Whither Liberal Arts?

This is part one in a series on last week’s iPad event. Part 1: Whither Liberal Arts? | Part 2: The Missing “Why” of the iPad | Part 3: The Magical iPad

Steve Jobs closed the January, 2010 introduction of the iPad with this now famous slide:

Steve Jobs and the intersection of technology and the liberal arts
Steve Jobs and the intersection of technology and the liberal arts

His remarks:

The reason that Apple is able to create products like the iPad is because we’ve always tried to be at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. To be able to get the best of both. To make extremely advanced products from a technology point of view, but also have them be intuitive easy-to-use, fun-to-use, so that they really fit the users. The users don’t have to come to them, they come to the user. And it’s the combination of these two things that I think has let us make the kind of creative products like the iPad.

He repeated the slide the following year, at the iPad 2 launch:

So, I’ve said this before, but I thought it was worth repeating. It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing. And, no where is that more true than in these post-PC devices. And a lot of folks in this tablet market are rushing in and they’re looking at this as the next PC. The hardware and the software are done by different companies, and they’re talking about speeds and feeds just like they did with PCs. And our experience and every bone in our body says that that is not the right approach to this. That these are post PC devices that need to be even easier to use than a PC. They need to be even more intuitive than a PC. And where the software and hardware and the applications need to intertwine in an even more seamless way than they do on a PC. And we think we’re on the right track with this. We think we have the right architecture not just in silicon but in the organization to build these kinds of products. And so I think we stand a pretty good chance at being pretty competitive in this market, and I hope that what you’ve seen today gives you a pretty good feel for that.

This year’s iPad launch also featured a repeat performance, this time of the abstract “values” video that opened WWDC:

The effect could not have been more different.

Jobs second speech – like the second iPad, and like the entire presentation that preceded it – was fuller, more filled out. Apple had launched the iPad in 2010 not quite sure of its place in the universe, but a year later, the vision was clear: it was not that the iPad needed to be better at jobs done by a laptop or smartphone, as Jobs promised in 2010; rather, the iPad was capable of previously unimagined applications that were truly life-changing. To put it another way, the iPad 1 launch featured Pages, a pale imitation of a PC word processor; the iPad 2 launch featured GarageBand, an application that was immensely better on the iPad by virtue of it not being a PC.

Yesterday’s opening, however, gave the opposite impression: of staleness, and ossification.1 Words and illustrations on a canvas, literally replayed, without life, without originality. Perhaps it’s because it was a video instead of the spoken word, but the rest of the presentation was in the same vein. In Jobs’ words, Cook and company were “talking about speeds and feeds just like they did with PCs,” with hardly even a mention of real people, and the very real impact the iPad had already had on so many, and could have on so many more.

After that WWDC keynote, I wrote a glowing endorsement of Tim Cook, titled, aptly enough, Tim Cook is a Great CEO. I spent an extended amount of time on Scott Forstall:

Forstall is, more than anyone on the planet – including Jobs – responsible for the iPhone (for this reason alone I found the potshots taken at Forstall, particularly by Craig Federighi, to be in poor taste). He is an incredible engineer – legend has it he could write, or rewrite, nearly any part of the iOS source code on command, and would routinely do so to win disputes in managerial meetings – and a NEXT man, and the closest thing to a Steve Jobs 2.0.

Yet Cook fired him anyway.

Apple didn’t need another Steve Jobs. The price of individual brilliance is collective friction, and only a founder has the cultural capital to make the elevation of the individual possible. After all, he/she created the culture to begin with!

It’s not unlike a revolutionary movement: typically there is the transcendent leader, surrounded by the true believers. Eventually the leader departs, but the revolutions that endure have an ideology that continues to unite. To be sure, over time said ideology ossifies into rules enforced by a bureaucracy, until a new revolution uproots the old one, but this can take many years, even decades.

Most revolutions, though, don’t make it that far. Usually, when the leader departs, his closest lieutenants scheme and fight for the throne, and the entire movement implodes. This was always my fear for Apple: Steve Jobs was the glue that united a strong, stubborn, and talented company that continually operated under high pressure. What would happen when the glue was gone?

Tim Cook has answered that question: the glue is Apple, and the ideology is design. It is a shared belief system that “No” is more important than “Yes,” that focus is essential to making great products, and that no one individual is essential. Not Steve Jobs, and certainly not Scott Forstall.

Today, my certainty in this declaration is wavering. What is design? How fast does ossification arrive? Why is it that Jony Ive is the sole arbiter? And what about Forstall?

I went back and watched the iPad 1 introductory video, and the relative roles of Ive and Forstall were jarring:

Ive opened and closed the 7 minute and 48 second video, but his total time on screen was only 70 seconds – 15%.

Forstall, on the other hand, featured for a straight 3 minutes and 45 seconds – just about half.

Ive himself all but explained why:

The face of the product is pretty much defined by a single piece of multi-touch glass. And that’s it. There’s no pointing device. There’s isn’t even a single orientation. There’s no up, there’s no down. There’s no right way of holding it. I don’t have to change myself to change the product. It fits me.

Indeed, the first iPad – and all of the iPads that followed – are marvelously designed and manufactured, but the magic is absolutely in the glass, in the software. And that was all Forstall. His opening lines:

We looked at the device and we decided, “Let’s redesign it all. Let’s redesign, reimagine, and rebuild every single app from the ground up specifically for the iPad.” And with this large a display we built apps that aren’t just a little bit better than their smaller counterparts. You get apps that are an order of magnitude more powerful.

Forstall’s enthusiasm and excitement are absolutely tangible, and, quite frankly, in marked contrast to Ive. And so it goes. Meaning and value always rise up through the stack, and as hardware increasingly melts away, it’s software that differentiates, that requires the utmost in care, and the ethos of the liberal arts.

And yet, today it’s Ive who manages that, and iOS 7 is certainly Iveian: it looks beautiful, it demos well, and it absolutely compromises a certain level of intuitiveness and consideration in the pursuit of beauty.

I like iOS 7, particularly its palette, but it is less usable. Almost daily I find myself momentarily stumped about how to proceed or backtrack, and the sparseness of many layouts makes options less obvious. The motion is a neat effect, until the 100th time you see it, or unless it makes you sick. It is more beautiful, but it is less intuitive. In short, it bears the mark of not just the maker of the iMac, but also the maker of the iMac’s mouse.

Beautiful, but usable?
Beautiful, but usable?

It’s telling that Jobs did not say that Apple was at the intersection of technology and design. While any designer will tell you that design is about how it works, not looks, to pretend there isn’t a tension is naive. The liberal arts, though, and the humanities, are literally about people. They are about how they learn and experience the world, and each other. The magic of the first iPad – as noted by Ive in that video – was that people already knew how to use it. And the magic of the iPad today is that people are using it in ways no one could have imagined.

The absolute highlight of the presentation was this video that captured exactly that:

Yet note Cook’s comments at the end:

It’s really an amazing video and each of those scenes has an amazing story behind it. We want to help out customers create even more amazing stories because we know that this is just the beginning for iPad. And so we’ve been busy working on the next generation of iPad.

And thus proceeded the speeds and feeds, and none of the actual stories. How has the iPad changed lives? Why does it exist? Where are the apps that makes these applications possible?

This, then, is my concern: Apple is in great shape, and executing wonderfully. Both new iPads look fantastic, and I want both of them. But I’m already a convert! There are many more customers who don’t yet know that the “computer for the rest of us” exists, and Apple itself doesn’t seem to know how to tell that story.2 Look at the ad previewed in the keynote:

There are no stories, and there are no humans. It’s clever yet abstract, remarking upon what has happened, without a vision for what is now possible. That’s the thing about stories: the best storytellers – like Jobs – are so compelling because they have vision. They see what we don’t see, and they can’t be more excited to tell us about just that.

Does Apple still have vision? Yesterday’s presentation did not, and I wonder just how costly last year’s departure might have been.

  1. To be clear, I loved the video the first time! But that was enough 

  2. This is direct contrast to the iPhone event. I was incredibly impressed by the story Apple told about increasing value, not lowering price