At WWDC 2013, Apple showed its new soul


— 11:59 PM on June 11, 2013

There was something different about Apple during yesterday's WWDC keynote. I couldn't put my finger on it at first.

Part of it was the glitchy developer demo at the start of the keynote. Right around the time Tim Cook should have been waxing poetic about Apple's accomplishments, two scruffy guys from a small robotics start-up took the stage and horsed around with toy cars.

Then came Craig Federighi. Apple's new software chief made the OS X Mavericks and iOS 7 demos come alive. He joked around with the audience and poked fun at himself. He came across as warm and personable—the polar opposite of Scott Forstall and Bertrand Serlet, the former iOS and OS X gurus, who always exuded cold intensity and rarely, if ever, strayed from their rehearsed remarks.

And then there was the new Designed by Apple in California campaign. After years of squeaky-clean, product-centric ads, Apple ditched the white backdrops, the oversaturated colors, and the catchy indie hits. It gave us honesty and emotion, and it tried to communicate something profound about its identity.

I think I know what's happening: Apple is growing a new soul. It's growing a new identity based not on one man's ego, but on human ideals we can all connect with.

It did something similar in 1997 with the Think Different campaign, which changed Apple's image from that of a dying PC maker to that of a champion for idealism. But then Jobs fused his identity with Apple's, and there was no longer a need for the "Think Different" credo. From 1997 until October 5, 2011, Jobs was the soul of Apple. He shaped the business, vetted the products, and stood on stage alone to introduce everything that came out of the company. He made Apple seem like a flawless machine whose only purpose was to bring his vision to fruition.

When he passed away, Apple became soulless. The people Jobs had hired were still there, and so were the products he had helped create. So, too, was the design and management infrastructure he had put in place. But there no longer seemed to be anything holding it together. The loss was so great that, after just a few months, people began to wonder if Apple had lost its way. They wondered this even as Apple continued to carry out Jobs' plan and to release the products he had vetted. Because he was gone, the magic was gone.

Apple stayed in this uncomfortable limbo for 20 months. Then, at WWDC 2013, we saw it finally fill the void left by its founder's death. There was no bold talk of corporate restructuring or rebranding. Rather, the new ad campaign, the tweaked keynote style, and Federighi's antics showed a side of the company we'd never seen before—a human side, a relatable side that might have been stifled by Jobs' perfectionism and arrogance before. Watching the keynote, I felt like Apple had gotten a new lease on life. The company seemed emboldened by its founder's legacy yet free from the weight of his influence.

And all it said was, "We are Apple. This is who we are."

Companies without soul can prosper. Firms like Microsoft and ExxonMobil post healthy profits and, for the most part, delight their investors. But nobody feels a personal connection to them. I think Apple came dangerously close to following those companies down that dark and dreary road. However, I think Tim Cook and his team were perceptive enough to steer clear of it and, once again, imbue Apple with human qualities. Those aren't the qualities of the old Apple—charisma and persistence and arrogance. They're new qualities like warmth, playfulness, devotion, and humor.

That's the sense I'm getting from yesterday's keynote, anyway. The new Apple may never be like the old Apple, but from what I saw, it could turn out even better.

   
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