Has Apple changed lately and stopped ‘thinking differently’? Many seem to believe so. I wouldn’t be so sure about that.
I’ve generally stopped reading the comment section of any article mentioning Apple, or specific Apple product reviews. The rare occasions I have the time — and the will — to glance at the ‘discussion’, it’s the same broken record. People ‘against’ Apple picking stupid fights with whom they perceive as ‘Apple fanboys’, people calling names, people engaging in tiring and pretty uninteresting ‘my device/platform of choice is better than yours’ competitions, and so on and so forth.
Then there’s the occasional contribution which seems a bit more restrained and thoughtful. And which details more clearly exactly what has changed over the years: people’s perception of Apple. With the company’s increasing success, many see Apple as a sort of new big monopolist, much in the style of good old Microsoft in the 1990s. And speaking of the 1990s, even some long-time Mac users readily voice the rhetorical question: Where has ‘Think[ing] Different’ gone?
Let’s recall for a moment what Think Different was.
Think Different: in context
In 1997, Jobs had just returned and taken the reins of a company in crisis in all respects (financial, design-related, strategic). Within months, Jobs was able to put Apple back on track by taking tough decisions and cutting every possible dead wood. Some of these decisions — such as promptly ending the Clone era that was inaugurated shortly before by the previous administration, or terminating the development of the Newton platform — were heavily criticised at the time; however such quick, drastic reforms turned out to be very positive for Apple from the very start. The company in fact, as early as 1998 began showing signs of recovery and newfound clarity after a period of confusion and a downward spiral which had brought Apple to a grave crisis around 1996–97.
Under Jobs’s direction, Apple was starting to offer something interesting on the software side: Mac OS 8 was finally a reality, and even if it did not keep the promises of the much-hyped Copland project, it wasn’t vaporware either. Research and development were going on behind the scenes with Rhapsody, which would soon become Mac OS X Server and then the Mac OS X with the Aqua interface we all know. On the hardware side, the iMac was still a secret, but the beige Power Macintosh G3 line was doing pretty well, and the first PowerBook G3 (still retaining the design and form factor of the PowerBook 5300 and 3400 models) was the fastest laptop available at the time. In the education sector, despite the recent discontinuation of the Newton platform, the eMate 300 was being rather successful. The situation was improving on the retail front as well, always thanks to some decisive measures taken by Jobs to straighten out Apple’s distribution system, reducing the number of main distributors and encouraging more dealers to trade with Apple directly. Not to mention the launch of the Apple Store, a phone & online service to allow customers to buy Apple products in a simple and direct fashion, without intermediaries.
These are all strategies that have proven successful with the benefit of hindsight, but which back then needed something homogeneous, cohesive, something that could convey this new enterprise, this new direction, in a strong, meaningful way across the board. A message that could go beyond the mere advertising surface and reflect Apple’s newfound identity, consistency and self-esteem. Hence “Think Different”, a promotional campaign in style, well thought out, well spread across the media, and extremely meaningful.
Fourteen years after the 1984 commercial, Think Different resumed a concept that had always been central to Apple’s identity: diversity. In 1984, the Macintosh was represented as the one element of diversity and distinction in an Orwellian dystopian world dominated by the dictatorship of the grey, of the serialised, of the lack of individuality. In the commercial, the Macintosh is symbolised by an Olympic athlete, and is a mix of contrasting elements with the surrounding scenery: the athlete is a woman in an all-male reality, she wears colourful clothes (red shorts, white T-shirt with the iconic Apple ‘Picasso’ logo) and has blonde hair, while all the men have shaven heads and sport the same nondescript grey clothes. She is also in motion, running through a static environment; she seems the only one capable of thinking with her own head among a lobotomised crowd and opposes the status quo by throwing a hammer at the screen where we can see Big Brother’s huge projected face, the symbol of absolute power and control.
Think Different: today
The fact is that the Think Different idea worked so well that soon started living a life of its own, extracting itself from the specific historical context in which it was born, and becoming a label of permanent identity, a touchstone that’s increasingly pulled out to judge Apple’s current decisions. Today Apple enjoys excellent health and success, and is light years ahead of the times that produced the Think Different campaign. One of the key factors for what Apple has achieved both commercially and as regards to its brand image has undoubtedly been the focus on the consumer market, which Apple entered with devices that are not ‘Macintosh computers’ per se (iPod + iTunes Store before, the whole iOS platform later) but that serve as a means to attract people towards what is now called ‘the Apple ecosystem’.
An ecosystem which has continued to be ‘different’ all along, which has continued to evolve and stand out. Now Apple is at a peak of self-esteem and confidence, and very proud of its achievements (hence the production of those videos with Jonathan Ive and other executives explaining the manufacturing process behind the devices). To get to this point, Apple has made strategic choices to meet the public’s needs. A portion of Apple users (veterans, professionals, but not only them), who had strongly felt and recognised that message — Think Different — and had associated it with the idea of being a minority, a niche made of people who were perhaps misunderstood but the best nonetheless — those long-time Apple users, faced with this ‘get out and mingle with the crowd’ consumer attitude, have been feeling compelled to bring out the Think Different slogan as a memento to throw at Apple every time the company takes an unwelcome decision or direction (according to them, of course).
You cannot ‘Think different(ly)’ in a vacuum. Under Jobs’s direction, Apple has shown a consistency of purpose on one hand, and on the other a very good intuition to adapt its products to new needs or creating groundbreaking devices that have been able to shape and reshape entire markets. If you take a good look at how Apple operates, putting aside your personal preferences, you will see that the company has actually been thinking differently all the time except during the Jobs-less interval. In those twelve or so years, Apple was still able to manufacture good quality products, but the company culture was progressively moving away from the original principles largely shaped by Steve Jobs. In the mid-Nineties, under Spindler and Amelio, Apple was just another computer company, and one that was struggling to stay profitable.
[A brief aside: The ongoing legal battle against Samsung is not a signal that Apple has changed, at all. Do you honestly believe that Apple wouldn’t have fought this way ten years ago? (Apple learnt the lesson a long time before, when it gave Microsoft too much freedom, and that resulted in Windows and PCs taking more than 90% of the personal computer installed base. Cheap, inferior quality boxes with an operating system that was a blatant copy of the Macintosh OS). The battle against Samsung (and others) is exactly a battle against those who do not think differently, but choose the easy way of, ahem, heavily borrowing Apple’s design ideas, both in hardware and in software.]
What has changed
What has changed is everything surrounding Apple. Technology and its impact in our lives has changed. Thanks to the Web, the way of informing people has changed. The way of discussing technology and those who produce it, has changed. Tech news today are delivered at a whole different pace than in the pre-Web days. Blogs have created a whole new layer of discussion and analysis. And rumour sites have created a whole new layer of constant speculation. Add to the mix the questionable mechanisms of certain ‘online journalism’ and its constant crave for the scoop, the exclusive, and you’ll get a 24/7 background tech buzz where every (real or guessed) move Apple makes is under relentless scrutiny. The evolution of the Web has, in part, helped Apple become the incredibly successful company it is today, but I believe that this increased noise produced by tech news sites, tech blogs, social media, and what have you, has also contributed to the creation of some sort of ‘ghost image’ of Apple that does not reflect what the ‘real’ Apple is about. The perception people have of Apple has ultimately changed, more than Apple itself.
The good part: over the years more people have been exposed to Apple products and have recognised their good quality and that they can be a valid, reliable alternative. Apple is finally being recognised for what it’s been since the beginning: an innovative, different company creating premium products ‘for the rest of us’. Long-time Mac users will remember past misconceptions about Apple, that quirky company manufacturing overpriced, expensive computers with proprietary ports and connections, with so little software available and mostly aimed at ‘graphic types’? Thankfully that stereotype has been gradually (and justly) fading away.
The bad part: we now have the rumour mill factory, the endless debates over the most trivial pretexts, whole stories blown out of proportion after simple bits of news or announcements. This generates another layer of expectations and misinformation that acts as a filter between what Apple actually does and what the general public feels about Apple. Today news and opinions travel much faster than in the pre-Web era, but that doesn’t mean they’re more accurate all the time. Today I meet people who didn’t even know about Apple back in the 1990s, and they’re eager to inform me that they know about the iPhone 5 and that it’s “nothing really new, just a small improvement over the 4S”. When I challenge their ‘facts’ they confess they’ve “read it somewhere” or maybe they “heard that on the TV”, or it was that geek acquaintance over Facebook or something. Similarly, other people I’ve talked with claim that “Apple is through with innovation” only because that’s what’s being said in that particular corner of the Web they frequent. That’s what being said by a portion of that layer of expectations and misinformation I mentioned above.
The wealth of information we can access today is unprecedented, something we could only dream of in the 1980s and 1990s, but it’s also ironic how it gets misused and how inaccurately informed people still can be.
Altered perception working backwards, or The Good Old Days Syndrome
I’ve been using Macs since 1989. I also maintain System Folder, a weblog dedicated to vintage Macs and the ‘classic’ Mac OS. I have great memories of how life with the Mac was before Mac OS X and when desktops were beige and laptops were dark grey, brown or black machines. I’m the first to admit that some things were simpler and nicer back then. But there’s a bunch of long-time Mac users who keep insisting that another sign of Apple’s change is the steady drop in hardware quality. They keep lamenting that today’s Macs break as easily as cheap PCs, that they have way more issues than the good Macs of old, that everything was better in The Good Old Days.
Perhaps they don’t remember. Perhaps some of them happened to buy rock-solid Macintosh workhorses back then and have had bad luck in more recent times. Perhaps it’s just the nostalgia working. My experience is a bit different, and I’m talking about Macs I’ve owned or worked on, and my adventures in the Nineties as the ‘Mac guy on call’, helping other people troubleshoot various issues with their Macs. Even in The Good Old Days there were hard drive failures (and very, very few people knew what the word backup meant), defective displays, battery recalls, bad RAM chips, power supply failures, overheating, etc. One little annoying thing I remember about the time when floppies were still widely used is when a Mac managed to format a floppy successfully but was unable to read it after some data was saved on it. Or when a floppy correctly formatted and readable by my PowerBook 150 was steadily refused by a Macintosh SE or by an LCIII. But the same disk formatted by the SE could be read just fine by the LCIII but not by the PowerBook. That was enough of an issue when it happened with my disks: imagine when that happened with a floppy a client gave me. With luck, one of the Macs at work or at home would read it; otherwise I would telephone the client and ask for another copy (or even two copies, if he had another Mac with which to format the second floppy).
And don’t get me started with the iMac G3. I loved that machine, and I treated my blueberry slot-loading late-1999 model with great care. But the analogue board was really its Achilles’ heel. Every time a thunderstorm was approaching, I had to switch the iMac off and unplug it from the wall socket, lest the iMac would fry. It happened anyway, twice. Both times due to storms coming and going at night while I was asleep. The following morning the iMac wouldn’t boot. The problem was rather widespread, judging by the number of iMac carcasses I used to see in the lab of a good friend who was a certified computer technician and troubleshooter.
So, to summarise:
- The persistence of a Think Different concept that still lives on, with its old luggage from the 1990s, in the minds of many Mac users;
- The constant online buzz by tech news sites, rumour sites, blogs, forums etc. giving way to mindless sensationalism, excessive hype, unrealistic expectations, misinformation, destructive polarisation, not to mention silly debates focusing on what Apple might do instead of what Apple actually does or has done. Plus contributions written by people who either don’t understand how Apple rolls or hate the company because of its seemingly everlasting success (or hate Apple just because);
- The Good Old Days Syndrome, expressed by a fringe of long-time Mac users and professionals complaining about how Apple has left them behind, how Apple has changed for the worse, how Apple’s general quality has dropped, how Apple has given them the cold shoulder (while they should blame their own inability to move on and stay technologically up-to-date);
…if you put all these elements together, you can see how they contribute to paint a general image of Apple that maybe isn’t quite fair or accurate.
I’m not invalidating all criticism towards Apple, of course. Over the years the company has made some decisions that warranted debate and criticism. Perhaps what I’m sick and tired of are people babbling opinions without doing a tiny bit of research or fact-checking, and this happens at any level — forum threads, personal blog posts, tech websites and pundits who should know better, and so on. I’m sick and tired of all the incessant ‘analysis’, rumours, predictions, overreactions, 98% of which is based on pure speculation and should be immediately discarded by the public. But today being a discerning reader takes time and effort. Relaying and propagating incorrect or unverified information, mixed with a bit of hearsay and personal beliefs, is much easier.