iPhone 4: Apple are Kings of Tech Because They Get Culture

Given that today’s announcement of iPhone 4 contained almost nothing surprising, you’d think everything that needed to be said has already been uttered. You’d be wrong.

In fact, the most important part of Jobs’ keynote today was not the the arrival of a phone we all knew was coming. No, it was a slide near the end that Apple have shown before that stated that Apple exists at the intersection of technology and ‘the liberal arts’. Here’s what Jobs said about it:

I put up this slide earlier this year, and to me it represents what Apple is all about. It’s not just a technology company, even though we have and invent some of the highest tech in this industry. It’s more than that. It’s the marriage of that and humanity.

What does that mean? Well, what Apple demonstrated today was that for better or worse, they are the people defining not just the world of technology, but also part of contemporary culture. And by doing so, they are at the forefront of how technology is integrating itself into our lives.

Here is why Apple are the technology world leaders – while everyone else is often left playing catchup.


To Apple, Design = Experience, Not Aesthetics or Tech

Almost all companies that produce hardware or software focus on two things: making appealing, cutting-edge tech (like HDTV and Blu-Ray); or enabling a specific feature that consumers want (like say, adding music playback to a phone). But there’s a third, crucial aspect to tech that only Apple seems to focus on: what it feels like to use something.

Jobs and Apple’s designers have gone on record saying that to them, design isn’t about how something looks or behaves – it’s about the experience of actually playing with and utilizing a device. This is why Apple put so much time into making things feel satisfying to use – like Coverflow or the original iPod interface.

iPhone 4 furthers this in simple ways. First, it’s faster – which is a big deal for user experience (and if you don’t believe me, ask anyone who’s used an old version of Android compared to 2.2). Second it adds a lot of features in a smooth, integrated way – including seamless multitasking – which augments the overall experience. And third, it simplifies once complex tasks like video editing with intuitive and cheap applications.

By doing do, Apple have emphasized that it is the user – and not the gadget – that is paramount, making the performance of a specific task the goal rather than simply adding things to a feature list.


Retina Display: Apple Get How and Why People Read

Prediction: with Retina Display, Apple have put one more nail in the coffin for print media.

Why? Because what the (stupidly named) Retina Display does is reproduce the quality of print in the convenient form factor of digital. While thus far in electronic reading you either got the drawbacks of the Kindle etc. (slow refresh, no backlight, dull, low quality) or the downsides of LCD (fuzzy text, eye strain), we are now a step closer to digital screens being better for reading than print (if they aren’t already).

Sure, not every problem is solved. Battery life on LCDs is still too low and even the iPad’s great IPS screen is invisible on a sunny day. But by creating a display that rivals a glossy magazine for sheer visual quality, Apple have understood that reading is as much a tactile, aesthetic experience as it is anything else.

Ask anyone who reads Wallpaper or even something like the New Yorker – how the magazine looks and feels is key. By making the display look as good as paper, Apple have given even the staunchest print lovers a reason to switch to digital by focusing on what experiences people are after and now what ‘technical features’ they want.


Facetime: People Always Trump Tech

The announcement of a Wi-Fi only video calling service was, on a technical level, a bit of a letdown. After all, how can you call this the ‘debut’ of mobile video calling if it isn’t all that mobile (for mobility, 3G > Wi-Fi, right?)?

But what it again shows is that Apple understands that people want to connect easily and without fuss. From what we’ve seen of the app, it looks very simple and straightforward – which are obviously Apple hallmarks – and that it will quickly become a selling point. Because Apple’s user-friendliness is well-known, this once futuristic feature will now quickly become mainstream.

By focusing on what people want to do and how it feels to accomplish that, Apple have once again sidestepped making ‘tech’ the big issue, and instead have highlighted what people want to do with technology. Sure, people who will decry the fact that Android had this first or that this is hardly an improvement from Skype et al will miss the fact that it’s precisely the ease and accessibility of the user experience that makes this different. It’s not about technology – it’s about achieving certain ideals.


A Truly All-in-One Device is 'User-Friendly' Defined

While I can guarantee you no serious videographer or photographer would be caught dead using an iPhone 4, it doesn’t matter one bit. For most people, the iPhone is now the only device they will need to carry. And the emphasis on making the iPhone people’s default device is better for us all, because it makes life easier and more straightforward.

Think about it: with one device you can record HD video, take usable photographs, surf the net, check email, listen to music, watch video, read books and newspapers – and maybe make the occasional phone call. Despite Apple’s tendency for elitism, that is a pretty populist, user-friendly move – especially because even the much-improved Android 2.2 still trails the iPhone in sheer, intuitive user-friendliness.

And why is such a simple idea important? Well…


Apple's Focus Is How We Live Our Lives

At the end of the day, what all of this suggests is that Apple doesn’t start with tech first and then see what they can do from there (which is Sony’s M.O.). They first ask what people want to do and figure out how to make tech do that. iPhone 4 seems further proof that, for better or worse, Apple are at the forefront of integrating technology into our lives. But…


There's a Downside…

I wholeheartedly believe all I’ve written above. But Apple’s foresight and dominance of ‘the cultural zeitgeist’ comes with a downside. After all, what this means is that a company whose primary concern is profit are changing culture.

In some ways this can be great. By kickstarting the digital music revolution with the iPod, Apple made accessing music much easier.

But it also means that a CEO who seems like a prude and is obsessed with controlling the user experience is making a lot of decisions that not only affect the world of technology, but the world-at-large as well.

It’s a tough nut to crack. On the one side, Apple are doing great things. On the other, by being the only company who seem to truly get the cultural role of technology, we’re handing over a lot of control to a profit-motivated company. How we fix this dilemma is a problem no-one has yet been able to figure out.

What do you think Techi readers? Why are Apple so much better than other companies at creating ‘experiences’ rather than gadgets? And is this a good or a bad thing?

Written by Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang

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  • I am curious how iphone 5 will look like

    • See, at the end of the day, its not what Apple have out at the moment, its what they will bring out next.

      Being quite critical here, I think Apple are artists of ‘dissatisfaction’. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with the iPhone3, sure its now ‘older’ – but that’s the nature of product development. I think Apple is doing very well with product sequels (Just like Harry Pothead, ahem, Potter).

      I think this is clever, in continually creating this combination of dissatisfaction and desire – all marketing people should take note of this.

      I personally don’t own an apple product, actually, that’s a lie, I have an the ipod photo in my car that was given to me – anyone remember that?! – consumers were dissatisfied with their ipods that only had music… but this only happened when they revealed the ipod photo…

      Other than that, as a designer, I like their product design. I was not keen on the curved backs of the iphones, so this new one does appeal to me. I do find myself seriously thinking about getting one.

      Like Graphstock, I’m now thinking of the iPhone 5, the 4 has only been ‘out’ for a couple of days!

      Thanks for reading this ramble….oh, time for some math!

  • I’ve said it a few times today and I’ll say it again here: If AT&T can’t make phone calls, why does Apple think it’ll be able to handle video calls?

    • retsel

      ATT cant… Vid calls are made over WiFi only

      • That makes it unusable in my opinion. Making the screen clearer: kind of nice. Redoing Skype that can only work over WiFi: not that great. AT&T is killing their unlimited data plans, too. Android with Sprint and unlimited data plans, I believe, will ultimately produce more and better apps (gotta love open source). Plus Google doesn’t try and strong-arm you into using THEIR application for developing. Admit it: Apple is a control freak company that is incapable of playing nice with other companies.

      • Ray

        Skype currently supports calls over 3g now. Apple has made Face-time an open standard. Most Iphone users are currently on the unlimited data plan and most can upgrade their phones AND extend the unlimited plan for 2 more years . They just will not be able to tether is all. Do a tiny bit of research and your arguments may become valid.

  • alex

    Technically the fact that he is even at the company AGAIN is a tribute to a changed mentality of the board at Apple. They already ousted Jobs before because they were purely profit motivated. And they didn’t want to stick with his ideas and need to controle the user experience. And what happened they nearly died. They, at least then, learned that short sighted profits shouldn’t be the main motivator. Apple, these days sets goals of long term profitability centered on user loyalty based on love of the experience, versus the short term goals like “feature” lists that aren’t really functional.

    My hope is that, that the lesson in avoiding instant gratification of short term profitability spikes that they learned in the late 90’s will be remembered. And that they will continue to focus on what normal users really truly want. Not what nerds and geeks imagine people want.

  • Just wanted to say: AWESOME article. This is the quality I love to see from Techi.

  • Gaf

    I always think about apple like this. If steve was to die (god forbid) who would step into his role and would they “get it” like steve does, I hope so but I doubt they would and thus worries me, I think they would just give users what they want (what they think they want) and this would change everything, user experience would suffer and for the people who truly understand apple and what they’re trying to do, the spark in apple would die out and they would just be another Microsoft, palm or google.. I like options, I like the fact that android is open and I could use it if I wanted but I don’t I stick with apple because they spend a long time making sure this stuff works as close to perfect as possible and I don’t see why anybody would choose openess for sheer quality, app store approvals don’t bother me only developers, if it’s never there in the first place how can you miss it. A lot off people just jump on the bandwagon of haters screaming foul play when they’re just trying to make sure you device runs smoothly and isn’t compromised, the last thing I want to worry about is if this app I just downloaded is going to be upto no good. One less thing to worry about if you ask me… Make an app store for the mac, I’d buy all my apps from there!

  • Rick

    A citation is needed: “The announcement of a Wi-Fi only video calling service was, on a technical level, a bit of a letdown. After all, how can you call this the ‘debut’ of mobile video calling if it isn’t all that mobile (for mobility, 3G > Wi-Fi, right?)?”

    There was a slide and comment by Steve that says wifi for 2010 and later he said that he has to work with AT&T to get the network figured out before the video chat can go 3G. So this is just a temporary thing-being on wifi and with app developers, someone will get this to work with skype, qik, or some other 3rd party service to open up the connection abilities.

  • I’m a sucker for the iphone, I almost don’t want to be but I am, have resisted the iPad thus far

  • great but, whi is the video call only with Wifi?? my crapy nokia 6120 does 3G video call. And i still think that flash should be included in those devices, so much about making devices for the user and al that and it doesen’t have a flash plugin.

  • bfreek

    you got the point: “what it feels like using something”.
    this really is the difference. and everybody else is failing badly…

  • What a wonderful analysis! You described my thoughts about Apples role in the industry (and the world) exactly. I think they differ from the other companies because they simply sees the development, as you say, from another point of view. It is about what the users want to do and not the technology.

    Personally, I see the dominance of a profit-motivated company in our culture as a problem. This is however not only limited to Apple, but to all the companies with big influence in our society.

  • FloydThreepwood

    What I alway recall in discussions like that is the good old ‘People want choice.’, and that this turns out to be one of the greatest misconceptions in technological history. No Market so despertely strengthens monopoles like the tech industries, but only Apple seems to turn this problem into more of a feature then a false shimmer of hope.

    When Jobs said at D8 that we pay Apple to make these choices for us, he certainly understood more about tech than most.

  • yes, Apple are exceptionally good at developing technology for how we behave and want to use it – with one important caveat.

    One of our cultural behaviours is connectivity between devices, but Apple only allows it between other apple products. Want to stream a movie through iTunes on your TV? Only if you have the Apple TV device. Want to vid call on your iPhone? Only if the other person has an iPhone too. Even the video on the iPhone isn’t going to be as easy and universally compatible as, say, the Flip, which I’ll still be carrying with me even if I get the new iPhone.

    If Apple actually let go of some of that propriatorial DRM locked mentality they’d probably shift even more units because the devices would become far more useful and relevant in a lot more situations.

  • RJC

    Apple – just a world number one Bluffmaster nothing else

  • PS

    “that is a pretty populist”: You are wrong. With that price tag, how can you call such a device populist?

  • BlackcatBonz

    I think it’s amazing how people in the geek-o-sphere have an innate dislike for Apple technology.
    I used to be one of those people… but I grew up.
    As a tech lover and PC user for years I enjoy building my own computer’s or trying to tweak them to get the most performance out of them. If I run into a driver conflict or some glitch….no big deal, i fix it.

    My wife and kids on the other hand, when they sit down at a computer…they just want it to work, nevermind any overclocking, liquid cooling or other nonsense.
    Enter Apple… Yes, they have the final say on apps….yes they have the final say on hardware… yes they have the final say on drivers… Why?
    So when someone hits the ‘on’ button, the thing works…no tinkering, no blue screens, no calls to one of the many support centres that you have software and components from.

    Why is it so hard for geek culture to accept the fact that the average computer user doesnt want to delve into the inner workings of a programs code… or rip into the computers hardware with some ridiculous need for control?

    Apple makes products that are enjoyable to use. If a ‘geek’ came up with a wireless PC HD webcam that was wifi ready…. we’d be standing around snorting and laughing about how awesome it is and we would rush to the computer to order it online.

    But no, Apple made a wireless HD wi-fi webcam; with a phone, a media player and a slew of other cool things…. so the geeks trash the very idea of it and come up with some BS conspiracy theory.

    Well, geeks…..time to grow up.

  • Spot on, thats pretty much exactly what I think of Apple. Even though they are private and closed source, the stuff they’re putting out is crazy awesome.

  • Bravo for technical change, but finally I prefered iPhone 3’s design

  • Been putting off the evil day of more contracts, more gadgets. Like I need any more!

    Maybe now is the right time to take the plunge

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