Apple Changes the Rules

February 16th, 2012

This morning, Apple introduced the next version of OS X for the Mac—10.8 Mountain Lion. There’s a number of things worth writing about, and I will, but what’s most fascinating is how Apple introduced 10.8.

There was no special event at the Moscone Center, or even Apple’s campus theatre. The only major publication which got early access was the Wall Street Journal, and it was an interview with Tim Cook.

Instead, Apple provided one-on-one demonstrations of Mountain Lion to John Gruber, Macworld, the Loop, and the Verge. One-on-one demonstrations to the people who cover Apple news every day for a living, but are decidedly new-media.

Here’s how John Gruber described it:

We were sitting in a comfortable hotel suite in Manhattan just over a week ago. I’d been summoned a few days earlier by Apple PR with the offer of a private “product briefing”. I had no idea heading into the meeting what it was about. I had no idea how it would be conducted. This was new territory for me, and I think, for Apple.

… The meeting was structured and conducted very much like an Apple product announcement event. But instead of an auditorium with a stage and theater seating, it was simply with a couch, a chair, an iMac, and an Apple TV hooked up to a Sony HDTV. And instead of a room full of writers, journalists, and analysts, it was just me, Schiller, and two others from Apple — Brian Croll from product marketing and Bill Evans from PR.

You could read it as Apple disowning old media and embracing these independent, niche publications. While I don’t think that’s what it is (I have no doubt that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal will be among the first to have the iPad 3), I think it reflects the changing landscape for media. Today, those major publications—while still important—are merely among the important publications, whereas they used to be the only ones of consequence. It’s telling that Apple chose to deliver such important news through niche—geek—publications and their website.

It’s also a change in how Apple operates. Phil Schiller told Gruber that they’re “starting to do some things differently.” That’s for sure. I don’t want to say that this is something Jobs’s Apple wouldn’t have done, because I don’t think that’s accurate—actually, I could see Apple doing this while Jobs was CEO. It is a change in tactics, but not in strategy. Even though Schiller acknowledges they’re doing some things differently now, I don’t think he would say that this is out of line with the philosophy Apple’s followed since Jobs’s return. But it is, nonetheless, a significant change. Apple used to like revealing something new to the world all at once, and this is a slight step away from it.

It’s a change necessitated by Apple’s new stature. Apple could do that in 2005 because they had fewer products to introduce. They had the Mac and the iPod, so holding events for each one every year wasn’t much of an issue. That’s changed. Apple has the Mac, iPad, iPhone and iPod. Holding events each time they have something relatively significant to announce for each product line would result in a dilution of the special event’s power to draw attention from the public and media.

This new tactic nicely sidesteps that issue. It allows them to to still tell their story (in a way that a website just can’t), speak directly to the Apple community, and retain the special event’s appeal. That’s smart.

Mountain Lion’s introduction comes along with a slightly more transparent Apple, too. For the past few weeks, Apple has received significant criticism for their contract manufacturer, Foxconn’s, working conditions. Jobs’s Apple tended to remain quiet on these sorts of things, until they were ready to make a statement—which sometimes came in the form of a special event, as with the iPhone 4′s antenna controversy.

It appears Cook has been slightly more open. When the New York Times published a scathing and somewhat inflammatory piece on Foxconn’s working conditions and Apple’s refusal to improve them, Cook sent an email to Apple employees addressing the report. And just this week, Cook spoke at Goldman Sachs’s Technology Conference, and answered a fairly wide range of questions about Apple’s business and products.

However slight, Apple is adjusting to its new size and changing how it operates. What this signals is that Cook isn’t afraid to make changes where he thinks they need made. He isn’t going to keep all thing the same for fear of screwing up what made them successful. And that’s certainly positive. Who knows if this is the extent of a more transparent Apple, or a prelude to more changes to come. But I’m glad to see that Apple isn’t afraid of tweaking their playbook—or even throwing it out completely—when they think it’s necessary. Sticking to orthodoxy was never, and should never, be a part of Apple.