Ran into this piece on The Week.
One thing was conspicuously missing at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the annual convention in which tech companies peddle their newest wares. While there were smart fridges, virtual reality headsets, and 4K TVs galore, what was absent was even more interesting: the looming sense that everyone was scrambling to catch up to Apple.
For years Apple has set the tone and tenor of the conversation in tech. The iPhone was so wildly successful that everyone from car manufactures to makers of cheap trinkets did their best to ape or react to the device, and for a while Apple was on the lips of everyone remotely connected to technology. But at this year’s CES, perhaps the most significant change was the shift to voice control like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, while augmented reality, connected TVs, and the smart home weren’t far behind. Suddenly, Apple seems to be casting a much smaller shadow.
And if Apple cannot right itself, other companies will step in to fill the void.
Right now, that means the tech world will begin to be led by Google and Amazon, companies whose philosophies are markedly different from Apple’s. For all its flaws, Apple’s defining mission has been to make good stuff, while Amazon and Google are more circuitous in their pursuit of profit, preferring to sell peripheral products that strengthen a core goal of retail or advertising.
With Apple’s influence waning, we may find ourselves in a strange position, lamenting the decline of a multi-billion dollar corporation because what replaces it will be worse.
But it isn’t just Apple’s influence that is slipping. The company has seen its most ardent, loyal fans starting to grumble about everything from the missing headphone jack in the iPhone 7, to a lackluster laptop and desktop line up that has left its vocal power users feeling abandoned. In part, this is due to Apple’s inattention. With the iPhone dominating Apple’s earning charts, everything else from the Mac to peripherals like its AirPort Wi-Fi product have either failed to keep up with users’ needs, or appear to simply be forgotten.
There is also a sense that while Apple’s products always excelled because of the marriage of design and function, now the former has come to overshadow the latter, resulting in thin laptops that require an absurd array of dongles or wireless headphones that easily slip out. Meanwhile, Siri lags its voice assistant competitors while stalwart Apple users say its software has dropped in quality.
As cliché as it’s become to say, there’s still an argument to be made that this is in part about the shift from famed CEO Steve Jobs to current one Tim Cook. Jobs was notoriously fastidious about details and not shipping products until they were the best, and Apple’s looser current approach, though not without its benefits, is starting to hurt them.
More broadly, though, the changes stem from the fact that Apple’s organizational structure is designed to excel at making a few key hardware products, but not to succeed in a world that requires services like iCloud and Siri to take center stage.
Even more importantly, Apple’s technology is just no longer dominant. In voice, excitement and hype has shifted from Siri to Amazon’s Alexa assistant, which lets you interact with it solely with your voice to listen to music or order from Amazon. Meanwhile Microsoft, of all companies, is seen as innovating faster and more interestingly than Apple in terms of creating new categories.
To be clear, in the last quarter Apple earned $9 billion in income, more than most companies earn in revenue in a year, and the results of the holiday period are likely to be even higher. Apple is still sitting on mounds of cash, and is well positioned to keep raking in money. But it’s not its financial health that is in question; it is its ability to set the direction of the tech world.
In one sense, some stumbles by the massively profitable company are to be welcomed. After all, Apple’s success comes with downsides. Just recently, Apple removed The New York Times from the app store in China after a request from the government, cutting off access to the news source for anyone in the country, a move that is significant because Apple devices are a kind of chokepoint for the distribution of media.
But Apple’s influence has also often been surprisingly positive.
The entire design revolution toward more user-friendly products like smart TVs, thermostats, or kitchen appliances has been spurred by products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. The Apple ethos is that technology is much better when it’s easy to use. While other companies have done well to try and keep up — Google’s Android, for example, is finally both usable and attractive — none of them have instigated broad changes in far flung industries, in large part because their design vision is nowhere near as focused. No car company is thinking “we want our vehicles to be more like shopping on Amazon.” Rather, Apple always focused on making its products central, unlike Google and Amazon, who use tech products to funnel both money and attention back into their main focuses — for Amazon, its retail operations, and for Google, its search engine. If Apple continues its decline, its replacements would do little to further actual design and technical excellence.
An important side-effect of Apple’s focus on user experience has been an emphasis on the principles of user privacy and a resistance to intrusive advertising. Apple took the principled stand against giving government a back door to its iPhones, while it also let users block ads, mostly because they were becoming cumbersome and clunky. Because Apple staked its brand on the idea that using its tech should feel good, it had the knock-on effect of making privacy important.
Of course, one shouldn’t overstate the case.
Apple does not act out of altruism, and its stances on ideas like design, advertising, and privacy arise out of the same profit motive that causes it to have enormous profit margins and occasionally dubious business practices.
And it is certainly possible that Apple’s top-down, almost authoritarian style is just less appealing in 2017. Steve Jobs’ mantra that “customers don’t know what they want until we show them” carries a slightly more menacing tone today. Perhaps people now want a more open approach, or simply just desire something different.
The end of Apple seems to be the result of something deep. Actually, the trend toward reduced innovation in Silicon Valley and other places has been talked and written about all over the place. Tyler Cohen even wrote a book on the topic. There have been other books and many articles and posts about the topic. What they all miss is why the slowdown happened. I’m going to start with this video of a man making his own IPhone with salvage from dealers in Shenzhen.
Now why is that important? Well when I was a kid I could have done much the same here in the NYC area by going down to Canal St. Because the area had surplus and scrap from people making stuff finding parts to tinker with was fairly easy. Almost all of that is gone, along with the places that sold the tools and parts.
When I started looking for work I used to buy the NY Times every Sunday and in the back of the job ads there was always a section for industrial auctions, factory after factory, shop after shop, going out of business. Every week, four five of them, for twenty odd years. In The Economy Of Cities, Jane Jacob postulated that cities wen though periods of import reduction. This was the opposite. This was increasing imports at the expense of production.
Of course with the closure of all those shops, the infrastructure that went with them closed up too. Along with the businesses like Canal Surplus that existed on the fringes of the industry, living on the scraps. The problem is that once those businesses are gone, it’s much harder for innovators to acquire the supplies, parts, materials and tools for their project. The tinkering that had been so important part of innovation gets far more difficult.
Consider what the NY Resistor hacker group went through when playing around in the 2000’s. The NY Resistor people were a bunch of people who wanted to tinker and build stuff. By the time they started though, most if not all the infrastructure for tinkerers and hackers was gone, or at least so well hidden that it takes a great deal of effort to find if you don’t know where it was. At least it’s taken me a great deal of effort, most of which seem to me result in finding the places after they have closed up.
When the hackers at NYResistor started up Makerbot they had to essentially start from scratch. That’s why they went with that laser cut case, home made pulleys and loose wiring. Without the surplus and scraps bins, there was no way to really discover the parts that worked, or for that matter the parts that existed at all. So the cupcake 3D printer was a rather crude hack that never worked very well.
Now I’m going to admit that I could do better, better actually in the same market as NY Resistor’s. That’s because I’ve been working professionally as a designer in that market for decades now and have developed a large catalog and “where to find things” folder from the internet. Along with the fact that I have access to the actual hardware and yes, scraps. Some of which I’ve had for some time. Experience pays.
I have noticed that as the years have gone by that it’s harder and harder for people starting out to obtain some of the tools and stuff that they need to go further unless they learn enough to make the connections that tell them where to go to get the stuff.
The internet has changed that for some things, but the internet can’t give you the feel of actually handling the parts and playing around with them, or the insights you get from actually handling the hardware. For that matter, access to tools is crucial too. For NYC, things look to be changing in the near future. The Tech Shop that’s been in the works for years is finally happening.
It’s been said by many in the tech community that Apple and Foxconn can’t afford to open a factory here in the States. That would be true if all you want is to keep doing the same things over and over. like so many companies have done in the past. CT is littered with the skeletons of those businesses and companies. Companies who failed to innovate, for whatever reason, companies that, in the end got speeches like this.
In the rush to post modernism, America has forgotten who we were. In the attempt to create perfect utopia the country has bound itself up in so many rules and procedures, become so efficient at business that we, as a people forgot why all that business was supposed to happen in the first place. In the process we’ve managed make it almost impossible for the seeds of innovation to grow.
The ground here in the US needs to be fertilized. While people may be innovative, innovation, at least at the rate we have come to expect doesn’t happen unless very special conditions exist. It’s far too easy to gum up the works and if that happens it may not be possible to restart things and put Humpty Dumpty back together.
Now Apple has lot of money, right now. As the man said, they are not broke, yet. Yet the rumblings are there. I’ve seen a lot of articles about Apple’s loss of Innovation. And in the tech universe loss if innovation can cause a senescence in your product and also in the tech universe any sign senescence and you are on the way out.
What Apple should do is buy the Radio Shack Brand and return it to the home geeks that it was. Rather than letting the contents of their dumpsters end up all over the streets of Shenzhen they should take advantage of the low shipping and turn the stuff into dump bins in Radio Shack Stores. Add reels of SMT parts, access to board services, small CNC machines, pick and place machines and all the rest of the things that maker community uses. They should also provide access to board services and local machine shops at a discount. giving discounts and free advertising to local makerspaces on the Radio Shack website and building a forum community will go a long way to resurrecting what’s been lost. You can’t make innovation you have to grow a community where it happens.
Right now, Apple and the rest of American business are at a crossroads. Like it or not many of the business models they have been following are heading them down the tubes. In the chase fro ever more efficiency and better corporate cultures the big tech companies have forgotten what was important. This isn’t the first time that this happened, but the end is usually the same. There’s nobody left at Apple to send a fire breathing memo like this around, but I think that they need it.
That’s a subject for a different day.