here's what tim's been cookin'

Apple Wants to Be Your Friend Now

Tim Cook. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Yesterday’s Apple press conference was a pivotal one for the company. With smartphone sales slowing down and the market nearing saturation, the company has been pressed — well, as pressed as a company worth $890 billion can be — to come up with new ways of bringing in money and pleasing customers. That would explain why yesterday’s event was about not hardware but “services:” what Apple can do for you.

There are four main pillars of Apple’s new pitch to you, the customer, and they are: a newspaper and magazine subscription service (Apple News+), a TV subscription service (Apple TV+), a game subscription service (Apple Arcade), and a credit card (Apple Card, courtesy of the bank we all know and trust, Goldman Sachs). These are in addition to the services Apple already offers, like its ones for streaming music (Apple Music) and cloud data storage (iCloud). None of this was particularly surprising. Rumblings and rumors about each of these, save for the credit card, have been floating around for months, and Apple has not been secretive about the fact that its next big push would be in services.

Still, the proceedings felt a bit empty; there’s tension between how Apple has framed its role in the past and what it wants to be in the future. Historically, Apple has been a brand that makes paradigm-shifting technology sold at premium prices. It is not usually the first to market but it consistently makes the best product in any of its given markets, whether it’s MP3 players, smartphones, operating systems, or wireless earbuds. Each memorable announcement has represented a huge leap instead of an incremental step. But the thing about services is that they aren’t tactile. You can’t hold a service in your hand and immediately recognize the sturdy construction. A service is invisible, because a service operating perfectly is the baseline — you only notice a service when it doesn’t work.

Apple hardware announcements often focus on what the new gadget can do, but Apple’s service announcement often hinged on what the company wouldn’t do. Apple won’t algorithmically curate news as Facebook and Google do, it won’t analyze your reading habits remotely or let advertisers track them, it won’t require a constant internet connection to play games accessed through Arcade, it won’t allow Goldman Sachs to use your credit card data for marketing purposes. For the privacy-conscious, that’s great news, but as a sales pitch, it feels like Apple playing defense. The company’s new pitch is: imagine the services you already know and use but, uh, we fixed some invisible problems and added an Apple logo.

The Apple brand is mostly about giving users the best tools to do their own thing independently: be creative, increase productivity, run a business, communicate with others. By design, Apple’s relationship with its users have often ended as soon as their one-time purchases cleared. Sure, iOS has become a platform, connecting app makers with consumers, but Apple’s role here is mostly as intermediary, and not as the entity selling you something. With these services, Apple is no longer just a neutral go-between. The company bragged about human-curated news and paraded out the Hollywood celebrities and game designers it deemed worthy of collaboration — these are the kinds of judgment calls that Apple has often shied away from. Yesterday, the famously inoffensive Apple promised supposedly bold shows and video games from top-tier creators like Steven Spielberg, Hironobu Sakaguchi, and Oprah. But there is a significant difference between saying something like, “Buy Apple products to be like these people,” as the company has in the past, and, “Buy Apple products to access these people.” The former feels limitless, the latter inherently limited. Selling a service is asking the customer to trust the judgment of the people who run Apple on a continuing basis, instead of once a year, when iPhone Day comes around.

Google and Facebook can be criticized for many things, but they can’t be faulted for using their services to pitch moonshots — bold ideas that might (and often do) fail. Just last week, Google unveiled Stadia, a video-game service that makes Apple Arcade seem almost cowardly. I guess that’s what stuck out about yesterday’s event: Apple’s tentativeness, its desire not to ruffle any feathers, was obvious. (Even recently, Apple has reportedly been telling its TV producers, “Don’t be so mean!“) There was no definitive bullet point, and no clarity of purpose; just the announcement that Apple is slapping its own logo on familiar concepts. It says something that an event about Apple effectively handing blank checks to Stephen Spielberg and Oprah was less intriguing than one about Apple removing a headphone jack from its phone. Apple keynotes used to be cultural events that people other than journalists and the always-online tuned in to. Announcements like the headphone jack one are fun to dissect, because when a company as large as Apple makes an actual choice, it ripples. It’s fun to imagine what it means for us users, and what it means for technology going forward. It makes you excited about what you know and what you don’t. In contrast, all I got from Apple’s event yesterday was, “Our bland could be your life.”

Apple Wants to Be Your Friend Now