It is time to start asking harder questions about the world's largest company, both how it runs its business and how it conditions our lives.
NEW YORK — The first Mike is on the left, at the top of the steps by the entrance. The second one is standing just a few meters away.
The first Mike is a painter. He browses around in the Apple Store in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, looking at the new Apple Watches. "I don't really see the point," he says. "The stopwatch, maybe." The craggy-faced artist is curious, but he's also suspicious. "These things eat us up. They poison our lives."
The second Mike looks to be about 20 years younger. He is clad in the royal blue T-shirt worn by all Apple employees and, based on his facial expression, seems fed up with all the stupid questions he keeps having to answer.
"The Apple Watch has many functions," he says. "I'm not gonna show them all. We’d be here all day." That's a taste of the Apple attitude.
We fiddle with the scrolling wheel, press the screen. Mike the Apple employee puts it around my wrist for a second. "How are you going to convince me I need an Apple Watch?" I ask. "I'm not gonna try," he retorts. "Nobody needs one. It’s just a cool thing to have."
How many people emerged from Apple stores with this new gadget on launch day, April 24? Not as many as predicted. There have been production delays, so except for pre-orders, the shops won't have any stock until June. The million-dollar question, in other words, has yet to be answered: Will Apple’s new creation be a triumph or a flop?
The answer is probably neither. The two million pre-orders are encouraging, but teenagers and young adults don't seem all that excited about the product. Steve Jobs is probably turning over in his grave.
A mountain of money
Everyone everywhere wants to know whether Apple's magic touch can survive the death of company's founder. But there are other questions, in the meantime, that people aren't asking, questions that could or should have been raised a long time ago. Only that we were all too mesmerized by the wizard of Cupertino’s shiny gadgets to care.
What is this giant company that governs our everyday life? How does it manage to influence our every moment — and to such an unbelievable extent? Who are the people hiding behind the impenetrable walls of one of the most secretive companies in the world? And what kind of philosophy do they follow? These are not trivial questions.
Apple has always projected an image of non-conformity that is deeply rooted in 1960s counterculture. It sells itself as a company that abhors bureaucracy and "thinks different," a company that not only wants to sell products but also to make a "significant contribution to society," as CEO Tim Cook recently put it.
But how can it be countercultural when it's grown to be so huge? Apple is the biggest company in the world by market value, representing $727 billion, about twice as much as the second-largest U.S. company, ExxonMobil. In the last three months of 2014, it sold 34,000 iPhones per hour. Over the last four quarters, it has achieved a total turnover of $200 billion and a net profit of $44 billion. It's sitting on a mountain of cash, $180 billion it can deploy at any moment.
Bound to the corporation
These are stunning figures, unprecedented profits. But Apple is far more than just a matter of dollars, and people wouldn’t be so passionate about it if it just sold cars or cookies. Apple has become the fetish of a worldwide middle class that sets itself apart with the status it derives from purchasing these products.
Apple is an overdriving engine of our century. With its minimalist design and the intuitive simplicity of its products, it completely changed our relationship with technology, which used to be only for nerds. This impression of simplicity turned us all into technophiles. It’s an illusion, of course, since these products conceal an amazing complexity and a link far less idealistic than it seems with the company that makes them.
"People who think they understand their products are completely mistaken," says Fred Turner, an associate professor in communications at Stanford University. "All technologies are entry gates that tie us to a corporation, and when I use an iPhone or an iPad, I am nurturing a relationship with Apple. They're using my data."
Our relationship to technology is only one of the many aspects in which Apple is influencing our lives. And it's not even the most important one. The real revolution is how the company has upset our daily lives.
"The Apple design is far more than the exterior shell of its computers and other devices," writes German essayist Thomas Wagner in his book Apple Design. "It also embraces the way we experience a whole series of activities, from working, communicating, presenting, watching movies and videos, listening to music and many more. In this respect, Apple is in line with modernist utopian projects such as Bauhaus."
"Built to know you better"
This is particularly true with the iPhone — and the other smartphones that followed. Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at Stanford University, describes it as "a portal to cyberspace" that, more than any product ever invented, "blurs the gap between the real world and the virtual world."
The Apple Watch, which includes sensors, pushes the boundaries even further. "We're heading inevitably for a world in which the virtual world and reality overlap completely, a world in which it'll be impossible to say where one begins and the other ends," he explains. "The next step will be objects integrated inside our bodies. Apple is heading in that direction.”
Our smartphones are a first step. They’ve become an extension of our hands that we pick up 221 times per day on average, according to 2014 Tecmark study.
In the Apple world, the words "intimate” and "personal" are repeated like a mantra. But with the Watch, the promotional material goes further. It describes an object that is "built to know you better" and will "reward you for reaching personal fitness milestones." This personalization is not only an individual experience that explains the incredible loyalty of iPhone owners (90% of them don't give up the brand, a Morgan Stanley study suggests) but it also influences our feelings regarding the ultra sensitive issue of data and privacy protection.
With Facebook or Google, which are more "exterior" to our lives than these objects we handle all day long, the fear of seeing our intimacy publicly exposed or our data exploited by unscrupulous companies is greater. But with Apple, which cleverly branded itself as the champion of sacred respect for its users' privacy, we are under the (false) impression of being in a friendly and safe place.
This intimacy with Apple even has political consequences. In May 2013, Tim Cook was summoned to a congressional hearing over Apple's exotic — to say the least — fiscal practices. Far from being grilled, he was welcomed with flattery. “I looooooove Apple,” Sen. Claire McCaskill told him. "It was surreal, an extraordinary moment in the history of American companies," says Margaret O’Mara, a historian and Silicon Valley specialist at the University of Washington.
Faith in technology
Apple's colossal might and influence over our lives would seem problematic if we dared to be a little more critical. Let’s look, for example, at how its products turn users into addicts of something that's designed to be obsolete one or two years after the fix.
The company doesn't deny that people these days spend most of their time glued to the screens of their devices. So what solution does it offer to make our engagement with technology "a little more human?" The Watch, the new gadget that's supposed to free us from the slavery of our iPhones, though we'll need those iPhones to use the Watch.
This headlong rush is obviously encouraged by the Silicon Valley’s almost religious faith in technology, the belief that technical innovation can solve all problems, even the ones it creates. But it's also a convenient way to dodge the issue, and a typical move for Apple.
Apple likes to show off as a company that's respectful of culture, values and ethics — when it suits them. For instance, Tim Cook’s intervention in the debate about anti-gay legislation in Indiana largely contributed to the bill being dropped. But on many other issues, like the place technology holds in our lives or that of economic giants in our societies, Apple is strangely quiet and conformist. In many respects, its behavior is even diametrically opposed to the exceptionalism it claims to embody.
Ben Farrell, an Australian middle manager who recently resigned from Apple, made the extremely rare step of breaking the company's code of silence, denouncing in a blog post an "inconsistent, moody and erratic" management that ignores the illnesses of employees or of their families, sacks people without the slightest qualms and treats its community of contractors, resellers and partners with "utter disrespect."
Apple is a modern-day Narcissus. And like other Silicon Valley giants, though with more sophistication, it nurtures a little clique of journalists who know that whatever entry gates that are half-open to them will shut at the first ungracious sentence.
A very secretive company, it's also a closed ecosystem, a "walled garden." This was Steve Jobs' wish, in the name of his products' superiority. But the intransigence with which Apple dictates its conditions to exterior developers and subcontractors is often problematic.
"They claim to defend "counterculture" ethics, but their developing codes have always been among the least accessible and they protect their material with an incredible legal ferocity," Fred Turner explains. "Their products are extremely difficult to fiddle with. They're not made for hackers, although they’ve become a symbol of the hacker ideology. Apple is the perfect example of a closed company, operating in a very traditional way, but which has nonetheless been successful in maintaining counterculture's cool patina.” Apple and its double-face: pirate and king, anarchist and capitalist.
Apple is a steamroller, brutal and unscrupulous. Sure, under Tim Cook’s leadership, it has put an end to the worst abuses reported in the Chinese factories of its subcontractors, abuses that Cook himself endorsed when he was Jobs’ sidekick. But what about the rest?
Apple likes to project an image of a company that's not obsessed with profit. When talking about the Watch, designer Jony Ive said he was more concerned by "how we can make it as good as possible than how many we'll sell.” In reality, Apple has established an incredibly aggressive "fiscal optimization" strategy, a modest way of describing how to pay as little tax as possible. It was one of the first multinationals to adopt the "Double Irish and Dutch Sandwich," a trick that enables it to pay very little tax by transferring profits to its Irish and Dutch subsidiaries before parking them in the Caribbean. And even though Ireland last year killed the "Double Irish," Apple continues to pay less than 10% in taxes.
These past few weeks, the prestigious Harvard Business Review published two articles by Juan Pablo Vazquez Sampere. In them, the economics professor writes that Apple might be losing its magic on its biggest pride and joy, innovation. Its latest invention to short circuit banking business, Apple Pay, is not only far from being a replacement for credit cards, but is actually "helping to perpetuate a credit card payment system that is obsolete, overly expensive, and absolutely unnecessary in the present day," he writes.
To him, the Apple that used to "disrupt" and revolutionize whole industries "isn't there anymore." Even the Watch fails to impress him. "Look at the way they launched it on the market. You'd think Procter & Gamble were in charge of marketing. It's a very classical marketing, dated even," he says.
Too harsh? Apple has too often been prematurely written off for us not to be dubious about death notices. The Watch could end up changing our lives, like the iPads and iPods that at first blush seemed pointless to some. But in any case, that shouldn't keep us from examining with close and new scrutiny one of the biggest commercial juggernauts in history.