Strongly Emergent

What comes from combining humans, computers, and narrative

Tablet Signal, Tablet Noise

Okay, so we’re all clear on the fact that Apple has a new device coming out. It’s the iPad, it’s going to Change The World. Great. Apple’s best marketing asset, I believe, is their ability to get all of us talking about their stuff. It’s a pretty pure example of the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” philosophy: whether we’re damning Apple or praising them, we’re still talking about them, thinking about them, giving them uncountable dollars of free marketing. Pulling that off, not just once but repeatedly, is impressive.

Of course I have an opinion about the iPad. Last month’s hyper-excitement has died down a little, but we’re all still talking about the dang thing. I see two important things about the iPad.

Apple got into the processor business: this is pretty fascinating to me. If there’s a word for Apple under the hand of Jobs, it’s “gutsy,” and deciding to compete with Intel, Motorola and ARM is definitely bold. Intel, for all that it’s not backing the Atom very well, is still in the portable-device-CPU market, and Motorola and ARM are heavily invested in mobile. Jobs directly positioned Apple as a player in mobile with actions in the past few years, and directly in his iPad announcement speech, so the A4 has to be seen as competing at least a little with the established players. Of course, they’re probably prone to thinking that Apple wants to Take Over The Market. I’m pretty sure that they want no such thing. As with desktops and Macbooks, Apple wants to be the perfect salesman, selling only to those who are going to buy and leaving the scraps for others. Apple doesn’t want to please everyone - not the way that Google pleases everyone, and certainly not the way that Microsoft tries to please everyone.

Apple wants to please Apple’s kind of people. You’ll notice that they’ve been pretty damn good at that. That we can all tell you about the stereotypical Mac user is an interesting feat of marketing. True or not, Apple has narrative mojo all over the place - and that mojo is focused on attaining 100% market share among Apple’s kind of people. They’re doing pretty well at that. The iPad isn’t very bold if you look at it that way: it embodies the proposition that perhaps there are a few people out there that are Apple’s kind of people and who haven’t bought into the Apple ecosystem at all yet, and who would do so if they got a tablet. Thus, a tablet. Otherwise, Apple is not hugely concerned with selling themselves to people who don’t want to be Apple’s kind of people. Apple’s doing pretty well at the game of not losing customers - I’ve never seen them release a product that made people who were already in the Apple Lifestyle say “well that’s it I’m never using another Apple product again!” People do leave the Applesphere, but that’s not what pushes them out.

So here sits Apple, with a track record of fairly canny moves and good design, plus a pretty damn good marketing machine, plus a reputation that most Fortune 500 companies would kill for. Kevin Roberts calls this a “lovemark,” which I’d paraphrase as the kind of product that not only makes people fall in love with it, make it part of their lives, but which also makes them want to evangelize. And if there’s a defining characteristic of the Mac user stereotype, it’s that the Mac user is perfectly willing to tell you how great Macs are. At length. And Apple’s narrative-fu is so strong that despite the massive difference in market cap and bankroll between them and Redmond, they’ve managed to define the PC user stereotype as someone who complains about their frequently-broken Windows machine.

Thus, Apple enters the processor business for about the same reason that it does anything else: to make gobsmacking amounts of money by selling Apple products to Apple’s kind of people, and slowly, strategically, with risk aversion that would make a casino owner proud, grow the number of Apple’s kind of people in the world. This is part of why, as someone who investigates the connection between narrative, humans, and computers, I am awed by Apple. For all the many legitimate complaints about Apple the company, the products of Apple the company, and Steve Jobs the person, Apple is just damn good at this business of producing stories that people want to become part of. Apple is so damn slick. They are essentially a high-octane design and marketing firm that just happens to sell computers. Jobs is not kidding when he says that Apple is selling a lifestyle, as he used to when “multimedia” was a buzzword. Apple continues to kick ass where it counts because they have defined victory conditions for themselves that are both different from and more attainable than the goals of other companies, and because they are spectacularly good at narrative. It suffuses what they do.

Let’s try it this way. When Justin Long stands in front of that plain white background and says “I’m a Mac,” and John Hodgman cheerily follows up with “And I’m a PC,” Apple is nakedly making narrative. For the longest time there just was no serious competition with them. Even when Microsoft replied, they used Apple’s narrative - a narrative within which it was impossible for them to win. Still, you might actually have a significant mental image now when someone says “I’m a Windows user.” Microsoft’s marketing department has gotten that far. But “I’m a Dell user”? “I’m an Asus user”? “I’m an HP user”? No, no, no. Utter blanks as far as personification. You may have some images of the products’ identity, especially if you’re part of the enthusiast market. But I guarantee you that only people who are already neck-deep in caring about computers can call to mind a mental image of “Dell user,” “Asus user,” or “HP user” that’s remotely near as clear as those archetypes that Apple is defining through Long and Hodgman.

With the tablet, Apple has made another Apple product which they will sell to Apple’s kind of people and make another incremental gain in the definition of “Apple’s kind of people.” Apple, Apple, Apple. Seriously, they are playing a whole different game than the rest of the industry. They are currently set to win, by the way - to win by their definition, which might not look the way you expect it to, and people who think that they’re competing with Apple are going to feel like they’re losing quite often because they’ll do what they think will cause them to win and Apple to lose - and it will slide right off of Apple because they’re playing a different game. And those people will think that Apple is beating them, when it’s not doing that either. For example, people who think that Apple wants to put its OS everywhere are going to go make deals with OEMs to put their OS, not Apple’s, on desktops and laptops and phones. And those people are going to be puzzled when having a tiny slice of market share doesn’t make Apple shrivel up and die - because Apple’s market share is robust and healthy among the people that Apple cares about selling to. It goes the same way in other businesses.

This actually brings us to the other thing that I care about with the iPad: Apple is using its applications as a powerful asset. For one, it’s a pretty great coup that already the applications - 90% of what people care about with the iPhone and iPod Touch - virtually all run on the iPad. They’re exploiting the success of the iPhone quite well there. Every single “there’s an app for that” ad that they’ve run in the past years just got a tiny bit more valuable, because all those apps will work on the iPad as well as the other two devices. That’s a pretty deft move. They also made sure that you can transfer apps you’ve already bought from your iPod/iPhone to your iPad. Considerate of them.

The thing with the applications is that it brings up Apple’s sinister side. As Adam Pash points out, Apple is still holding onto the walled-garden model of app development. I see a slightly different tradeoff involved here. For anyone in the consumer mindset, it is entirely irrelevant that Apple harshes on developers - as long as they can find an app that does what they need. That conditional clause is critical, though. The people who do care that the App Store is broken - and for them it is, badly - are developers. No developers, no apps; no apps, no compelling reasons to get an iPad. We love to mock that speech, but Ballmer was deadly serious when he was up on that stage chanting “Developers, developers, developers, developers, developers.” For all the narrative work Apple’s done, there still must be things you can do with their products that are worth your time to do. Hence, apps - and hence why Apple has stayed in the first-party app business tenaciously, producing Safari, Mail, iTunes, iPhoto, and a hundred other basics that come bundled with a Mac. They’re making sure that there’s something to do once you’re in the Applesphere immediately, and something that doesn’t require you to wade through the endless crapware installed with most Windows machines purchased at retail.

Part of why Apple gets away with being so controlling and jerkish about apps for the iPhone OS is that thing about selling to Apple’s kind of people. Apple has a pretty good read on what Apple’s kind of people want - and that means that imposing those restrictions, when they’re right, isn’t that big a deal. Apple’s spin is that they’re restricting developers to what developers would end up doing anyhow: catering to Apple users. But developers themselves are not at all guaranteed to be Apple’s kind of people: developers may come to Apple for entirely different reasons. Anyone who uses an Apple product because of its Unix guts, for example, stands a pretty good chance of not actually being Apple’s kind of people. Apple’s kind of people, I would say, have better things to do with their time than tinker with a computer - they want to be doing a task. Watching their movie, looking at their web sites, showing off their photos. Apple happily enables those tasks.

Developers, on the other hand, want to look under the hood, poke around, and adjust things. They want to bend the computer to their personal idiom of what a computer should do. This is why they develop software: they want to impose their will on the computer (although usually it’s much, much less Nietzschean than that and more like “I want a Twitter client that doesn’t suck” or “I need to provide clever services to the real estate agents that work for my company” or “I wonder what happens if I write a database that works in a different way”). Apple has already imposed a ton of will on that computer, and so Apple has baked in a certain amount of resistance to developers.

They know that they need developers, and they actively court developers - but one of the flaws of the Apple way of doing things is that it can’t avoid a certain degree of hostility to developers. Developers care about things that Apple’s customers don’t (even when developers buy MacBooks and iPhones and, inevitably, iPads). Fortunately, Apple can give developers most of what they want without having to upset the average iPhone buyer - but they’re reluctant to go too far with that, because the more ground they give to the developers, the harder it’ll be to keep control of the Apple narrative. They are damn right to be reluctant, to my mind: the Apple narrative is their biggest corporate asset.

Thus, Apple balances those concerns: trying to make their customers happy and trying to make their developers happy. Apple is good enough at the former that if that’s all they had to do, I would expect them to keep incrementally growing until they own the planet. But making developers happy is something that Apple is merely average at - and that, I think, represents a genuine risk to them. Not a risk that’ll make them go out of business in the next quarter, the next year, even the next decade. I would say that Apple’s huge narrative power is so much of a boost that it lets them mostly ignore the developer issue. However, if the narrative power vanishes - and it’ll certainly take a big, big hit when Jobs inevitably kicks the bucket - Apple will have to be prepared to deal with its game from less of a position of strength.

That’ll be worth watching, once it happens - and that’ll leave open a space for someone with another really kick-ass narrative and a great design team to step up and become the company that befuddles the rest of its industry with the way it just doesn’t lose, even when it really should, because it’s playing a different game and telling a different story.