After putting down yet another slavishly admiring profile of top Apple designer Jony Ive this weekend in the egregiously-named “How to Spend It” magazine published by the Financial Times, I had a nagging sense that something was wrong. Of course, like all the strategically placed articles about Ive in recent weeks, this one was yet another indirect attempt by Apple to create a slavishly admiring article about the incipient Apple Watch. The Watch, Apple is desperate to let us know, is imminent, and we ought to care. But what is it, exactly, that Apple is telling us we ought to care about?
The FT piece was the second major article I have read recently about the impressive Ive and the watch that failed to tell me—a longtime tech journalist and two-decade user of Apple’s products—why I should want it. Of course it was laden with scrumptious and colorful pictures of the watch up close, with a tight focus not just on the screen, a compressed version of what’s on an iPhone app, but on gleaming cases and well-designed bands in many materials. The opening shot was of a “gold Apple Watch Edition,” which as the caption tells us, has “an as yet unconfirmed price of about $4,500.”
The other article was two weeks ago in The New Yorker–a very long profile of Ive, who has never been properly profiled until lately. (The first significant profile appeared in last October’s Vogue, timed carefully to correspond to Apple’s much-trumpeted first watch announcement in September.) The one in The New Yorker was meant to be the authoritative explanation of Ive’s priorities as the watch–his baby, by all these accounts–emerges. Ive is being positioned as the new company figurehead, the visionary substitute for Steve Jobs. The New Yorker article reiterated endlessly how close Ive was to Jobs, repeatedly quoted Jobs’ wife Laurene Powell Jobs saying nice things about Ive, and in its very 16,000-word-plus essence made the case that this person, and his judgments, are of world-changing importance.
But my biggest takeaways from the New Yorker piece, that were more or less news, were things like how Ive is driven around Silicon Valley in a chauffeured Bentley (not unheard-of but unusual behavior among moguls there). Or that he has for many years collected expensive watches and that he pals around with a long list of bold-faced names strategically dropped here, no doubt with help from the Apple PR department, including filmmaker J.J. Abrams, Bono, Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Martin, and Paul Smith. I was already a believer in Ive’s aesthetic brilliance. And few would dispute he is the most influential designer in the world. The article satisfied my curiosity about him. It showed me how much he appreciates the life and aesthetic of luxury. But it did not help me understand why I would want an Apple Watch, nor how the much-discussed limitations of the watch might be addressed.
Amazingly, that endless New Yorker article didn’t even mention that you will need to have an iPhone on your person at the same time you wear an Apple Watch. And the word “charge” does not appear among its 16,000 words except when the author tells how Ive first took charge of various Apple design functions. Yet one of the biggest commercial questions facing the watch is whether it will retain a battery charge long enough to satisfy users for even one day. The iPhone itself already has significant battery life weakness relative to other smartphones. So if we Apple addicts, or more importantly new users, are to adopt the Watch/iPhone combination we will be repeatedly charging two different devices.
I dwell on these two recent articles because they say volumes (literally) about Apple’s aims. This company, because of the unique global interest in its activities, can literally stipulate who writes the articles with which it cooperates and where they appear, particularly on topics as important as Jony Ive. Apple never cooperates with articles that are not strategic; that they do not, quite literally, “place.” Ive, who by all accounts prefers not to put his personality in the foreground, clearly has consented to be used nonetheless because he is so eager to help his watch succeed. So the fact that Ive was rolled out only for magazines with a very elite and wealthy audience is significant. Also significant and indicative of Apple’s priorities is that both the FT’s “How to Spend It” article and the one in The New Yorker were written by authors who do not typically write about technology. The authors instead were, respectively, one who typically writes about luxury, high society, and watches, and one who writes most often about the arts. Apple wanted it that way.
But here’s the thing about luxury. Apple has become the colossus that it is today in large part because it uniquely has contributed to a fundamental redefinition of what luxury is. Or rather, it has shown that in the modern technologized world “luxury,” in the traditional sense, is increasingly meaningless. Apple’s core competence is democratizing capability in tech-centric products. That’s one reason there has been much excitement lately about the possibility that Apple might take on Tesla in building an electric car for everyman.
One of the most defining and ironic facts about modern life is that despite the shameful wealth and income inequality that besets the world, the differentiation such wealth can achieve for its beneficiaries is diminishing. I have an iPhone 6. Elon Musk has an iPhone 6. Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg and Madonna and all the stars at the Oscars have one, or a semi-equivalent Android device. But a large percentage of the kids on the subway also have an iPhone, as do several of the service employees in my Manhattan apartment building. There is no way a rich person can get a better phone than I can, than we can. I like that, and so does the world.
This egalitarianism is not only possible but necessary. That’s because it takes large market economies of scale to justify the expenditure necessary to develop such a sophisticated product. Thus if it was truly luxury, it would not truly be tech. This reality will continue to insure that the best things are evenly spread over the planet. The latest predictions are that by 2018, as many as 3.8 billion people will have smartphones not much different from the one Steve Jobs pioneered only 8 short years ago. Apple has triumphed and become the most valuable company in history because it was able to sell state-of-the-art technology at gigantic scale for a price affordable to huge numbers of people. In so doing, it has helped make the world more equal.
It’s distressing and maybe a little worrisome to see a company that has achieved its extraordinary scale and influence by those means now devolving back to thinking about luxury in such a conventional and even pedestrian sense. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with golden beautiful luxuries. But many companies can make such products. Hardly any can make an iPhone or iPad or MacBook Air.
These articles are noteworthy for what exactly they say about the new Apple product that is the pretext for their existence. They tell us about things like the elegant way the watch’s box opens (FT), the sound a band makes as its clasp closes—“It makes this fantastic k-chit,” Ive is quoted as saying (Vogue)—and the very fancy high-end materials employed for expensive Watch versions—”gold hardened in a novel process of compression” (The New Yorker). Ive’s Watch is undeniably beautiful. While its price will start at $350, these articles are way better at explaining why the versions that will cost in the thousands will work as luxury and fashion than why you and I ought to have a less-expensive one to go with our iPhones.
The worst fear for an Apple-watcher (or Apple investor) ought to be that all this hullabaloo about luxury is a deliberate distraction concocted by Apple from the possibility that the core functional advantages of the watch are simply not very impressive. After all, other cool and very functional digital watches are already on the market or about to be launched, like LG’s much-anticipated Urbane models, which won’t always even require connection to a smartphone. Apple may be signaling its own lack of confidence in its own product by so relentlessly touting the “luxury” of it. (We’ll learn much more about the details of the Watch following the big show the company is putting on in San Francisco today, Monday, March 9.) Or maybe Jony Ive is just more interested in luxury than he is in tech. That would be something an Apple investor ought to worry about.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Watch succeeds long term. However, it seems likely that only future versions will live up to the hype. After all, the iPod, iPhone, and iPad all took time to ramp up to their economy-altering potential and impact. At launch none of them were freighted with anything like this level of expectation or attention. That’s partly because Jobs was still alive and observers of tech knew he sometimes hit it and sometimes missed it. Now Apple CEO Tim Cook and Jony Ive are being asked to prove they are Jobs’ worthy heirs, and that they can grow this enormous company substantially with new product categories. In reality, even without a near-term smash hit watch Apple will do fine for the foreseeable future, because the company’s ongoing success in phones, tablets, computers, and services is epochally substantial and still growing.
But if the watch does eventually settle successfully into the tradition of world-altering Apple products, it will be because it is relatively affordable, well designed, and technology-centered around software that does things we need to have done. It will not be because it is gorgeous or expensive or craved by those on the wrong side of the world’s inequality divide. It will be because, like all great modern technologies, it helps in fundamental ways to reduce the significance and pain of that divide.