It’s been a wild few days for Apple, as the company’s famed chief design officer Jony Ive announced his departure, a number of media outlets reported that he’d been disconnected from day-to-day work for some time, and Apple CEO Tim Cook fired back at The Wall Street Journal, in particular, calling the reports “absurd.”
All of this has led to a pretty vigorous (and fair) debate about whether Apple is still a design-led company, or whether its massive scale demands an operational focus that simply dictates design operates in a different way from the iMac and iPod eras. The view from inside Apple, for what it’s worth, is that design is still central to everything the company does, and the operations vs. design conflict is a media creation.
But I think that debate misses the point in a serious way. There is but one important question for Apple to answer as it enters its next phase, one that will reveal everything about the company’s priorities and how it designs its products. Here it is:
Will Apple compromise the user experience of the iPhone to sell services?
For years, Apple products have prioritized user experience over almost everything else, including and especially easy money. For every perceived limitation of an Apple product, there’s been a good argument that doing it the Apple way is simpler, easier, or more secure, and Apple has been richly rewarded for making those trade-offs.
The iPhone isn’t full of revenue-boosting bloatware. Macs don’t come festooned with wacky stickers advertising the chips inside. Safari doesn’t come preloaded with bookmarks to partner websites. Apple refuses to monetize the vast amount of user data it can collect, and in fact goes out of its way to avoid collecting it in the first place. Apple has always picked the user over cash, and users have in turn picked Apple.
These are not easy trade-offs to make, which is why virtually no other company makes them: Microsoft includes bloatware on its supposedly clean “signature” versions of Windows 10, and while Google devices are cleaner, hardware is but a side note to its dominant core business. But Apple’s entire business and brand are built on premium consumer products with a superior user experience, and the core of that superior user experience is not littering products with crap.
And yet, building a services business that can grow meaningful revenue in the shadow of the iPhone is a lot easier if you do some growth-hacky bullshit.
It’s not like Apple is going to put Intel stickers on Macs, or preload some silly virus scanner on the iPhone. But will Apple degrade the user experience in order to push its own services? It’s a conflict that’s playing out as iPhone sales flatten out and the company explicitly shifts its focus to paid services across news, TV shows, games, payments (even a credit card!), and music. The temptation to boost those services by littering the iPhone with crap is growing stronger every day, and you can see some clear examples of Apple compromising user experience to drive them already:
- Apple News Plus seems to break the company’s rules for sign-up buttons
- The TV service sends unwanted notifications for Apple’s own shows
- Apple writes App Store rules that make competing with its own apps and features incredibly hard
- Have you heard about iCloud storage?
- iMessage and FaceTime are industry-leading messaging services that offer end-to-end encryption and seamlessly work across multiple devices, but also ruthlessly lock you into the Apple ecosystem in a way that creates actual social consequences for leaving.
And then there’s the big one, the data point that looks great on investor decks and miserable when you’re holding an iPhone in your hand. Apple Music is an objectively worse music app than Spotify (trust me, I use it every day), but Apple’s carrier promotions, rule-breaking promotional notifications, and lock-in with the Watch and Siri have led to more than 60 million users. From one perspective, that is a huge success. From another, it’s a clear example of Apple bending the user experience of its platform to drive its own ancillary services.
As Apple’s need to justify the high-profile services announcement event it held this past March increases, the temptation to leverage the user experience of the iPhone to accelerate growth is going to be overwhelming. And how Apple chooses to manage that temptation will reveal more about the future of design at Apple than any list of executives or angry letters about The Wall Street Journal ever will.