Apple: The New Headquarters of Computing

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I have a hard time seeing how anybody could be happy working there (if you read Fortune‘s May 23 feature on Apple, you’ll wonder too). And the success of companies like Google seems to show that you don’t need to be quite as secretive or autocratic as Apple to stay innovative.

My own qualms aside, though, it’s impossible to deny Apple’s new dominance in the technology world. Sure, there are still more desktop and laptop computers out there running Windows than machines running Mac OS X, thanks to the historic size of Microsoft’s installed base and the slower turnover rate for PCs. But on many other important metrics, Apple is winning. Apple’s iOS is the leading mobile operating system, installed on 44 percent of mobile devices (if you count tablets and the iPod touch, that is; Android is ahead if you count only smartphones). In 2010, Apple surpassed rivals Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, and Dell to become the world’s largest buyer of semiconductors. And these days Apple’s market capitalization roughly matches that of Microsoft and Intel—the old “Wintel” consortium—combined. (Apple was worth $307 billion as of yesterday, compared to Microsoft and Intel’s combined $317 billion.)

The message here is that Apple’s perfectionism is working. More than any other company, it’s showing consumers a vision of how computing and communications should work that fits with their practical needs and their instinctive desires. So Jobs is absolutely right that the headquarters campus of the world’s most successful consumer electronics company should be more than a hodgepodge of buildings surrounded by parking lots. Maybe this is my inner Don Draper speaking, but why shouldn’t Apple’s headquarters embody the same perfectionistic dream built into Apple’s products—a dream about a future where everyone is affluent and travels by bike or Prius and works in eco-conscious buildings and is inspired by their high-tech tools and their pastoral surroundings to be more creative and productive? (If you watched Jobs’ presentation to the Cupertino City Council, you couldn’t miss his repeated references to Apple’s greenification plan. The company will cover 80 percent of the 150-acre site with native trees and grasses, even returning parts of the land to 1930s-era apricot orchards.)

Within that bigger painting of Apple’s future, this week’s announcements about Lion, iOS 5, and iCloud are just brushstrokes, and predictable ones at that. To me, the changes previewed at WWDC were all about taking touch-driven interfaces and cloud-based sharing closer to their logical conclusions.

Once Apple realized what a hit it had on its hands with iOS for the iPhone and the iPad, it became clear that the OS X interface would have to be reworked to incorporate the best ideas from the touchscreen universe. So Lion makes a Mac work more like an iPad—and there’s not much more to be said. As for iOS 5, I can’t wait to get it on my own devices, but in most ways this version of iOS is about housecleaning and catching up with features offered by competitors and third-party developers. For example, the operating system will now have a central “newsstand” app that brings some order to the mess of separate apps currently offered by magazine publishers. It will offer a notifications system that matches Android’s, and it will include an Instapaper-like system for saving and reading stories on the Web.

The iCloud announcement was a little more interesting. From a consumer’s point of view, cloud computing isn’t about far-away data centers; it’s about being able to share, update, and back up apps, office documents, and media (songs, photos, videos) in a way that’s instant, automatic, and wireless. So iCloud isn’t a product as such. It’s just Apple’s way of branding the fact that it’s baking cloud sharing more deeply into its own software, from OS X to iOS to apps such as iTunes and iWork, while helping third-party developers do the same.

Jobs made a big deal at WWDC of the fact iCloud replaces and improves upon MobileMe, an unreliable service that he never liked. But I think it also marks the beginning of the end for another product: iTunes. I’m on the record about my dislike of the horribly bloated program, which has long been the only tool Apple customers have for moving apps and media between their computers, phones, music players, and tablets. “The sooner Apple demolishes iTunes and builds a new software tower as the hub for its nifty complex of media devices, the happier I’ll be,” I wrote back in September 2010. So I’m pretty happy about iCloud and the associated changes in iOS and OS X, because they’re finally going to allow Apple customers to cut the cord and bypass the crufty old iTunes software.

As Jobs explained, the arrival of iCloud means that your laptop or desktop computer is about to get a demotion: it will now be just one of the devices that needs to be updated every time something changes on one of your other devices (say, when you buy a song or an app or make a change to a Pages document). The updating will all be handled by Apple’s cloud servers, not by iTunes, and your Apple ID will the consistent thread linking your devices, instead of your USB cables. Apple will probably keep iTunes around as the media nerve center for your Mac, and as the gateway to the iTunes Store for buying music and movies, but that’s all it will be. I wish it a long and quiet retirement.

By the time Jobs or his successor is cutting the ribbon at Apple’s shiny new headquarters in 2015 or so, we will all have forgotten about iTunes and Lion and iOS 5. And no one will talk about “cloud” computing, because that’s the way all computing will work. This week was all about getting a little closer to that future.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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7 responses to “Apple: The New Headquarters of Computing”

  1. Wade, thanks for the really thought provoking article. You have deftly articulated the love-hate relationships in Apple products & management style that both excite and annoy. I too think it notable that Mr. Steve Jobs himself unveiled the building plans to the city council – and that its form and future will continue to fuel discussions about loving/hating Apple. They have earned respect for their vision and execution, whether one agrees with them or not.

  2. joshuadf says:

    Great points, though you don’t mention a new competitor to Apple in the tablet space, which is with their no-frills music store and Kindle. Also interestingly is in the middle of a new headquarters as well, though this article says it’s roughly half the size as Apple’s proposal at 1.7m sq ft:
    Architecturally the Apple and campuses are quite a contrast, One Building to Rule Them All vs 11 buildings of varied design in an urban area with public retail and restaurants on the ground floor.

  3. … and the hammer that was thrown into the Orwellian screen so long ago is still flying through the ether … and into The Ring!

  4. nickp says:

    Apple’s proposed new HQ is the Pentagon for the technology age

  5. Bob Shaw says:

    I wish they would have first paid some dividend on shares or bought back some stock prior to spending money on the new HQ. Atleast it would have moved the stock price up rather than stagnating for past 8 months.

  6. Most of the features I read on Web looked science-fiction kind of which is unlikely to be released by Apple. Let’s see what Tim cook has cooked for us on Oct 4th :)