Apple can still return to its golden age

Note to the Editor: Jeff Yang frequent contributor to CNN Opinion. He is co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce” and co-author of the best-selling book “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the nineties to now” and author “The Golden Screen: The Movies Made by Asian America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) is just days away, and as usual, the technorati are excited about what could be revealed at the company’s annual cutting-edge technology event: Updated iPhone operating system with heavy AI focus? New Mac Hardware? Wild “One More Thing”?

Jeff Yang - CNN

Jeff Yang – CNN

Of course, Apple has locked down the details of the publication it plans to release on Monday tighter than Fort Knox. But the sense among many observers, whatever they are, is that they’d better be good. Because there have been signs since the beginning of the year that the expectations of the fruit factory may be steep in the future.

The company’s sales in China fell sharply 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 infringed on medical equipment manufacturer Masimo’s existing patents to build a pulse oximeter into its newest Apple Watches, prompting the company to stop selling those versions of its wearables. in December, until the feature could be made temporarily. be removed, pending an appeal of the decision. And in March, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Apple, alleging that the company has engaged in a wide range of anti-competitive practices related to its dominance in the US smartphone market – litigation that threatens the core of its business the company. (Apple has denied the allegations.)

Of course, by most measures, the gadget maker is a gargantuan global success. After a dip earlier in the year, the company’s stock is just short of an all-time high, bringing its valuation back to around $3 trillion dollars (just six years after it became the first stock in the world. trillion-company dollars). Juicing Apple growth? The iPhone, of course, commands a 17% share of the global smartphone market as measured by units sold, but that represents 43% of global smartphone revenue. And Apple’s services business, defined largely by sales of apps and content, continues to grow, and is projected to make up a quarter of the company’s total revenue by 2025.

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

Early focus was on what Apple plans to do with artificial intelligence. Some rumors suggest that Apple is partnering with OpenAI (and possibly Google and AI company Anthropic as well), which could be an unusual move in several ways – going against the company’s preferences for its most advanced technologies. important to keep in the house, while they are feeling. at best it seems like a progressive movement rather than a revolutionary one.

Others have pointed to Apple’s recent release of OpenELM, a set of four scalable open-source language models, as an indicator that the company is moving in a different direction: delivering effective AI features “on the handset.” no need to call servers. in the cloud.

But the new capabilities being discussed as a result hardly feel groundbreaking: Transcribing voice memos? Summarizing conversations and websites? Retouching photos? Uh… custom emojis? None of these are likely to be affected by the Open AI demo of GPT-4o, the latest major voice-enabled language model.

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

It’s a tougher argument to make now, since Apple’s biggest bets on its own innovation have crashed and burned. In February, the company finally shut down Project Titan, the codename for its ten-year, $10 billion internal initiative to design an Apple-branded electric car. And when Apple last year unveiled its mixed-reality “headtop” computer, the Vision Pro, it generated initial buzz with its undoubtedly groundbreaking features and performance specs, but failed to immediately engage 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 Vision Pro’s problem were visible in the WWDC reveal itself. The dazzling computer-simulation demo, which showed users wearing a parasol meditating in front of giant virtual mandalas, wandering around floating windows spread across different rooms in their homes, and working while sitting, surrounded by a swarm of apps, felt disconnected from things. that people really wanted to do.

In contrast, when Jobs pulled back the curtains on the first iPod in 2001, he held it up and said one phrase that summed up his user promise: “1,000 songs, and it goes in my pocket.” All the music you love, when you want it, at your fingertips. The iPod was panned by some as overpriced and unnecessary, but the core advantage it provided was irresistible to actual consumers, and it ushered a whole new category of portable consumer electronics into the mainstream.

What is the song-in-your-pocket equivalent of Vision Pro? Spreadsheets on your face? That’s certainly not a benefit that can entice any adopters to shell out $3,500 for the privilege of “space computing.” No one should count out Vision Pro – the iPad, Apple Watch and even the original iPhone needed a bit of time and iteration to find their roots. But for now, if Apple wants to reclaim its real-world relevance, Vision Pro isn’t it—yet. The power consumption of the device requires that it be connected to a small external battery mounted on the waist that only gives it a few hours of unplugged use. Its most notable feature is EyeSight, which uses a screen that looks out to present a ghostly image of the wearer’s eyes to the world in an attempt to remove the perception of the gadget as a barrier between users and the world around them. around them. a lot of fun.

Still, 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 expressed in benchmarks, but in value changes and behavior modification. And that’s because the seeds of Apple’s great success lie in the company’s ability to inspire people to reimagine their lives around their products.

Although the 1998 iMac’s all-in-one specifications fell short of comparable Intel hardware, its interior decoration sensibility led people to use it as a flaunted living room computer rather than hidden behind partitions, in turn at open the door forever-. deeper integration of consumer computing devices into our media consumption, home control and family interactions.

Ten years later, the MacBook Air, famously unveiled in 2008 as the world’s thinnest notebook, thin enough to fit in a standard manila envelope, was the first laptop to feel like a fashion accessory — a “wallet PC,” if you are. will. Even the original iPhone, introduced the year before, forced users to reimagine their relationship with handsets and screen-based communication, removing most physical buttons and inviting people to tap icons on a screen minimal touch instead. The end result was transformative.

What’s important to note is that all of these cultural revolutions are fundamentally rooted in design choices, not technological ones—changes in form and user interface based on idiosyncratic insights into how people want to interact with their digital content and together.

In the 13 years since Cook took the reins, and especially in the half century since Jony Ive, former chief design director, left Apple, the company has yet to deliver the same kind of teeth in the human universe. But in order to make cosmic dents, you have to take big swings. And while this may be paradoxical, what should make Apple fans hopeful is that the company can also regain its mojo, which caused widespread derision at WWDC in 2023. EyeSight is in its current goofy and awful form – but it’s an authentic effort. to address one of the key concerns people have about head-mounted devices.

Focusing on unexpected ways to socially integrate new technology is an exciting echo of Jobs and Ive’s native focus on the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, between computing and the humanities, even when their solutions are not in deficiency. Let’s hope that, at this WWDC, the company definitely ignores last year’s laughs and continues to look, and think, differently.

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