Apple opened a routine product-launch event last month with a gag. An establishing aerial shot of Apple’s new circular headquarters set up a “Mission: Impossible”-inspired video sketch: The keynote speech is about to start, and it’s an emergency. A young woman is summoned into action, clutching a metallic briefcase while running, jumping, tripping and sliding her way out of the sparsely inhabited mile-round structure where she works. This rush across Apple’s depopulated futurescape is interrupted by an Apple Watch notifying our hero that she had completed her activity goal for the day; she runs into a colleague who uses his to teleport. The real punch line arrives when she delivers her package to Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook — and it’s not a new product, but the remote control he needs for his presentation.
The subtext, in this now-customary display of self-deprecation, is that Apple, which saw its market capitalization pass $1 trillion in August this year, doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. Steve Jobs was fond of pointing out the limits of market research. Customers “don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them,” he would say, sometimes invoking a (probably apocryphal) adage from Henry Ford: If he had asked people what they wanted, “they would have said, ‘Faster horses.’ ” Whether we understand this sentiment as an actual operating principle or as self-aggrandizing narrative, it does not quite account for what has become of Apple in the post-Jobs era.
The company never achieved true dominance until the staggering rise of the iPhone, which was a Jobs-era project, but the iPhone itself didn’t succeed until after Apple relinquished its total control over it. At launch, Jobs imagined the device as a phone that could go to websites. There were no third-party apps. Today, however, we associate our smartphones with the apps we use on them. They’re for Instagram or Facebook; they’re for WhatsApp, or for buying things on Amazon, or for checking your Gmail. They belong, in other words, to the internet giants, some of which are Apple’s competitors and together dominate the time we spend with Apple’s core product. In a bid to show people what they wanted, Jobs ended up creating perhaps history’s most efficient tool for simply asking them, and then letting others supply the answers.
The Apple Watch, a new version of which was announced at the event, was initially pitched, in 2014, as a salve for the excesses of your iPhone. Just as Apple had lost control of its iPhone to the invasive, distracting internet companies, those customers had lost control over their own experiences. The Apple Watch — with its smaller screen and emphasis on checking rather than interacting — was pitched with marketing that evoked adventure, activity and, above all, escape, as much from work or home as from the iPhone itself.