Apple chief executive Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone 4 during the keynote address at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco on June 7, 2010.
Ryan ANDSON/AFP via Getty Images

The impossible Apple blueprint

Source Code

Good morning! Every tech company wants to be Apple — and why wouldn’t they be? A down-on-its-luck tech company that makes good after figuring out its target market (and working out some marketing magic) is inspirational, to say the least. But Apple is also impossible to replicate. I’m Owen Thomas, and I’ve spent more hours watching keynotes in Moscone West than I care to admit.

Tech after Steve Jobs

The introduction of Apple’s iMac in 1998 was an almost shockingly modest event. Looking back through the haze of two dozen intervening years and a few trillion dollars in market value, it was a decidedly low-effort affair. Apple rented a theater at a community college near its Infinite Loop headquarters. The stakes were high — Apple’s very survival — and the expectations low. But Jobs’ showmanship worked: The iMac, developed in a level of secrecy that Apple’s recently reinstalled co-founder insisted on, impressed the audience. Wall Street took longer to win over, but sales soon proved brisk.

That launch set the template for the Apple event: Debut a new product on stage to an audience (preferably packed with loyal employees and friendly developers ready to cheer), then upend the industry overnight. And every startup wanted to be Apple. That meant locking partners up with NDAs, maintaining internal firewalls, and hunting down leakers, all in the name of delivering the big reveal.

The Apple virus spread quickly through Silicon Valley. Soon everyone wanted to do an Apple event.

  • Microsoft, Google and even Cisco tried to bring Apple flare to their product launches. The problem: Their leaders weren’t showmen like Steve Jobs, and their products weren’t iPhones.
  • Startups, too, got in on the act. Dropbox, Pinterest and Airbnb all attempted splashy unveilings. They had appealing founders, at least, but the problem was that document-editing features, online-checkout tools and pottery-class listings weren’t exactly suited to the stage, either.
  • The most toxic version of the cult of Apple was probably Theranos. Strict launch timelines and a PR-first approach were a dangerously bad fit for the medical field, but if you’ve watched “The Dropout” or read “Bad Blood,” you know this. (And if you haven’t, well, you’ve got your homework assignment.)

One prominent startup leader called for reexamining Apple’s legacy. In an email to employees shared via Twitter on Friday, Stripe CEO Patrick Collison observed that his company was “the exact opposite of Apple” when it came to debuting products.

  • The context was a brief Twitter feud between Plaid and Stripe that kicked off when Stripe introduced a bank account-linking product that competes directly with Plaid’s core offering. Plaid CEO Zach Perret accused a Stripe executive of snooping around for Plaid secrets, then withdrew the accusation, but not before he set off a Twitter storm.
  • The drama might have been avoided, Collison said, if Stripe and Plaid had just, you know, talked about the upcoming product. Secrecy bred suspicion. “If anyone is going to be unpleasantly surprised by something we do, we should, if we can, avoid having them find out about it from going on Twitter” or on Hacker News, Collison wrote.
  • “People will buy fewer iPhones today if they know what the new one will do,” he added. “But people are more likely to buy Stripe today if they know the future Stripe will be better.”

“Surprise and delight” are no longer synonyms. Surprises just aren’t that delightful in most spheres of business.

  • Whether it’s rolling out collaboration tools or deploying new mobile operating systems, people want as much advance warning as possible, so they have time to evaluate new technology and update their own software.
  • Unlike a piece of hardware, cloud software is deployed continuously, and upgraded constantly. Events held by AWS, Google Cloud and Salesforce are much more about education and inspiration than adulation.
  • Apple can still get away with keeping partners in the dark, but these days, it’s rare that any tech company can go it alone. And it’s inevitable that information will leak out.

Even Apple isn’t doing Apple events, really. The pandemic forced it to change, but not before the format Jobs invented curdled into self-parody.

  • Tim Cook has tried, really. And he’s gotten better. But it’s not the same. Let’s not pretend.
  • By last October, Apple was “starting to seem like a dad joke” itself, wrote veteran keynote watcher Chris Taylor.

Next month’s Apple Worldwide Developers Conference won’t have any live component. Instead, students and developers will gather at Apple Park to … watch a video. Will the Steve Jobs Theater end up a monument to a bygone era of in-person launch events? It may be sad, but empty rituals are sadder.

— Owen Thomas (email | twitter | dog’s instagram)

A hat tip to Biz Carson, whose recent Pipeline item on Stripe inspired this Source Code.

A MESSAGE FROM WORKPLACE FROM META

100% of C-suite staff surveyed by Workplace by Meta said that frontline workers were a strategic priority for their business in 2022, but nearly two in three of them said that keeping their frontline staff, who bear the brunt of the stresses of the workplace most acutely, had only become a priority since the pandemic hit.

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People are talking

Ian Goodfellow, Apple’s head of machine learning, left the company because of its return to work plan:

  • “I believe strongly that more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team.”

Former SoftBank exec Marcelo Claure is optimistic about VC in Latin America:

  • "We have a lot of tailwinds on our side."

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said there’s room for carbon capture tech:

  • “Our first preference is to make sure that we are powered by clean, zero carbon emitting energy. And we’re doing all of that. But you can walk and chew gum.”

Coming this week

Intel Vision 2022 starts tomorrow. It’ll feature keynotes from Pat Gelsinger and other execs.

Config 2022 starts tomorrow and will run for 24 hours. Figma’s CEO is the main speaker.

Google I/O begins Wednesday at the Shoreline Amphitheatre.

Disney+ will give an update on subscriptions Wednesday. It’ll be an important call given the rest of the streaming industry’s subscriptions woes.

Square Unboxed takes place Thursday. Spacial Labs’ Iddris Sandu is the keynote speaker.

Tim Cook will deliver a commencement address on Friday at Gallaudet University.

In other news

Uber's cutting down on costs, according to CNBC. Dara Khosrowshahi said the company will treat hiring as a "privilege" and scale back spending on marketing and incentives.

Tesla is covering abortion-related travel costs, following similar moves by Yelp, Apple, Match Group and others.

Cameo threw a fancy party in Miami just a few days after laying off nearly 90 employees. Company execs (the ones who weren’t let go) invited celebrities and NFT holders.

And another pandemic darling laid off employees: The online collaboration startup Mural let go of several of its workers last week.

Anxiety and long hours fuel TikTok’s work culture, according to former U.S. workers. Ex-employees said they were often sleep deprived and sought therapy because of stress.

The SEC charged Nvidia with downplaying the impact of crypto mining on its gaming sales. Nvidia paid $5.5 million in penalties.

China won’t let young users send livestream gifts anymore. It’s another new rule limiting the power of China’s tech giants.

Instagram will support NFTs for ethereum, polygon and other blockchain networks, according to CoinDesk. Instagram may announce a pilot about it today.

JB Graftieaux is Bitstamp's new CEO. He's led European business at the crypto exchange since last May.

Carlos Torales Montero is Cloudflare’s new VP, head of sales Latin America. He’s a former Cisco exec.

The video game movie producers

Video game movies are getting big in Hollywood. You can thank the small production team dj2 Entertainment for pushing much of that growth.

The small group of producers are most notably behind the “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie, and they’ve gotten a lot of movie execs on board by simply asking them to play some of the games they’ve obsessed with. dj2 Entertainment thinks it's only a matter of time before these adaptations start stealing award shows.

A MESSAGE FROM WORKPLACE FROM META

Businesses are starting to turn to workplace communication tools. Such tools enable frontline workers to feel more connected to the rest of their business, to raise concerns and to provide feedback on potential pain points or points of improvement. By bridging that divide, companies can unlock new savings and efficiencies, and build a business that can last for the long run.

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Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to sourcecode@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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