Eddy Cue doesn’t look like a man in the midst of his toughest year in decades. Sporting an untucked apricot camp shirt and blue jeans over camouflage socks and a pair of blue leather racing shoes from Germany, Apple’s SVP of Internet software and services pulls up a chair at one of the marble-topped tables outside Caffé Macs, the employee restaurant at the heart of Apple’s 23-year-old Cupertino campus. (The company will begin to move into its new “spaceship” HQ next year.) Cue dives right into telling me about his latest horror story:
The collapse, two nights earlier, of his beloved Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, which Cue had the dismal pleasure of observing from a courtside seat. “Am I in mourning?” he asks of his team’s loss to LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers. “You better believe it. I’m not watching ESPN, I haven’t gotten onto a sports website, I haven’t read a newspaper. When I turn on my TV, I only go to the DVR.”
“Eddy, this is on the record,” warns Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of software engineering, from across the table.
“I’ve got no problem with that,” replies Cue, who is such a Warriors fan that he was featured on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle after the team’s comeback victory in the conference finals a few weeks earlier, in a photo that showed him screaming in red-faced celebration along with Stephen Curry. He leans over my iPhone, which is recording the interview, and enunciates his next three words to make sure they are loud and clear. “I love LeBron!” Then he gives way to a set of hearty and rueful guffaws.
It’s 62 degrees in Cupertino, the sun is shining, the smell of cumin and garlic from the café’s chicken masala special fills the air, and the chatter among the couple hundred employees enjoying their lunch seems lively and bright. Nowhere is there any hint that “Apple is doomed,” as suggested by Forbes and other outlets, or that it is engaged in a “user-hostile and stupid” campaign against its customers (The Verge), led by CEO Tim Cook, a “boring old fart . . . a supply-chain supplicant” (culture critic Bob Lefsetz).
Under Cook’s leadership, Apple has come to seem quite fallible to many people. Its recent products have seemed far less than perfect, at least compared to the collective memory of its astonishing iPod–iPhone–iPad run from 2001 to 2010. There are the public embarrassments, like its 2012 introduction of Maps, or those 2014 videos of reviewers bending, and breaking, an iPhone 6 Plus. Apple Pay hasn’t become the standard for a cashless society, and the Apple Watch “is not the watch we expect from Apple,” according to John Gruber, editor of Daring Fireball, the preeminent Apple-centric website. Then there are the design flaws: Apple Music has been saddled with too many features, as if it were something designed by, God forbid, Microsoft; the lens on the back of the iPhone 6 extrudes; the new Apple TV has an illogical interface and confusing remote control.
Perhaps, say the worriers, Apple is doing too many things at once, cranking out multiple editions of the watch, endless varieties of watchbands, iPhones, and iPads in numerous sizes, proprietary earbuds alongside headphones from Beats. Credible reports that the company is spending billions of dollars in R&D to explore the possibility of designing a car only heighten the fear that Apple is spread too thin. Steve Jobs had been the company’s editor, proud of saying no to features, products, business ideas, and new hires far more often than he said yes. Apple’s seemingly diffuse product line reinforces the argument that Cook is not as rigorous. (The fear has a worrisome precedent: During the early and mid-1990s, Apple’s product line was a mess of marketing-inspired offerings, and both its reputation as a unique manufacturer and its business suffered.)
The criticism crescendoed last April, after Cook announced that, for the first time in 13 years, Apple’s revenue had decreased by 13%, from the corresponding quarter a year earlier. Sales of iPhones had slowed even more, off 16%, an alarming development given that the smartphone accounts for 65% of the company’s total revenue.
Meanwhile, the company’s competitors seem to be jetting ahead. Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have dazzled the press with announcements of upcoming products that will use artificial intelligence, or AI. Some, like Microsoft’s Cortana, are software applications that promise to anticipate customers’ needs in useful, personalized ways. Others are already packaging that ability in hardware; in less than two years, Amazon has sold more than 3 million Echos, its $199 canister that’s a voice-controlled personal assistant. Google revealed plans for a similar product, Home, in May, to much fanfare. Critics look at Apple’s five-year-old Siri, its voice-controlled agent, and cavil that the company has nothing as flashy to reveal.
So, is Apple doomed? Of course not. As John Gruber says, “Any conversation that uses that word is in silly la-la land.” With Macs, iPads, and software applications and services, Apple isn’t a one-trick pony like BlackBerry, to use an example cited by those most freaked out about the recent iPhone slowdown. It recorded $50.6 billion in sales during that “disappointing” quarter, more than the combined revenue of Google parent Alphabet ($20.3 billion) and Amazon ($29.1 billion) over the same period. Its $10.5 billion in profits outpaced not just the combination of Alphabet ($4.2 billion) and Amazon ($513 million) but also Facebook ($1.5 billion) and Microsoft ($3.8 billion).
“I don’t read all the coverage on Apple that there is,” Cook tells me a few days after my lunch with Cue and Federighi. “The way that I look at that is, I really know the truth.” And he’s ready to talk about it.
Traditionally, Apple execs give interviews only when the company has a new product to hawk. Often, Jobs would only cooperate with magazines that promised to photograph him alongside one of the company’s devices. But change is afoot at Apple, and not just in the communications department. Apple has embarked on a mission to improve its four operating systems (for Apple TV, iPhone, Mac, and the watch), services like Apple Pay and Apple Music, and even the size of the iMessage bubble on your iPhone screen. It has redesigned the layout of its retail stores and its online App Store. It is making radical changes to maligned offerings like Maps, Siri, and the watch. It is wooing app developers in brand-new ways, knowing that their creativity is what enriches the $250-billion-per-year ecosystem that has been built on Apple devices. It is almost certainly exploring the possibility of manufacturing a car. These moves are the building blocks for the newest iteration of Apple.
Apple’s future may look very different from its past, and Cook, Federighi, and Cue wouldn’t have it any other way. “Look,” says Cue, who somehow manages to look both like a man who just woke up and a compact ball of perpetual energy, “one thing you know if you’ve been in technology a while, you’re only as good as the last thing you did. No one wants an original iPod. No one wants an iPhone 3GS.”
Apple executives are careful to avoid suggesting that the company is moving beyond its founder’s vision, but that’s exactly what’s happening in Cupertino. It’s a subtle, evolutionary change. Cook is pushing Apple into a future that is bigger and broader than anything Jobs could effect during his too-short life. “I want Apple to be here, you know, forever,” he says.
Those lulled by last spring’s bad news into dismissing Cook and his team are likely to miss the scope of the company’s ambitions and its progress in achieving them. While Amazon, Facebook, and Google may crow loudest about their bold ideas, Apple may well have the biggest role in actually defining our technological future.
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