Given the many little flubs in this exclusive interview of Jonathan Ive for Time Magazine (originally published in The Sunday Times Magazine), I figured an over-the-top headline for this post was warranted.
Let me set up a couple guideposts. First, getting an exclusive interview with Apple’s Vice President of Design Jonathan Ive, especially one that doesn’t tie to the release of a specific product, is currently a unicorn-sighting event in technology journalism. The man just doesn’t do interviews. Maybe the writer, John Arlidge, was blinded by the opportunity? (Which wouldn’t be the first time a journalist froze in the spotlight of celebrity. I don’t know Arlidge and haven’t looked up other pieces by him, so this could be an anomaly.)
Second, if you’ve covered Apple in any depth at all, I would think there are better ways to describe the company without resorting to overused clichés. Maybe Arlidge is young, maybe his editors wanted to put a spin on the article…whatever the case, this is the type of article that makes me wonder why the magazine didn’t send someone who really knew the subject matter.
I’m not writing this with a “why didn’t I get to do this article” axe to grind. I’ve worked with Apple for years and have some wonderful media contacts there, but Apple publicity is a very specific machine. Apple chooses who it wants to feed information to, and has been known to blacklist writers and outlets for years.
No, I’m annoyed at several specific fumbles, mostly in wording, that expose this interview as ill-informed puff.
It all starts to slide sideways in the second paragraph (emphasis mine):
The gods — or was it the ghost of Steve Jobs? — seemed against it. Jobs didn’t like Apple execs doing interviews. It had not rained properly in California for months but that morning the clouds rolled off the pacific, turning the Golden Gate Bridge black. Interstate 280 South to Silicon Valley was a river of water, instead of the usual lava streaks of stop-start SUVs.
My hackles went up immediately at the first deity reference, which is used by many lesser writers to describe Apple and its “cult-like worship” by customers, who are usually painted as a fanatical minority but are, in fact, hundreds of millions of regular people worldwide. However, Arlidge pulls this one off by using deities only in their common role of providing goal-thwarting weather. But then he has to resurrect the “ghost of Steve Jobs” meme, fortunately ascribing only cosmic power instead of beyond-the-grave business advice to Apple’s late founder. I do like the “lava streaks of stop-start SUVs” as a nice turn of phrase, though.
But just after 10AM, an Apple tech-head appeared in an all-white meeting room on the first floor of building 4 of the firm’s antiseptic headquarters with strict instructions to find an Earl Grey tea bag.
And then it starts to go to shit. An Apple employee, whose job is to clearly prepare the room for an interview and make tea for Ive, is not an “assistant” or even “employee,” but a “tech-head.” Because when you don’t seem to know much about the technology industry, you assume that all of Apple’s tens of thousands of employees are bespectacled geeks.
The next several paragraphs are solid, because Ive gets to talk about his passion for design and making things. And honestly, I love this paragraph because it conveys how much he enjoys what he’s doing:
“Steve and I spent months and months working on a part of a product that, often, nobody would ever see, nor realize was there,” Ive grins. Apple is notorious for making the insides of its machines look as good as the outside. “It didn’t make any difference functionally. We did it because we cared, because when you realize how well you can make something, falling short, whether seen or not, feels like failure.”
As we get deeper in, we see that Arlidge doesn’t actually know much about Apple’s history.
Back then, Apple’s products were dull. Remember the Newton? Thought not. Design didn’t matter much.
You mean the tablet that was going to revolutionize computing? It may have been a business failure, but it wasn’t a design failure. Arlidge commits the writing sin of assuming that anything today’s readers don’t immediately remember must have been a forgotten failure.
After several more paragraphs I started to regain hope, including a funny anecdote about Ive never unpacking when traveling with Steve Jobs because inevitably Jobs would say, “Hey Jony, this hotel sucks. Let’s go.” But then the hack returns:
Perhaps. But critics complain about the built-in obsolescence of Apple products, its hermetically sealed operating systems, the need to buy new chargers for new products and the prices it charges. Oh, the prices! $20 for a plastic charger that probably costs less than $2 to make! Chargers and iOS are matters for Apple’s software fellas and the firm’s new boss, Tim Cook.
I don’t even need to emphasize sections here. Built-in obsolescence. A “hermetically sealed operating system,” which doesn’t make any sense. The old saw about changing connectors on its devices. (Maybe Arlidge works on a Windows 95 PC handed down from the editors at the Sunday Times Magazine in the UK, where he works, and just can’t figure out why anyone would switch from its PS/2 ports.) And charging $20 for a plastic charger that probably costs $2 to make! As Marco Tabini said on Twitter:
“$20 charger that cost $2 to make.” Not pictured here: the $14 you pay for the 10,000 charger iterations that never made it to production.
— Marco Tabini (@mtabini) March 17, 2014
I’m glad Ive tackles the obsolescence question:
What does the company do with [the old versions of devices it provides to Ive to use]? “We reuse stuff and then we’ll disassemble stuff and recycle stuff. I understand what’s behind the question, but I think it’s a fundamental — and good — part of the human condition to try to make things better. That’s the role we’re playing.”
And of course we can’t put on this show without… you know it’s coming… the iWatch.
Will Apple make an iWatch? “Obviously, there are rumors about us working on… and, obviously, I’m not going to talk about that. It’s a game of chess, isn’t it?” Sounds like the Jaeger-LeCoultre sports watch he’s wearing is not long for his wrist…
No, it sounds like he’s not going to answer Arlidge’s question, because Apple doesn’t talk about future products, and also Apple doesn’t talk about future products.
Yes, a journalist should always ask, because you never know when something might slip, when a source might be uncharacteristically open, or the gods from earlier chose to part the clouds and anoint you the bearer of lifestyle technology product news (Jobs be praised). But refusing to answer a question is usually not an answer to the question and an opportunity to speculate.
That’s the trouble with tech. It changes so quickly. Just when you think you have the best gadget, something newer, cooler, comes along — usually something made by Ive. Not that Apple’s hundreds of millions of fans care. The newer it is, the more they like it.
Arlidge only skirts calling Apple customers cultists. Yes, I’d say Apple customers are fans, because I’d like to think we pay for things we like. But no, those hundreds of millions of people grab at every shiny bauble Apple releases. The skirt quickly becomes a slide and in just three sentences we’re face-first in the mud (hopefully we were smart enough to protect the iPhones first).
Oh, but it turns out the mud is actually a pile of shit, because here’s the kicker hinted at the beginning—Arlidge just couldn’t help himself. In the same paragraph:
But should they? When Ive sees customers queueing overnight to buy the latest iPhone, does he worry that we have become too obsessed with the latest “this” or “that”, that we are genuflecting at the altar of technology? A phone is just a phone, not the second coming of Christ.
Score! Deity connection blatantly made! Check that off the list of hacky crap that must go into a mainstream article about Apple. Ive, to his immense credit, picks the reader up out of the muck:
“What people are responding to is much bigger than the object. They are responding to something rare — a group of people who do more than simply make something work, they make the very best products they possibly can. It’s a demonstration against thoughtlessness and carelessness,” he says.
Like this interview.
Let’s start to wrap up with some truly tortured, I-think-I’m-being-clever-to-all-the-ignorant-readers-out-there:
Beneath his studiously modest public demeanor lies a heart of solid steel — ok, aluminum. He’d have to have terabytes of confidence and resolve to win the battles that Jobs deliberately fostered between senior executives in a brutally Darwinian effort to get the best from each of them.
Terabytes of confidence! Psst, Arlidge: prices of terabytes of data are going down every day.
But we’re not done yet. Gotta throw in this bullshit, all of which is code for “I don’t actually follow Apple or the industry”:
Since Jobs died, Apple has hit a rough patch, at least by its ludicrously high standards. It has not had a break-out hit. There has been no Apple TV set to revolutionize home entertainment. No spiffy watch. (Yet.) The firm’s share price has slumped and it has lost its title of the world’s most valuable firm. Some speculate that, without Jobs, Apple has lost its golden touch. An acclaimed new book by the former Wall Street Journal technology writer Yukari Iwatani Kane dubs the company “the haunted empire.” Others say it has killed its own future: that by creating so many extraordinary products in such a short time, it has run out of things to invent.
I really do wish I knew why such high-profile, information-rich interview opportunities like this one are squandered by big magazines. I’m sure it will get lots of page views and maybe newsstand sales, but the editors at Time (and The Sunday Times Magazine, which originally ran the piece) should be embarrassed. I’m not optimistic on that front.
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