Opinion: Apple can still get back to its golden age | CNN (2024)

Opinion: Apple can still get back to its golden age | CNN (1)

The iPod was dragged by some as overpriced and unnecessary,but the core benefit it provided was irresistible to actual consumers, Jeff Yang writes.

Editor’s Note: Jeff Yangis a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion. He co-hosts the podcast “They Call Us Bruce” and is co-author of thebestselling book “Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now” and author of “The Golden Screen: The Movies That Made Asian America.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Readmore opinionon CNN.


Apple’sWorldwide Developer Conference(WWDC)is justdays away, and as usual, the technorati are buzzing about what might be unveiled at the company’s annual bleeding-edge technology event:An updated iPhone operating system with a heavy AI focus?New Mac hardware?A “One More Thing”wildcard?

Opinion: Apple can still get back to its golden age | CNN (2)

Jeff Yang

Naturally, Apple has locked down the details of the revelations it plans onreleasing onMondaytighter than Fort Knox. But the sense among many observers is that whatever they are, they’d better be good. Because since the beginning of the year, there have beensignsthat the fruit factory’s future prospects could be souring.

Thecompany’ssalesinChinadropped dramaticallyearlier thisyear, as the iPhonewasmetwith strong competition from local offerings like the Huawei Mate, forcing Apple to offer aggressivediscountsthere. In 2023, the International Trade Commission ruled that Apple stepped on medical equipment manufacturer Masimo’s existing patents in building a pulse oximeter into its newestApple Watches,leading the company to haltsalesof those versions of itswearable inDecember,untilthe feature couldbetemporarilyremoved, pending appeal of the decision.And in March, the Justice Departmentfiled a lawsuitagainst Apple, alleging that the company engages ina broad range of anticompetitive practices related to its dominance in the US smartphone market — litigation that threatens the very core of the company’s business.(Apple denied theallegations.)

Of course, by most measures, the gadget maker is still a gargantuan global success. Aftertumblingearlier in the year, the company’s stock now stands just short of its all-time high, bringing itsvaluationbackto about $3trilliondollars (just six years after it became the world’s firsttrillion-dollar company). Juicing Apple’s growth? The iPhone, of course, which commands a 17% share of theglobal smartphone marketas measured by units sold,but a staggering 43% ofglobal smartphone revenues.And Apple’sservices business, mostly defined by sales of apps and content, continues tothrive, andis projected to make upa quarter of the company’s total revenuesby 2025.

A tech company’s success isn’tjustmeasured by the products it has on the market in the present however, but its ability toinnovate and stayahead of the curve.That means Apple will be challenged to comeup with some announcements that feel like they recapture some of the company’s golden-ageglory.

D3sign/Moment RF/Getty Images Related article Opinion: The risks of AI could be catastrophic. We should empower company workers to warn us

Early focus has been on what Apple is planning ondoing withartificial intelligence. Somerumors suggest that Apple ispartnering withOpenAI(and perhapsGoogleandAI companyAnthropicas well), which might be an unusual move in a number of respects — running counter to the company’s preferences to keep its most vital technologies in house, while feeling at best like a catch-up move rather than a revolutionary breakthrough.

Others have pointed to Apple’s recent release ofOpenELM, a set of four scaled-down open-source language models, as an indicator of the company going in a different direction:deliveringefficient AI features “on handset” without the need to call on servers in thecloud.

But the newcapabilitiesbeing discussed as a result hardly feel earth-shattering: Transcribing voice memos? Summarizing chats and websites? Retouching photos? Uh…custom emojis?None of these are likely to have the impact of Open AI’s demo ofGPT-4o,its voice-enabledlatest large language model.

The reality is that for all of Apple’s profitability and streamlined commercial prowess under Tim Cook, it has yet to recapture the unique ability that it had under cofounder and iconic CEO Steve Jobs to control the cultural narrative — to make people feel that thecompanyis still capable ofchanging the way people think about technology and how it intersects with theirlives.

It’s a tougher argument to make now, given that Apple’s most hotly anticipated bets on its own innovation have either crashed and burned. In February, the company finally shut downProject Titan, the codename for its decade-long,$10 billioninternal initiative to design an Apple-branded electric car. And Apple’s unveiling last yearof its mixed reality “headtop” computer, theVision Pro, generated initial buzz with itsundoubtedly groundbreaking feature set and performance specs, but failed to catch immediate fire withconsumersupon release.

Opinion: Apple can still get back to its golden age | CNN (4)

Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces Apple Vision Pro, a mixed reality headset, at Apple Park in Cupertino, CA, on June 5, 2023.

The seeds of Vision Pro’s problem were visible in the WWDC unveiling itself.The dazzling computer-simulateddemo, which showed visor-wearing usersmeditating in front of giant virtual mandalas, wandering around floating windows scattered across different rooms of their homes, and doing work while seated, surrounded by a swarm of apps,felt disconnected from things that people actually wanted to do.

By contrast, whenJobspulled the curtains back on the firstiPodin 2001, he held it up and said a single phrase that summed up its user promise:“1,000 songs,and it goes right in my pocket.”All the music you love, when you want it, at your fingertips.TheiPodwas dragged by some as overpriced and unnecessary,but the core benefit it provided was irresistible to actual consumers, and it brought anentirelynewcategory of portable consumer electronics into the mainstream as a result.

What’s the songs-in-your-pocket equivalent for Vision Pro? Spreadsheets on your face? That’s certainly not a benefitcapable of luring any but the earliest of adopters into spending$3,500for the privilege of “spatial computing.”No one should count Vision Pro out—the iPad, Apple Watch and even the original iPhone all needed a little time and iteration to find their footing. But so far, if Apple is looking to reclaim its real-world relevance, Vision Pro isn’t it — yet. The device’s power consumption requires it to be tethered to an awkward waist-mounted externalbatterythat gives it just a few hours of unpluggedusage. Its most distinctive feature,EyeSight, which uses an outward-facing screen to present a ghostly image of the wearer’s eyes to the world in an attempt to remove the sense of the gadget as a barrier between users and the world around them, has been the subject of muchmockery.

Still, Apple occupies a unique strategic space: The world sees it as one of the few true lifestyle brands in consumer tech, with products whose impact isn’t expressed in benchmarks, but in values shifts and behavior modification. And that’s because the seeds of Apple’s extraordinary success lie in the company’s ability to motivate people to reimagine their worlds around their products.

While the 1998 all-in-oneiMacspecsfell shortofcomparable Intel hardware, its interior decor-savvy sensibilityled people to use it as a living room computer that was flaunted rather than hidden behind partitions, in turn opening the door for ever-deeper integration of consumer computing devices into our media consumption, home control and family interactions.

A decade later, theMacBook Air, famouslydemo’din 2008 asthe world’s thinnest notebook, thin enoughto fit in a standard manila envelope, became the first laptop to really feel like a fashion accessory —a “purse PC,” if you will. Even the originaliPhone, introduced the year before, forced users tore-envisiontheir relationship with both handheld devices and screen-based communications, taking away most physical buttons and inviting people to tap icons on a minimalist touchscreen instead. The end result has been transformative.

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What’s important to note is that all of these cultural revolutions are fundamentally rooted in design choices, not technological breakthroughs —changes in form factor and user interface based on extraordinary insights into how people want to interact with their digital stuff and with one another.

In the 13 years since Cook took the reins, and especially in the half decade sinceJony Ive,former chiefdesigndirector, left Apple, the company hasn’t yet managed to deliver the same kind of dent in the human universe.But in order to make cosmic dents, you have to take big swings. And while this may sound paradoxical, the thing that should make Apple fans feel optimistic that the company can get its mojo back is also what generated widespread derision at WWDC in 2023. EyeSight in its present form is goofy and creepy —butit’s an authentic attempt to address one of the critical concerns that people have about head-mounted devices.

Leaning into unexpected methods to socially integrate new technology isan encouraging echo of Jobs and Ive’s nativefocus onthe intersectionof technology and the liberal arts, of computing and humanity, even when their solutions fall short.Let’shope that at this WWDC, the companydefiantly ignores last year’s laughter and continues to look, and think, different.

Opinion: Apple can still get back to its golden age | CNN (2024)
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