Apple post-Steve: too cool or not to cool?

Steve & Apple Inc.

I think John Gruber said it best when he wrote that Steve Job’s greatest achievement wasn’t one of the gizmos (which we’re all smart enough to know weren’t “invented” by Jobs in any real sense) but the company, Apple, itself. The way it works, and the way its products just work.

I was lucky enough this summer to get a new MacBook Pro from work, and passed my old white MacBook to a colleague. I remember thinking at the time that I transferred all my data over and set up the new machine that I was finding it an underwhelming experience. I’d never been less excited by a new Mac, in all the years I’d been using them.

Why was that, I wondered?

In much the same way, I wondered years ago why it was that I hated Helvetica so much. I’d just got my first Mac (a Performa 630) and I was aggrieved that every time I started a new document in ClarisWorks, the default font was the dreaded Swiss. My investigations into my hatred of Helvetica led me to my eventual MA dissertation, at least one chapter of my PhD, and my eventual careers first as a marketing manager for an Apple dealer and then as a Media Studies teacher.

So after everything my first Mac had led to, why was I suddenly underwhelmed by my (counts under breath) tenth?

Between the ninth and the tenth, I got an iPhone. I use it every day. Not as a phone – that would be stupid – but as a camera, a twitter appliance, a remote control for slideshows and movies in lessons, something to take a register on, to keep track of things I have to do, to read and send emails, as a sat nav, a music player, an exercise tracker, and a database of my blood pressure readings, or for shopping lists, and so on. The iPhone is an integral, seamless part of my life. I do stuff with it. I don’t play with it, or stroke it, or fondle it, I just use it all the time.

Like many others, I was slightly underwhelmed by this week’s announcement of the iPhone 4S. No surprises, everything as I expected, based on my readings of the likes of Gruber and Ihnatko. An improved camera – not just because of megapixels, but other things, like the lens – and a faster processor. Voice control? Neither here nor there, but I imagine quite useful for the sight-impaired. But it didn’t look any different.

I thought of it in terms of the Top Gear cool wall. Because you’d have to explain to someone that your iPhone was a 4S model and not a 4, because it wouldn’t be immediately obvious, the iPhone 4S fails the cool test. It’s just an appliance.

I was disappointed with my new MacBook Pro for the same reason, I realise. Yes, this one is aluminium and not white plastic, but it feels exactly the same to use. Computers have been “fast enough” for a while now. We stopped caring about megahertz and megabytes a long time ago. And the process of swapping your data and your user accounts and settings from an old one to a new one is so seamless now that you barely notice the difference. It’s just like buying a new toaster.

Steve Jobs did that.

He made the thing that was complex and difficult and awkward; and which rewarded a certain obsessiveness with a certain expertise; he made that thing like buying a transistor radio. Less complicated and awkward than deciding which coffee machine to buy, in this day and age. Steve Jobs took away the need to be nerdy about computers, and megabytes, and megahertz, even screen resolution and graphics processing. There are still people who don’t “get” this fundamental change, still whining away every time a newspaper prints a story about the largest tech company in the world, but you just feel sorry for them really.

These are the same people who don’t “get” that design isn’t about how it looks. They call us fanboys who are blinded by shiny things. Here’s some news: I don’t particularly even notice the way my MacBook looks. I don’t particularly like the look of the iPhone. It’s cold and sharp and uncomfortable in the hand, and on the side of your head when you foolishly try to use it as a phone. It slides off things if you put it down without a case of some kind on it. But none of that matters. Design isn’t how it looks: it’s how it works.

And Steve Jobs, with his obsessive concerns with pixel-perfect design and user experience, did that.

Apple isn’t about hardware or the way it looks. It’s about software and the way it works. And when it just works, when there are no longer any speed bumps or awkwardness, it’s not cool any more. It’s just an appliance.

A few years ago, at my old job, we were cleaning out a cupboard full of not-for-resale software. I nearly wet myself when I came across a copy of MacWrite, the “pro” word processor that was one up from the ClarisWorks I’d first used on my first Performa. MacWrite Pro! And it was on several floppy disks. It was so exciting: software that was so big that it needed several floppy disks to install it. Software that had its own tee-shirt. Getting hold of something like that was a real occasion. It was time consuming and awkward, and you needed to check if your machine was compatible. Feeling sad, I threw it away with all the other old stuff. The world had moved on. Software came on CDs and DVDs, then. Now, you just click a link and it downloads and installs and just works.

There’s no going back from this point. It would be like going back to a CRT television set. That culture of things just working is hard-wired into Apple, Steve Jobs’ greatest creation.

It’s Steve’s World now. You just live in it.

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