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Apple is a clothing company

The main things Apple makes are extensions of ourselves. That’s what our phones and laptops have become. They are things we almost wear, like our clothing.

Is it just coincidental that Apple Stores inhabit shopping districts also populated by upscale clothing retailers? Or that Angela Ahrendts, who runs those stores, came to the company from Burberry? Or that its Watch, sold as what the fashion business calls an accessory, clearly matters far more to the company than what we used to call “peripherals” (screens, printers, drives, etc.) and that Apple hardly seems to care at all about the latter?

And is it coincidental that Apple has lately clarified how it differs from nearly every other tech company by caring almost absolutely about personal privacy?

Apple’s Jobsian obsession with design and fashion (or what howardlindzon calls #fashology), while interesting and important, also misdirects attention away from the company’s deeper focus on enlarging its customers’ capacities in the world.

Dig this: Apple cares so much about the bodies using its products that Tim Cook recently said this to Rick Tetzeli of FastCompany: “When you look at most of the solutions, whether it’s devices, or things coming up out of Big Pharma, first and foremost, they are done to get the reimbursement [from an insurance provider]. Not thinking about what helps the patient. So if you don’t care about reimbursement, which we have the privilege of doing, that may even make the smartphone market look small.”

With all that in mind, it’s easy to understand why Apple’s product lineup looks stale. Shirts, skirts and hats are stale too. They’ve also been around for thousands of years, and we’ll never stop wearing them.

The realization that Apple is a clothing company came to me after reading Walt Mossberg’s latest, titled The post-Jobs Apple has soared financially, but lacks a breakthrough product.

Like Walt and approximately everybody else, I’ve long regarded Apple as a legacy computer company gifted with an irreplaceable and now dead founder/CEO best known for his Midas touch with design and marketing. Already his absence was apparent when I posted Apple Rot here in January 2013, and repeated the same points a year later in Proof that Steve Jobs is dead:

…look at what Apple’s got:
— The iPhone 5 is a stretched iPhone 4s, which is an iPhone 4 with sprinkles. The 4 came out almost 3 years ago. No Androids are as slick as the iPhone, but dozens of them have appealing features the iPhone lacks. And they come from lots of different companies, rather than just one.
— The only things new about the iPad are the retina screen (amazing, but no longer unique) and the Mini, which should have come out years earlier and lacks a retina screen.Apple’s computer line is a study in incrementalism.
— There is little new to the laptops or desktops other than looks — and subtracted features. (And models, such as the 17″ Macbook Pro.) That goes for the OS as well.
— There is nothing exciting on the horizon other than the hazy mirage of a new Apple TV. And even if that arrives, nothing says “old” more than those two letters: TV.

Since then Apple has come out with the Watch (points for originality on that one), introduced the hardly-seen (but cool-looking) Mac Pro (now also very stale), killed its Thunderbolt display, held its Time Capsule to a paltry (and damn near useless) 3Tb, done little to improve its AirPort Wi-Fi base stations, and iterated its desktops and laptops so minimally that you can get along for years without a new one. Kinda like a good pair of jeans.

When in fact what mostly matters for Apple is that it accessorizes its customers better than everybody else in a business only Apple knows it’s in.

You can hear a hint toward that from Tim Cook in the same recent FastCompany report: “Our strategy is to help you in every part of your life that we can…whether you’re sitting in the living room, on your desktop, on your phone, or in your car.”

Then this: “Apple does an extraordinary job of extracting revenue from the worlds in which it already plays a role, and its future revenues will depend on this even more. Horace Dediu, an influential analyst now working with the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation in Boston, estimates that Apple customers deliver an astronomical $40 per month apiece to the company, versus the pennies per month that Facebook and Google collect, and the few dollars a month that Amazon receives. That’s primarily a result of the expensive devices its consumers are buying. But subscription services such as Apple Music and iCloud storage are starting to deliver significant cash. Revenue from services now accounts for 12% of Apple’s total sales, up from 9% the year before. In fact, Apple’s services revenue exceeds Facebook’s total revenue. And Cook says the company has just gotten started. ‘Oh, yeah. I expect it to be huge,’ he says, smiling, his Alabama drawl becoming more pronounced as he delivers the good news.

So maybe all that matters for Apple is that it accessorizes its customers better than everybody else. And that, essentially, those customers rent those accessories.

Here’s betting Apple’s announcement on Wednesday will be all about stuff meant to be a part of you. And not much that will sound like the rest of the personal computer business.

Which, we might remember, Steve Jobs pretty much invented.

Originally published at blogs.harvard.edu on September 4, 2016.

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