The Empire of Apple The company’s new iPhone and retail “town centers” presage a future of Apple as global infrastructure—one that may already have arrived.

Phil Schiller stands in front of a screen demonstrating the Face ID feature of the iPhone X.Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, announces features of the new iPhone X

For two decades now, Apple has been fighting a battle between attention and disregard. In 1997, when Steve Jobs returned as interim CEO, the company was a struggling maker of personal computers with limited market share. Then came the iMac, a Mac computer people finally wanted to own again. Then the iPod, which transformed the company into a maker of high-design personal electronics and accessories. Then, of course, the iPhone, which made Apple the most valuable company in the world—and changed forever the way people live, work, and play.

Apple’s latest plans, announced on Tuesday at its Cupertino headquarters in a new theater bearing Jobs’s name, suggest that the company has entered a new phase. The iPhone has become so popular that it’s almost hard to notice, like the air people breathe. So now Apple has a new job: to make the iPhone just as important when it’s old and banal as it was when new and extraordinary.

As Apple’s success has magnified, so have expectations for the company. Investors want assurances of continued growth, which has become a concern as the smartphone market has matured. Now everyone has one, and sales growth is stagnating.

For years, both the market and the public have been waiting on Apple’s response. The assumption has been that this would come in the form of a new product (or products). The iPad was the first candidate. Then the Apple Watch. Both have been successful, but not nearly as successful as the iPhone. Expectations have remained transfixed on new, more dramatic future products, among them the mythical Apple Car, whose future is uncertain.

This approach—lining up one new, killer product after another—seems almost impossible, even for Apple. But the company’s latest announcement points toward a new way of culturing attention, one that’s much more subtle than just getting people to buy or rent a glass rectangle year after year.

Attention is a strange thing. It’s often thought that the way to retain power or influence is to hold onto people’s attention—to keep it active, front and center. That’s how iPhone rose to prominence, after all: by ripping a hole in popular understanding of mobile telephony and introducing a totally new paradigm.

But over time, active attention recedes into the background. It has to. Extraordinary events, products, and ideas cannot survive as wild curiosities. They must be made ordinary. Such is the fate of every influential media form, from the electric light to the automobile to the refrigerator to the television to the smartphone.

Media’s true power comes from this habituation. When everyone relies on electricity. When everyone unloads a dishwasher. When everyone commutes by personal automobile. When everyone connects and reads and works and plays on a smartphone.

* * *

Apple’s announcement revealed two new approaches to manage its fall into habituation. One is technical and one is social.

The first approach changes the way an iPhone turns on. Apple’s new, flagship smartphone, the iPhone X, has an OLED display from bezel to bezel, supplanting the home button from the device’s front. To replace TouchID, the fingerprint sensor that provided security for device use and payment, Apple has introduced a new facial recognition technology called Face ID.

 

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