Apple and the Past

Thoughts in and around geopolitics.

By: George Friedman

A few days ago, my phone – a 10-year-old iPhone 6 – died. 

Or, more precisely, it continued to work as a phone but ceased to do many of the other things I expected it to do. 

It could no longer access my banking app, for example. 

It seems that the bank had issued a new version of the app, one that I could not use on my antique 6, and disabled the old one. 

The app was no longer supported by my venerable operating system, and with haughty disdain, the bank no longer wanted to do business with a phone that had been present at many meetings and family holidays. 

I asked our IT head how to solve this, and he said with barely hidden glee that there was no hope, a new phone must be purchased. 

Chortling, he sent along the link to the Apple store.

Now, to be allowed to make a purchase at the Apple store you must make a reservation. 

The rationale is to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but I suspect that the real purpose is to test the extent to which you really are worthy of owning an Apple product. 

My wife made an appointment, and we showed up on time. 

There was a line governed by the laws of nature and social distancing. 

Our temperature was taken, and we inched forward, converging into a complex of lines that I could not understand. 

Finally, someone staring at his computer said, "Friedman," and ushered us to almost being in the store, but not quite until another man met us. 

My wife was with me because she believes that a female salesperson can sell me anything at any price. 

Untrue but irrelevant. 

The salesperson was a man.

To me, it appeared that the question was, “Are you good enough to own an Apple product? 

Do you have what it takes?” 

There was no browsing thoughtfully, there was no poking at boxes and lifting things that were not to be lifted. 

The customer is under surveillance at all times. 

I can assure you that the Pentagon is much more casual than this. 

I wondered how Apple could stay in business treating customers like supplicants.

Of course, I know why Apple is so successful. 

I loved my iPhone 6 because it did what I needed. 

It didn’t break even when dropped it, and it could be called and located by the ring (yes I used a ring on the phone) when I lost it, which was several times a day. 

It had a telephone, email, texting (which I loathe) and an unnecessary but unobtrusive camera, and it allowed the national weather service to display itself. 

It did what a phone should do and a few other things. 

But best of all, it fit in my pants pocket – that is, when I didn’t lose it.

I dreaded the videogame-capable, Netflix-linked, echocardiogram-compatible, speaker-for-the-dead megalith I was about to buy. 

And herein lies the true genius of Apple. 

I handed our salesperson my old phone and said, sobbingly, “It’s broken.” 

He said he was sorry, sounding less honorific than funereal, and asked what I wanted. 

I said I wanted to buy the same phone. 

Exactly the same phone. 

He asked what color I wanted. 

Baffled, I said black. 

(What other color should phones be?) 

He handed me my phone, an iPhone 8, all shiny and new, and looking the same even when turned on. 

Inside it was different, and he reeled off the advantages. 

The only advantage for me was that I would not have to learn anything new.

It reminds me of Ford. 

Among his many geniuses was that he invented the auto dealership, which was owned by others who spread around the country, selling and repairing their wares. 

The genius of Apple is that it is not enamored with progress, defined here as tools to do new things in new ways. 

It is less creative destruction than managing the evolution of things in thoughtful ways. 

Put differently, progress finds new ways to do things but won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Apple marketers clearly understood that a large segment of the market is not excited by cellphones. 

People want them to do the things they are meant to do and limit the number of other things they can do to minimize the level of effort it takes to use the damned thing. 

For a while, it seemed that Apple was doomed to go the way of Blackberry, seemingly foundering between a music vendor, credit card hustler and the purveyor of overperforming and overpriced progress. 

But it knew exactly what it was doing, and I know that because Apple updated my 10-year-old cellphone and knew that my apps would ultimately force me to go to the store and joyously buy the same thing I owned and loved.

Progress is the Enlightenment’s gift to us, allowing reason to determine human needs and science to provide them. 

It is always easier to invent needs and fulfill them than it is to look deeply and find those things that humans must have at a point in history. 

It also makes more money. 

Edison, Ford, Rockefeller – they knew what electricity, cars and oil would do. 

Ford knew it so well that he famously said customers could buy a car in any color so long as it was black. 

Edison stuck with one thing, electricity, and made a new world possible. 

Rockefeller knew that coal wasn’t enough. 

Blackberry failed to understand that email wasn’t enough. 

Steve Jobs understood what was possible. 

The company he founded recognized what the later auto industry could not, which is that things that are old and familiar can be far more useful and efficient, and even comforting.

This is a lot to draw from a visit to the Apple store, and there is much I’ve overlooked about Apple’s success. 

But I once owned a Plymouth Valiant that did the same thing my Lexus can do now for a lot less money. 

It was a great car, and I would trade for it (and the illusion of my youth) in a minute. 

But Chrysler stopped producing it, replacing it with nothing much. 

Attempting the future while preserving the past is a skill most new entrepreneurs lack. 

They seek to overcome the past without recognizing the virtues of selling the old alongside the new.

There are many things wrong with Apple, and many things right. 

I don’t know enough about Apple to have an opinion on the whole. 

But this part impressed me. 

And I saw a shrewdness embedded there.

I own no stock in Apple. 

I once did but sold it figuring that it had run its course. 

I also thought that the camera in the cellphone was a desperate attempt to revive a declining industry. 

So on such matters, I should be mostly ignored. 

But where most companies want to overcome the past, Apple sees its virtue and merely reengineers it. 

And as the United States goes forward, this should be borne in mind.

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