Apple sells fear disguised as innovation | So Good News


  • Apple’s innovation hasn’t just slowed down, it’s peaked. Fun is news.
  • Instead of aspirational products that inspire creativity, Apple is marketing horror.
  • “If you want to live, buy our stuff.”

At Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in 2013, Phil Schiller, Apple’s vice president of marketing at the time, proudly unveiled the new Mac Pro. After glorifying his features, he smiled and said: “No more innovations, my foal.”

That MacPro landed with a slight thud. Apple has used its time-tested “we know what you want before we know it” design philosophy. But users weren’t impressed with it and called it “trash bin” because of its unfortunate resemblance to a trash can.

Called Apple's 2013 Mac Pro "trash can."

Apple’s 2013 version of the Mac Pro was called “trash”.


Nine years ago, about two years after Steve Jobs’ death, Apple really didn’t know what users wanted. Innovation has slowed. Product introductions in 2013 and 2014 included larger phones, AMOLED displays, and smartwatches — long-standing entries in rival product lines that Apple had previously abandoned.

How about Apple Watch or AirPods? Both are good, high-margin apps for selling to iPhone users, like ordering fries for a burger and a large drink.

Fast forward to September 2022: After watching Apple’s latest product launch event, I believe Apple’s innovation hasn’t just slowed down, at least until now.

Fun is news.

Apple showed off a slate of products with minor changes — checklist items disguised as features. The iPhone 14 isn’t much different from the iPhone 13 or iPhone 12. Even with the new “photonic engine”, the phone takes photos that few users can distinguish from photos taken by older devices.

Under the leadership of Tim Cook, Apple released many boring products, but sold tens of millions of them. This has led to a multi-trillion dollar valuation of the company, which is appreciated by shareholders, but is disappointing to users who keep waiting for that “something more,” as Jobs used to say when introducing a new product. These were the products that drove Apple customers to stay up all night before retail conversations to be the first to buy them.

Under Jobs, Apple really knew what users wanted before they did. Apple sold aspiration as something empowering. I was sitting in the audience when Jobs introduced GarageBand and John Mayer said he used it. As Mayer was performing, I thought, “The only thing between him and me is a copy of GarageBand.” No user asked for an iPod or iPhone, but Apple knew they needed them, or at least wanted them.

John Mayer and Steve Jobs on stage introducing GarageBand in 2004.

John Mayer and Steve Jobs on stage introducing GarageBand in 2004.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

These days, Apple often thinks its users need things they don’t need and don’t need. Apple, for example, thought users wanted thinner devices – unlike Heinz convincing the market that “thicker” is better when it comes to ketchup. But users despised Apple’s slimming features, such as the butterfly keyboard.

Lately, Apple has been selling more fear than innovation.

iPhones now have the ability to connect to satellites to call for help when stranded on a dark, snow-covered mountain during a storm. They offer collision detection and call 911 in the event of a car accident.

Apple Watch? It’s not just for fitness; its features can save your life. I know this from the breathless recreations of Apple’s emails about how the ECG and AFib detection features have saved their lives, as shown at Apple’s latest product launch, but the watch’s warnings clearly state that people with AFib should not use it.

Are you afraid of your elderly parents? Get them an Apple Watch and let them know if they fall. Traveling alone in the desert? The new Apple Watch Ultra lets out a piercing screech to help rescuers find you if you can’t follow the digital breadcrumbs you set to get back to civilization.

“If you want to live, buy our stuff.” Apple now sells the devices like First Alert smoke detectors.

Apple ad for iPhone 14 hack detection.

From an Apple ad for the iPhone 14 crash detection system.


In fact, how often do most users capture an EKG on their watch or get stuck in a place where they don’t have a cell phone but emergency responders are there? For that matter, how many use the Apple Watch Ultra for scuba diving? It’s not about inspiring new tools to let people create, but rather a list of features that most users will never need. They tend to buy expensive Breitling Emergency watches in case their plane crashes.

Most reviewers don’t take these features seriously enough to crash to test crash detection or wander the desert to seek help from a satellite. Dear Reviewers: Come on, who needs another camera review right now?

My favorite article about the new Apple Watch came from a Verge columnist who wrote about the best feature of the new watch: the $90 stretch band. I still can’t tell if this is satirical or a compliment.

I’m sure none of this will hurt Apple’s sales, and as a shareholder, I’m grateful for that. However, I wonder if the incredibly cool “something else” is now an eternal thing of the past.

Michael Gartenberg is Apple’s former senior director of marketing and has covered the company for more than two decades at Gartner, Jupiter Research, and the Altimeter Group. You can reach him on Twitter @Gartenberg.

Opinions expressed are those of the author.

Disclosure: The author owns Apple stock.


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