In the technology world, being complacent is deadly. Something that's groundbreaking, revolutionary, or classic is inevitably tired and creaky just a few years later. As Steve Jobs himself preached, staying relevant is always about moving forward. At Apple's 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) we saw Apple itself take a revolutionary product that's by many standards still the best in the industry, and change it into something new.
I'm not talking about iOS, although the rule applies there too--iOS 7 is the kind of move you'd expect for the company that replaced the iPod mini with the iPod nano.
I'm talking about tone, manner--the entire vibe--of Apple itself.
It was noticeable in the music Apple played before the keynote--hipper, younger, with fewer top-of-the-chart smashes and classic rock numbers. It was clear in the stage demeanor of Apple's presenters, not to mention the format of the keynote itself. This was the first truly post-Steve Jobs keynote.
Replacing the standard
It used to be that tech companies didn't do big standalone events to announce products or initiatives. There were press releases or maybe press conferences at the Consumer Electronics Show. The modern era of giant invitation-only extravaganzas exists because of the wild success Apple had with such events, led by its co-founder Steve Jobs on stage.
I can't count how many Steve Jobs presentations I've been to. The early ones were a little ragged, but for the last 10 or so years of Jobs's life, they followed a remarkably consistent template. The music, the occasional comedy bit from an outsider, a drop-in from Apple SVP of Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller--I could probably write a book defining just what made a Steve Jobs Keynote what it was, but that's not the point.
The point is, when Steve Jobs left the stage, Apple kept soldiering on with the format. And quite right, too. Why mess with what works? But time has a funny way of dulling the cutting edge and turning dynamic personalities into historical figures. And at WWDC 2013, I saw clear signs that today's Apple is not afraid to get out from under the shadow of Steve Jobs's legendary keynotes.
A lot of the burden of the post-Jobs keynote era falls on Tim Cook's shoulders. Talk about your tough acts to follow. Cook's approach has been a good one, in that he's never attempted to be Steve Jobs. He doesn't unveil products himself, for example. Instead, Cook stays true to Cook. He's improved as a presenter over the years, to be sure, but his slow speaking cadence and role as Apple CEO position him properly as the guy who presents the big picture. Cook's role is to talk about Apple's vision and philosophy and not get caught up in the details. He's earnest, and I think it works.
The other presenters provided a nice contrast to Cook. Phil Schiller was a mainstay of Jobs keynotes, essentially Jobs's sidekick. At the WWDC 2013 keynote, he was probably looser and feistier than I've ever seen him on stage. "Can't innovate any more, my ass," he said, addressing Apple's critics head-on. Steve Jobs would often take shots at Apple's competitors, but Schiller was directly addressing Apple's critics, and doing it with attitude. These are words of an Apple that's confident but not above the fray.
And SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi, once visibly nervous onstage, has turned into a guy who works the room like a veteran stand-up comic. (I practically expected him to start calling out city names in order to elicit applause from the audience--"Who's here from New York City?") It's easy for these Apple keynotes, especially in the absence of Jobs, to come across as somewhat soulless dispatches of marketing messages from on high, adjectives like "magical" and "amazing" fluttering down on us as the great company presents its latest bit of perfection.
Humans, not wizards
Federighi's willingness to go off script and show some humanity (and humility) broke down a lot of those barriers and got across what Apple wants to come across: that Apple is not a company run by magicians who work in secret to bestow miracles on people. Instead, in its custom keynote video and its new TV ad, we're seeing an Apple that wants to be understood as a bunch of hard-working human beings who just want to make the very best stuff.
It's part of the tonal shift that came with the release of the Photos Every Day commercial. There, too, Apple is emphasizing the personal, human element, with technology only as an aid.
There were some other change-ups in the keynote that were welcome. Instead of a parade of (mostly high-profile) developers doing lengthy app demos, there was a single demo. It was early on and a little weird, but then it was over. The pace of the entire program was steady. Features were introduced and quickly demoed--sometimes Jobs-led keynotes would linger too long over a favorite minor feature.
This keynote was packed, two hours that were on message and brimming with content. It was quite a contrast to Google's three-hour keynote at its developer conference, which was unfocused and too long. Apple's keynote left all sorts of details on the cutting-room floor; parts of Google's presentation seemed to be from internal product groups that wanted the spotlight but didn't actually have much to say.
This is the new message
Apple's fans and critics will find much to debate about the substance of the presentation, but one thing is indisputable: Apple is changing its approach. The way it represents itself to the public has changed. The products it announced on Monday included some bold strokes, from the name of OS X Mavericks to the bold redesign of iOS 7 and the wild new look of the Mac Pro.
Are there risks in these changes? Of course, but sticking with an old, increasingly out-of-date playbook would have been worse. Steve Jobs is gone, but before he left he demanded that the people at Apple not keep asking themselves what he would have done. After an appropriate period of mourning, this is the new face of Apple.
I like it. But more than that, I like that there's a new face and new energy coming from Apple. The tasteful black clothes are back in the closet. Life goes on, and so does Apple.