Apple sells fear disguised as innovation


At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in 2013, Phil Schiller, then Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, proudly introduced the new Mac Pro. After bragging about his features, he smiled and said, “I can’t innovate anymore, ass.”

This MacPro landed with a bit of a bang. Apple was applying its time-tested “we know what you want before you know you want it” design philosophy. But users weren’t impressed and dubbed it “the trash can” because of its annoying resemblance to a trash can.

Nine years ago, about two years after the death of Steve Jobs, Apple really didn’t know what users wanted. Innovation was slowing down. Product introductions in 2013 and 2014 included larger phones, AMOLED displays and smartwatches, all long-standing entries into competitors’ product lines that Apple had previously rejected.

What about Apple Watch or AirPods? Both are good high-margin additions to sell to iPhone users, much like ordering fries and a large drink to go with a burger.

Apple presented a list of products with checklist items of small changes disguised as features. The iPhone 14 is not much different from the iPhone 13 or iPhone 12. Even with the new “photonic engine”, the phone takes photos that few users can distinguish from those taken with older devices. old.

Under Tim Cook’s leadership, Apple released many boring products, but also sold tens of millions. This has taken the company to a multi-trillion dollar valuation, which shareholders appreciate, but it’s somewhat disappointing for users who continue to expect “one more thing”, as Jobs would say during the introduction of a new product. These are the products that have had Apple customers sleeping the night before retail stories just to be the first to buy them.

Under Jobs, Apple really knew what users wanted before they did. Apple sold aspiration as something empowering. I was sitting in the audience when Jobs introduced GarageBand and John Mayer said he used it. As Mayer played, I thought, “The only thing between him and me is a copy of GarageBand. No users asked for iPods or iPhones, but Apple knew they needed them, or at the very least wanted them.

These days, Apple often thinks its users need things they don’t need or want. Apple, for example, thought users needed ever thinner devices, much like Heinz convinced the market that “thicker” was better when it came to ketchup. But users scorned features that Apple changed in the name of thinness, like the butterfly keyboard.

Lately though, Apple has started selling fear instead of innovation.

iPhones now have a satellite connection feature to call for help when you’re stuck on a dark, snowy mountain during a storm. They offer collision detection and call 911 in the event of a car accident.

The Apple Watch? It’s not just for fitness; its features can save your life. I know this from breathless recreations of letters from users to Apple recounting how features like ECG detection and AFib saved their lives, as Apple showed during the last product introduction, although the warnings about the watch explicitly state that people with AFib should not use it.

Do you fear for your elderly parents? Give them an Apple Watch and get notified if they fall. Are you traveling alone in the desert? The new Apple Watch Ultra will let out a piercing scream to help rescuers find you if you can’t follow the digital breadcrumb you set to find your way back to civilization.

The underlying message is: “If you want to live, buy our stuff.” Apple now sells devices like First Alert sells smoke detectors.

In reality, how often do most users take ECGs on their watch or find themselves stranded in a place that has no cellular coverage but has emergency services rescuers? Besides, how many would use their Apple Watch Ultra to go scuba diving? These aren’t inspiring new tools for humans to create, but rather a list of features that most users will probably never need. They yearn for the same people who buy expensive Breitling Emergency watches in case their plane breaks down.

Most reviewers don’t take these features seriously enough to get into a crash to test collision detection or roam the desert to test and call for help on the satellite. Dear Reviewers: Come on, who really needs another camera scan at this point?

My favorite article about the new Apple Watches came from a reviewer from The Verge who wrote that the best feature of their new watch was the $90 expandable strap. I still can’t tell if it was satire or praise.

I firmly believe that none of this will hurt Apple’s sales, and because I’m a shareholder, I’m grateful for that. I wonder, however, if the amazing “one more thing” is just a permanent thing of the past.

Michael Gartenberg is a former senior marketing executive at Apple and covered the company for more than two decades at Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. He can be reached on Twitter at @Gartenberg.

The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Disclosure: The author owns Apple stock.


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