This year was my first being in San Francisco during WWDC week. There is never enough time to do everything on a trip like this, but this week was jam packed with WWDC itself, AltConf, Layers Conference and San Francisco Design Week, among other things. Nonetheless, I had some great conversations with a lot of people in the community—designers, developers, readers of the blog, old friends and more.
The 2015 WWDC keynote was strange to say the least. Almost no one could have expected the botched music announcement, the baffling naming choice of "OS X El Capitan" or Jimmy Iovine missing the reference to the original iPhone launch in his own speech, to the delight of one developer in the audience and many watching at home. Swift being made open source was also a quite welcome development.
Some of the most grandiose language possible was used to promote the App Store with Neil Degrasse Tyson being made to seem to be praising the App Store as a "watershed moment in civilization." (Tyson later clarified that Apple had taken him out of context). Not to be outdone, James Manyik, the Director of McKinsey Global Institute, went even further: "If you think the Industrial Revolution was transformational, the App Store is way bigger."
The 2015 WWDC was sold by Apple as "The epicenter of change." What is undoubtedly true is that the marketing of said "change" has hardly been limited to copywriting. In recent months, Apple executives have been visible to the public with unprecedented frequency. There have been countless interviews featuring Jony Ive, Jeff Williams and even Kevin Lynch and Alan Dye. During the week of WWDC alone, Tim Cook received a profile and Phil Schiller was interviewed live by John Gruber to much fanfare. Apple notably paid homage to Gruber in the keynote.
This sentiment of the rise of a "New Apple" is particularly widespread. During the Gruber-Schiller interview, Schiller told the audience “I’m in my job for one reason. Because I’m a customer like you.” David Sparks of MacSparky was at first quite skeptical: "Perhaps because he’s always been the 'marketing guy,' I never saw Phil Schiller as one of us." But soon afterwards Sparks explained "I was wrong…looking in his eyes and hearing him say those words, it occurred to me he is a nerd just like the rest of us." Sparks echoed Schiller nearly word for word: "One of my biggest takeaways from the Gruber-Schiller interview is that Phil’s one of us.”
Schiller went on to divulge that he is a regular reader of both Gruber's Daring Fireball and Marco Arment's blog. "Following the interview, Arment took to his blog:
Apple doesn’t do this.
Apple executives rarely speak publicly outside of Apple events, especially for live interviews. One of the highest-ranking executives of the world’s highest-profile company being subjected to questions, unprepared and unedited, in front of a live audience full of recording devices, is rarely worth the PR risk: the potential downside is much larger than the likely upside. Do well, and a bunch of existing fans will like you a bit more; do poorly, and it’s front-page news worldwide.
Both Apple and Phil Schiller himself took a huge risk in doing this. That they agreed at all is a noteworthy gift to this community of long-time enthusiasts, many of whom have felt under-appreciated as the company has grown.
The truth of the matter when it comes to the recent executive tours is that these interviews were hardly a risk at all for Apple, particularly in the case that is most cited: Schiller's interview with Gruber. John Gruber is a known quantity to Apple. And while seemingly critical questions were asked, they were not pressed on. Brian S. Hall framed the event correctly: "An Apple employee talks to an Apple blogger at an Apple event."
Similarly, this WWDC, some Apple employees were given center stage in recorded session videos where only slides were displayed in the past. We got a glimpse into who is behind these gargantuan design and development projects and the deep thinking that goes into them. This recognition is surely a win for Apple employees, but what does it mean for the larger community?
The central question is whether the elevation of select employees combined with publicity tours by executives should be heralded as a positive change for the company overall. If anything, the Apple faithful should be concerned by the executive publicity tours. One can assume that in the past Apple refused to engage in regular publicity from a position of strength. If they presently feel a need to humanize themselves, to seem like "one of us," this implies a position of weakness–that they may be on shaky ground.
Regardless of the justification for Apple's attempt to display transparency, what would have been much more telling would be if more pressing questions were asked, like this one by Paul Haddad: "Apps are great, the future is apps, now how about making apps sustainable?" These fundamental questions remain unanswered and instead Apple has engaged in PR that is largely immaterial to the wider community.
It would be great news indeed if a change at Apple has occurred, and the significant complaints that developers (not so much designers) have been airing in recent years were being considered by Apple executives. It seems however to be quite premature to cite executive visibility on the interview circuit or employee recognition as evidence that this is the case.