The Cupertino shark swims on.
There are many words that characterize Apple under the second reign of Steve Jobs: resurgent, exciting, innovative, successful. I’d add one more to that list: fearless.
Most large corporations are afraid of change. Successful product lines, business plans, and especially brands are milked for every penny. And when there’s nothing left, when the thing’s been beaten into the ground until not a single ounce of value remains, only then will corporations reluctantly move on. But wait! Sometimes they quickly moved back, either because they lost their nerve at the last minute, or because the new direction proved even worse than the exhausted husk of the old winner.
The Ford Taurus/Ford Five Hundred branding fiasco is a great recent example. The Taurus product and brand was a big winner for Ford when it was introduced in the mid-1980s. Over the years, the Taurus product fell behind its competitors. Eventually, the name itself lost its luster. By the mid-aughts (yeah, that’s right, I said it), Ford felt it had exhausted the value of the Taurus brand and introduced the Five Hundred. It was a mediocre product at best, and bore a brand unused for decades. Ford’s next move? Why, to bring back the Taurus name, of course, and slap it onto what was going to be the next Five Hundred model.
This is the boom/bust public image cycle that corporations fear. Though a great brand moderates the impact of a mediocre product, mediocre products will eventually deplete the value of a brand. The only way out is to introduce another great product whose brand will provide the next set of coattails. The perverse silver lining is that a failure to create that next great product often restores some value to the previous brand. (The best modern example of this is the New Coke/Coke Classic disaster/triumph of the late 1980s.) And so, the status quo reigns.
Over the past decade, Apple has been using a different playbook. In Apple’s estimation, the best time to kill off a successful product or brand is “as soon as possible.” Dropping a winner means creating a new winner to replace it, and that’s exactly what Apple has decided it must do to be successful: create great new products again and again. Brand momentum, product inertia, and all the other naturally occurring forces in large corporations stand in the way of Apple’s execution of this plan.
And so, Apple has raced forwards with great abandon. Remember the striped Apple logo? Perhaps Apple’s most valuable, most iconic visual brand, with twenty-two years of history. Gone. How about Apple Garamond, the typeface introduced with the original Macintosh advertising campaign, that defined the public face of Apple in the post-Apple-II era? Also gone.
PowerBook. iPod mini. The happy Mac. The 68k CPU. PowerPC. The iBook. System 7. And on and on. Great brands or great products (and often both), any single one of which most corporations would kill for. Apple treated them all like a past that it couldn’t run away from fast enough.
Yes, sometimes Apple really did take too long to escape. In the case of the OS, Apple should have moved on sooner. But when it did move, it did so decisively, never looking back. Moreover, these events only appear less daring when compared with Apple’s other, even more audacious decisions: killing an iconic logo and typographic style at the height an ad campaign that defined the company’s resurgence; completely replacing both the product and the brand of its most successful iPod to date; the still-unmatched successful platform transitions to two entirely different CPU architectures, while retaining software compatibility.
(Incidentally, this is why I always disregard technical arguments against Apple ever selling Mac OS X for use on non-Apple hardware: supporting all sorts of crazy hardware combination, dealing with an exploding number of device drivers, split hardware/software support, etc. There are plenty of reasons for Apple not to allow Mac OS X on PC hardware, but the technical issues are irrelevant. If Apple ever decides to make this move, they’ll Just F***ing Do It, whatever it takes.)
This brings us, finally, inevitably, to yesterday’s Macworld Expo announcement. Though the Expo has been a big part of Apple’s marketing and the Mac community for decades, with the eponymous Stevenotes serving as the most visible milestones of Apple’s progress in the past few years, it’s nothing compared the the cumulative historical importance of the things Apple has already left behind.
Though painful and jarring in the short term, these kinds of moves are a big part of what makes Apple great. While other companies are paralyzed with indecision, or cling relentlessly to what has worked in the past, or are seduced by sentimentality, Apple is busy murdering its darlings. Though such dramatic moves often appear foolhardy to its more cautious competitors, Apple usually has the last laugh, working through the initial pain to find itself in a much better position down the road—a winning position.
The prosaic reasons for Apple’s abandonment of the Expo have been well expressed by others. The more poetic explanation is just as important. Who dares wins. I will miss the Expo, but I look forward to an even better future without it.
This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.