COMMENTARY: 07.12.19- As far as innovation is concerned, Apple was always the industry leader at the forefront for many decades, however, the one key aspect that has driven the company to its core seems to be the most critical factor which the tech giant has been devoid of in recent years and a solution to its dilemma just may come from a quote with deep meaning that was said in a movie by, of all sources, a comic book villain whose words were uttered in the heat of an epic battle against Earth’s mightiest heroes.
In the lead up to the Summer blockbuster movie season, the box office smash hit from Marvel Studios, “Avengers: Endgame” (originally released in U.S. theaters on April 26, 2019 and re-released on June 28, 2019), finds the superheroes assembling the remaining members of the Avengers team to search for — — in order to, avenge, all of the lives that were lost through the supervillain’s evildoing — the alien entity responsible for wiping out half of all life on Earth and the entire universe.
The Avengers’ enemy, Thanos (played by actor Josh Brolin), said something in the film which, when I heard it the first time I enjoyed the movie shortly after its original release, did not catch my attention. However, after I heard it a second time, over this past 4th of July weekend when I enjoyed the movie’s re-release — mainly to take my dad to see it as a belated Father’s Day get together (he had not seen the film and wanted to see it but it was no longer in theaters so thank goodness for the re-release) — in order to check out the five minutes of extra footage (which included an interview with the late Stan Lee, a deleted scene, and the infamous extra scene after the end credits that previews the next film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), the words resonated in my ear and it had me making a connection to, of all things, Apple and its current state of affairs.
The scene from the film where it takes place is when Thanos is confronted by the Avengers, in particular, the superheroes Iron Man (played by Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (played by Chris Evans), and Thor (played by Chris Hemsworth):
“You could not live with your own failure. Where did that bring you? Back to me! I thought by eliminating half of life, the other half would thrive. But you’ve shown me that’s impossible. And as long as there are those that remember what was, there will always be those that are unable to accept what can be. They will resist.”
The last two lines from that quote (excerpted from transcripts on moviequotesandmore.com) were what struck a chord with me which I felt described Apple to a tee. The message that I derived from Thanos’s words was, in essence, those who don’t want to change and prefer to hold on to the past are holding back their future.
So, how does this all relate to Apple, specifically, in regard to innovation at the Cupertino, California-based company? A number of ways.
Take, for instance, the following examples:
- the iPhone, a 12-year-old product, is driving its sales
- new products, in general, are basically just existing designs and models that simply have been updated with improved specifications (e.g. Apple’s 2019 product line up so far this year)
- Apple senior executives have been at the company’s helm for 2-3 decades
Those three bullet points show ways that Apple has been rooted heavily in the past, all of which previously have been discussed in-depth in a commentary I wrote back here in this column in March of this year on whether it is time for Apple to have a new leader at its helm in order to innovate again.
One key idea from that commentary which I would reiterate here is the article I referenced from WIRED magazine whose contributor, Molly Wood, wrote in her piece that Apple is a company on the verge of being disrupted. According to Wood, the next great idea in tech and consumer electronics will not materialize from within the walls of its Cupertino spaceship campus, Apple Park, and despite doing everything right, it doesn’t see the next wave of innovation coming and will ultimately… fail.
That last part, about not seeing the next wave of innovation coming — much less, not being the one to bring it forth — is a perfect example of Apple holding back its future because it can’t let go of the past and has become comfortable with its status quo (e.g. Riding the wave of success garnered by its cash cow, so to speak, the iPhone) and as a result, as I wrote in that commentary, has become complacent.
Then there’s a new factor, a major one, to consider in all of this: outgoing Apple chief design officer Jony Ive.
I mentioned Ive and his role as one of the driving forces of innovation at Apple in my commentary back in March but the design genius behind a lot of those products unfortunately is not immune to the words of our friend Thanos and is, sadly, a poster child for the company not wanting to change. After all, Ive is the man solely responsible — along with his team — for the design decisions at Apple (next to or aside from Apple CEO Tim Cook).
Ive — whose forthcoming departure was announced by Apple late last month — has been with the company for almost 30 years and many of the product innovations, design-wise, came under his leadership and, of course, in tandem with the late co-founder and former Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Together, the dynamic duo (to borrow a comic book term from Marvel Comics rival DC Comics) spewed out innovation after innovation since Jobs’s return to the company in 1997. Groundbreaking major products like the iMac in 1998, the iPod in 2001, the iPhone in 2007, the MacBook Air in 2008, and the iPad in 2010.
With products like the iMac which has seen many design changes over its lifespan (e.g. The iMac G4, the iMac G5, and the aluminum unibody iMac) and the many iterations of the iPod (e.g. The iPod shuffle, the iPod mini, the iPod nano, and the iPod touch), Ive and his design team had no shortage of ideas. Year after year, we saw something new to look forward to in the company’s product line up. But what have we seen in recent years from Ive? Save for the Apple Watch, AirPods, Apple Pencil, and HomePod — the smartwatch being the only new major product category Apple has released under the, watch (pun intended), of Cook — the design ideas of Ive are from many years ago.
Just look at the aluminum unibody MacBook Pro from 2008. More than a decade after originally being designed by Ive, the Apple notebook computer still pretty much looks the same despite getting more svelte, adopting colors, and getting Touch ID integrated into the power button and a touch bar above the keyboard. The same could be said about the aluminum unibody iMac that debuted in 2009, which, a decade later is thinner but practically the same design-wise.
A perfect example of this is the new Mac Pro, its design cue based on the PowerMac G5 from 2003. After borrowing the exact casing of the PowerMac G5 for the first Mac Pro in 2006, it finally received a major design overhaul a decade later in 2013 with the infamous circular trash can looking model (a Mac that was not received well and was very unpopular due to its non-modular internal design). Fast forward to 2019 and the newest professional Apple desktop computer sports a design that heartens back 16 years into the past!
It’s like Apple is traveling back in time to its past in order to steer its current course — a reverse course at that — in the present (which is severely affecting its future).
In this decade alone, by playing it safe with his design choices and sticking to what previously worked before — the tried and true — the Apple chief design officer seemingly has lost his way. Perhaps the problem he has faced, which is preventing him from seeing what can be, design-wise and more so innovation-wise (the very thing he is famous and known for at Apple) is that Ive simply has stagnated when it comes to new ideas.
To digress for a moment and use myself as an example, as a former educator teaching technology and journalism, one of my roles for the latter subject was as yearbook advisor, a position I held for close to two decades combined amongst the three schools I worked at. The first few years, it was easy to come up with new cover designs and page layouts. But as the years went on, I began to run out of new ideas and, like Apple and Ive, started to recycle and reuse previously used ideas from the past and simply tweaked them to make them seem new. You can only come up with so many new ideas before you begin to plateau.
So, what can Apple do to take itself out of this Moebius Strip of sorts (a nod to the “Avengers: Endgame” film, a reference which only those who already have seen it will know), or better yet, the, Infinite Loop (another nod, this time to the original Apple Campus), it has gotten into?
Coincidentally, the solution to the innovation problem facing Apple also can be taken in context from additional words by Thanos himself when he said this to Iron Man after the previously quoted lines in the film:
“I’m thankful because now I know what I must do. I will shred this universe down to its last atom. And then, with the stones you’ve collected for me, create a new one teeming with life, but knows not what it has lost, but only what it has been given. A great full universe.”
Initially, Thanos’s words apply in the sense that Apple, moving forward, has to shred the company down to its last atom and begin anew — restart, reboot, or go into recovery mode (to coin computer terms) — and find its direction in order to innovate and become, again, the leader in that arena which it once was at the top of the game with when it was under the leadership and direction of Jobs at the helm.
A great first step in making this happen is the impending departure of Ive from Apple. Yes, it’s the end of an era, a superb one at that, full of major milestones with the company. Allowing someone new to take the reins, however, who has a fresh batch of ideas to share, which no one has ever thought of before, just may be the shot in the arm that Apple needs to innovate again.
Though Ive is leaving Apple to start his own independent design firm, his former employer apparently still will be a client and the two companies will be working closely together on future projects, which, could be a bad thing if Apple is to begin completely with a fresh new slate.
And then we have the current Apple CEO, Cook, to contemplate in the entire picture.
Speaking of a new slate, the main idea of my commentary back in March was whether Apple needed a new leader in order to become the innovation machine it once was. As I wrote in that piece, granted, Cook has kept the company afloat but the question critics frequently ask is can Cook innovate? I say not really and the proof is in the pudding, so to speak.
In fact, despite being hand picked by Jobs as his replacement, the former Apple CEO was on record as having said about his successor, “Tim’s not a product person.” It’s an eye opening and scathing critique of Cook which speaks volumes as to the major flaw in Jobs’s choice for an heir apparent to succeed him.
The quote from the late Apple co-founder was revealed on Monday in an interview with author Walter Isaacson on the CNBC cable news channel’s daily morning program “Squawk Box” where the biographer discussed, among other things, some anecdotes from his unpublished interviews with Jobs.
Isaacson said that what he thinks we are seeing now is a company that can execute pretty well but it doesn’t have, at its core, two spiritual soul mates — referring to Jobs and Ive — who just live and breathe the beauty of products (also mentioning that Jobs, at his core, was a product person).
You can have a design genius like Ive but if you pair him with a chief executive officer who is not a product-minded individual, you get, well, the Apple as it is today.
In closing, Apple, to quote Thanos himself, knows what it must do. To see what it has lost, it must embrace what it has been given. Which means the paradox it faces is that while trying to harness the magic of Steve Jobs and recapture that spark it used to have when he was alive, Apple needs to take the gift left behind by its late co-founder and to, well, as I’ve written many times before? “Think Different” (the slogan from its iconic ad campaign in the late 1990s). That way, it can grow and innovate once more.
And finally, to reiterate the original mantra and point of this commentary, for Apple to move forward, it must not hold on to the past and not be afraid of change or it only will hold back its own future.
Isn’t it ironic that the words of a bad apple, so to speak, could be the inspiration and answer for fixing a rotten Apple?
“And as long as there are those that remember what was, there will always be those that are unable to accept what can be. They will resist.”