plummeting earlier this year, the company’s shares are now just below their all-time high, bringing its valuation back to around $3 trillion (just six years after it became the world’s first company). trilliondollar company). Undermining Apple’s growth? The iPhone of course, which has a 17% share of the global smartphone market, measured by units sold, but a whopping 43% of global smartphone revenues. And Apple’s services sector, largely driven by app and content sales, continues to thrive and is expected to account for a quarter of the company’s total revenue by 2025.

However, the success of a technology company is not only measured by the products it currently has on the market, but also by its ability to innovate and stay ahead. That means Apple will be challenged to come up with some announcements that feel like they’ll recapture some of the company’s golden age glory.

The initial focus was on what Apple plans to do with artificial intelligence. Some rumors suggest that Apple is teaming up with OpenAI (and perhaps Google and AI company Anthropic as well), which could be an unusual move in some ways – at odds with the company’s preferences for keeping its most vital technologies in-house while it feels, at best, like a catch-up move rather than a revolutionary breakthrough.

Others have pointed to Apple’s recent release of OpenELM, a set of four minified open-source language models, as an indication that the company is moving in a different direction: delivering efficient AI features “on the handset” without the need for a calling on servers in the cloud.

But the new possibilities being discussed as a result hardly feel earth-shattering: transcribe voice memos? Summarize chats and websites? Retouch photos? Um… custom emojis? None of these are likely to have the impact of Open AI’s demo of GPT-4o, the voice-enabled latest major language model.

The reality is that for all of Apple’s profitability and streamlined commercial prowess under Tim Cook, the company has still recaptured the unique ability it had under co-founder and iconic CEO Steve Jobs to control the cultural narrative – to make people feel the company still has the power to change the way people think about technology and how it intersects with their lives.

It’s a harder argument to make now, considering that Apple’s most highly anticipated bets on its own innovation have crashed and burned. In February, the company finally concluded Project Titan, the codename for its decade-long, $10 billion internal initiative to design an Apple-branded electric car. And Apple’s unveiling last year of its mixed reality “headtop” computer, the Vision Pro, created initial buzz with its undoubtedly groundbreaking features and performance specs, but failed to immediately resonate with consumers upon release.

Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces Apple Vision Pro, a mixed reality headset, at Apple Park in Cupertino, CA, on June 5, 2023. - Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc.Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces Apple Vision Pro, a mixed reality headset, at Apple Park in Cupertino, CA, on June 5, 2023. - Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc.

Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces Apple Vision Pro, a mixed reality headset, at Apple Park in Cupertino, CA, on June 5, 2023. – Brooks Kraft/Apple Inc.

The seeds of the Vision Pro problem were visible when the WWDC revealed itself. The dazzling computer-simulated demo, which showed users wearing visors meditating in front of giant virtual mandalas, wandering through floating windows spread across different rooms of their homes and doing sedentary work surrounded by a swarm of apps, felt disconnected from things that people actually wanted to do.

In contrast, when Jobs drew the curtains on the first iPod in 2001, he held it up and said a single sentence that summed up the user promise: “1,000 songs, and it fits right in my pocket.” All the music you love, whenever you want, at your fingertips. The iPod was seen by some as too expensive and unnecessary, but the main benefit it delivered was irresistible to the actual consumer, and as a result it brought a whole new category of portable consumer electronics into the mainstream.

What’s the equivalent of songs in your pocket for Vision Pro? Spreadsheets on your face? That’s certainly not a benefit that could entice anyone other than the early adopters to spend $3,500 for the privilege of “spatial computing.” No one should discount Vision Pro: the iPad, Apple Watch, and even the original iPhone all took some time and iteration to find their feet. But so far, if Apple wants to regain its relevance in the real world, Vision Pro isn’t. The device’s power consumption requires it to be tethered to a clunky, waist-mounted external battery, allowing only a few hours of use without a wall socket. Its most distinguishing feature, EyeSight, which uses an outward-facing screen to present a ghostly image of the wearer’s eyes to the world in an attempt to reduce the gadget’s sense of being a barrier between users and the world around them to take away is the subject of much ridicule.

Yet Apple occupies a unique strategic space: the world sees it as one of the few true lifestyle brands in consumer technology, with products whose impact is not measured in benchmarks, but in value shifts and behavior change. And that’s because the seed of Apple’s extraordinary success lies in the company’s ability to motivate people to reimagine their world around its products.

Although the 1998 all-in-one iMac specs couldn’t match comparable Intel hardware, its home decor sensibility meant people used it as a living room computer to be shown off rather than hidden behind partitions, closing the door forever opened. a deeper integration of consumer computing devices into our media consumption, home control and family interactions.

Ten years later, the MacBook Air, famously demonstrated in 2008 as the world’s thinnest notebook, thin enough to fit into a standard manila envelope, became the first laptop that actually felt like a fashion accessory: a “wallet PC,” if you shall. Even the original iPhone, introduced a year earlier, forced users to rethink their relationship with both wearable devices and screen-based communications, stripping away most physical buttons and inviting people to tap icons on a minimalist touchscreen. The end result has been transformative.

What’s important to note is that all of these cultural revolutions are fundamentally rooted in design choices, not technological breakthroughs – changes in form factor and user interface based on extraordinary insights into how people want to interact with their digital stuff and with each other.

In the thirteen years since Cook took the reins, and especially in the half-decade since former chief designer Jony Ive left Apple, the company has yet to make the same kind of dent in the human universe. But to make cosmic dents, you have to make big swings. And while this may sound paradoxical, the thing that should make Apple fans optimistic that the company can get its mojo back is also what drew widespread ridicule at WWDC in 2023. EyeSight in its current form is goofy and creepy – but it is an authentic attempt to address one of the critical concerns people have about head-mounted devices.

Using unexpected methods to socially integrate new technology is an encouraging echo of Jobs and Ive’s original focus on the intersection of technology and liberal arts, of computing and humanity, even if their solutions fall short. Let’s hope that at this WWDC the company defiantly ignores last year’s laughter and continues to look and think differently.

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