Apple's Strategy Is Innovation By A Thousand Tweaks

The iPhone is to make you buy the AirPods which are to make you use Siri to make you keep your MacBook to get you to upgrade your iPhone.

You probably want to talk about the headphones. You’re pissed about having to buy a new pair of headphones or haul around an easily lost dongle adapter, or to have to use the word “dongle” in public. You’re frustrated that you need to pay $150 for wireless danglers that might fall out of your weirdly shaped ears. You’re angry that this company invented a brand-new category of thing for you to buy, and you’re angry that you think you might kinda want it, this product you didn’t even know existed when you woke up this morning.

But that’s a distraction. To focus on the missing 3.5 mm hole in the top of your next hunk of metal and glass and plastic is — unless you’re an audio engineer — to miss the point. You’ll use the dongle, or you’ll buy some new headphones, and in a couple of months this entire conversation will feel so incredibly beside the point. This is what Apple does best: It spends untold hours and countless dollars tinkering and perfecting until it can make a seemingly user-hostile decision in order to scrap what it deems a piece of vestigial technology. There might be a little turbulence along the way, but today is arguably the day that Bluetooth and wireless audio become the new standard for consumer headphones. Airport vending machines will be lousy with them by Christmas.

But that’s not enough for Apple. It doesn’t just push people into unfamiliar product spaces, it also works hard to make sure those spaces are firmly within territory it controls. It isn’t pushing Bluetooth headphones, it’s pushing AirPods (and, of course, wireless headphones that use the same technology from its subsidiary Beats). And AirPods are all about lock-in.

The way the company envisions it, AirPods will make your other Apple products, like iPhone and Mac, even more essential. They will connect (via Bluetooth and Apple’s own proprietary technology) instantly to your devices. Because the case connects with iCloud, you’ll be able to seamlessly switch between different iOS devices. No need to take off your headphones when you walk into work from your commute — just hit one button and you’re now streaming from your computer.

This — these masterful incremental tweaks that add up to a different way of living with your devices — is Apple in 2016. It’s evolutionary and not always flashy, but it’s often just enough to pull you deeper into the Apple universe of products and services. It’s what CEO Tim Cook meant when, about 56 minutes into today’s keynote, in one of his throwaway victory laps about iPhone sales (over 1 billion sold!), he boasted that the newest iPhone will “enrich your daily experiences.”

All the painstaking engineering inside the AirPods (the accelerometers, optical sensors, microphones, and antennas that make them so damn expensive) is geared toward drawing you deeper into Apple’s ecosystem. The quick double-tap that triggers Siri is not just meant to, well, help you access Siri: It’s a ramp to get more people into the habit of using Apple’s personal assistant, which is slowly evolving into the connective tissue in Apple’s product suite as well as the primary way the company would have you navigate its operating systems. And even though they’re costly, the AirPods are new and fancy and maybe even a little bit cool. They’re not for everyone, but for Apple’s core users — the ones who’ve been through nine years and three or more iPhone upgrades — the earphones give you yet another reason to upgrade your iPhone and also maybe not jump ship from your MacBook to a $200 Chromebook.

Same can be said of the newest edition of the Apple Watch. While the watch now comes in something called ceramic and has a new series of customizable bands and faces, its main selling points are almost all small-but-important evolutionary tweaks. There’s built-in GPS, water resistance, and a partnership with Nike that creates a social workout experience that seems to be centered around guilting you to get off your ass and move around.

These improvements are meaningful but still subtle enough that you might not really notice them unless you’ve been paying attention. The Series 2 is less of an attempt to introduce a New Computing Device™ than it is a sensible fitness product. Like the earphones, the watch is a portal for Siri. It’s also a gateway into Apple’s growing collection of health apps, and it’s all part of the continuity push across devices. Sure, you could just get a Fitbit for cheaper, but this watch is arguably better AND lets you shoot off an emoji iMessage or check your email by yelling into your wrist. Basically: Here's this awesome thing for working out that’s especially great if you already have other Apple products. And that kind of continuity just might make you less likely to swap your iPhone for a Samsung when it’s time to re-up.

And then there’s the phone. The new iPhones are perhaps the most direct embodiment of Apple’s philosophy: innovation by a thousand tweaks. Despite two (two!) new black finishes and the extra camera in the Plus, and the water resistance, and that missing headphone jack, the phone looks and behaves much the same as it did before.

Near the end of the keynote, in a slick video wrapping up the new iPhone features, Apple VP Greg Joswiak summed it up: “iPhone 7 makes the thing you do most even better.” The video — not much longer than a minute — is full of superlatives: “better,” “more powerful,” “brighter,” “faster,” more. Last year Apple’s approach toward this methodical innovation was a bit ham-handed — the company suggested that “the only thing that’s changed” with the new iPhone “is everything,” which some (including myself) dismissed as marketing jargon. This year Apple seems more confident in its evolutionary stance.

Every keynote is a state of the union — an opportunity to get a glimpse into how Apple sees itself. And the lesson from this year’s seems to be that it’s time to stop thinking of Apple in the classic Jobsian sense. That every product introduction is a paradigm-shifting game-changer. Today, we saw a company — which is setting its sights on non-tech-related initiatives like making TV shows and investing in moonshots like cars — stand onstage and own what it is: a hardware company that's making smart little evolutionary changes at just the right time.

Skip to footer