Steve Jobs’ Apple secret? it’s hiding in plain sight
A declaration. A confession even. I have used, and have loved, Apple products since 1994. Over the years I’ve followed the fortunes of this strange and extraordinary company, and have – through experience of user magazines, multiple product purchases, management of peer-help websites and argumentative forum posts – built up a humble working knowledge of Apple’s corporate psychology. I was a user in the dark days of Gil Amelio, clones and death knells. I paid a fee for my first Powerbook that felt like the GDP of a small country. I was a purchaser of the original Bondi iMac. In fact (weep now, dear reader) I once seriously considered making a long-term investment in Apple stock. A few grand. This would have been in about 1997. I didn’t. If you fancy a laugh, then I recommend you go here and analyse the stock price in 1997, and now. Really.
I don’t know much about any corporation on earth. But I know a little bit about Apple. And I don’t generally follow the pronouncements of corporate CEOs. Except Apple CEO Steve Jobs. This is partly because he’s a challenging, difficult and brilliant character. That’s usually quite a cool thing to study. But he is also something unique. A technical aesthete. Someone who attempts to use his products to communicate a complex message about a user’s lifestyle, needs and aspirations. To really connect with them through stuff. As someone studying communication in science, I find this intriguing.
Now Apple’s obsessive corporate secrecy makes some people think that Steve Jobs never reveals anything about himself, his beliefs or his methods. But this just isn’t true. If you listen to him often enough, it’s not difficult to piece together exactly what his world view is, or the aspirations of his company. In fact, he’ll sometimes sit right down and tell you. But the press is a strange beast. Sometimes the thing they least expect is a simple answer. So they’ll look for subtext. Give them a clear map of the woods, and they’ll probe each tree looking for a cover up. Yet sometimes I think that the great apple “secret” hides in plain sight. The message is so simple, so broad, that it’s impossible for many rivals to understand and implement.
There was an example of plain sight hiding this week. Apple announced the iPad 2 in California. Jobs was on stage to deliver his customary bravura product demo. When the show finished, Jobs rounded up with a few words about his company’s ethos. Philip Elmer-DeWitt over at Fortune called this Jobs’s 229 word “credo”. Yet what really interested me was the tiny 31-word central message contained within it:
“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”
And that’s it. The “big secret”. That’s what Jobs believes, and what Apple does. He’s not being misleading, or clever. The thing that makes Apple products ‘connect’ is that they transcend technology by their use of design arts and a carefully thought out social dimension. But the problem for his rivals is that this isn’t just a quick fix. It’s not a computing feature you can implement. A technical problem you can throw money at. It’s a philosophy. You really have to believe this stuff to do it right.
So why am I banging on about this? Because a lot of my life at the moment is taken up with studying the way that highly technological or scientific ideas, products and messages can be communicated to others in a way that ‘connects’. And what I think Jobs gets in the above quote is that to truly communicate in a way that makes people’s ‘hearts sing’, you have to go beyond the purely technical, and reach into more ‘humanities’ cultures and disciplines. Because that’s where most people live, think and dream. It’s certainly true in science communication – and I believe it’s true in all connective communication.
Sometimes the hardest things to understand are the things that can be stated most simply. And sometimes the most difficult things to see are the ones that stare you in the face.