When Steve Jobs launched the original iPhone, he described the new multi-touch feature as a revolutionary user interface (UI). He said it worked like magic, which it did compared to every other phone at the time. I’ve always thought of Jobs’ UI design as following a simple rule: create products that work for the user, don’t make the user work for the product.
Apple’s unveiling of the Watch 3 and iPhone X this week were notable advances toward that goal.
The moment that became clear for me was when Apple introduced the new Watch 3. In the demo, Apple’s Deidre Caldbeck talked on a phone call through her Apple Watch while paddling a standup paddle board. The audio was excellent. She didn’t need to speak differently, the Watch just heard her. The watch captured her audio seamlessly and evenly without her holding her wrist near her face. The watch was working for her, not the other way around. (You can see that demo around 32 minutes into the keynote video, or 15:30 in the keynote video excerpt below.)
I worked on software applications at Apple in the early 2000s, including some now-iconic products like Final Cut Pro, GarageBand, iPhoto, iTunes, and Keynote. Every Tuesday afternoon, we would demo products in development for Jobs to get his feedback. He challenged us to make the products better—to do more but mostly to make them easier to use. He wanted simple interfaces so customers didn’t need to learn how to use the product. The ultimate was when the product just worked—like magic.
The Watch’s independence is becoming the star of this experience. Over the past 30 years, computers have moved from server rooms to our desktops to our laptops to our pockets. Now they are moving to our bodies to be a part of our daily lives—all day, every day. True to Apple’s design principles, the Watch is there to work for you—to allow you to communicate and help you be healthy. With the possibility of its own cellular connection now, it lets you leave your phone behind along with the ever-invasive emails, social media, and internet noise, while allowing you to still get phone calls and urgent messages. Again, the product is there to work for you, as you choose, when you choose.
Key to achieve this is Apple’s extension of Jobs’ UI revolution of touch—starting with the touchscreen on the iPhone—to three more human experiences. The first, speaking, started a few years ago with Siri, which not only hears you but understands you (some). The primary problem with Siri is that it doesn’t hear you well enough because of the limitations of the iPhone microphone. AirPods have improved Siri’s listening and the upcoming HomePod promises better Siri listening too thanks to its six microphones. The Watch demo showed the importance of voice as well.
The second human experience, seeing, is the star of the iPhone X. The new front-side camera complex sees you. It knows you’re you with just a glance and unlocks the phone for you. You just look at the camera and it does the work. Your phone can also send a happy to sad emoji based on whether you’re smiling or frowning at it. You don’t have to choose the smiley face— you just smile and the phone takes care of the rest.
The third human experience, moving, is now featured throughout the product line. For nearly 20 years, Apple has been eliminating tethers. The iMac reduced the number of required cords. Subsequent Macs and iPods pushed wireless connectivity. The iPhone introduced true internet communications over cellular. AirPods are removing wires from our ears. And now the iPhone X has dropped wired charging and the Watch 3 has even separated itself from iPhone dependency. Everything moves with you. You don’t have to carry a bag of cords like your phone’s butler anymore. Your devices take care of all the communications and connections for you.
Perhaps these UI changes don’t feel like revolutions because they’ve been coming out in bits and pieces. Apple hasn’t released everything with a big, Jobs-style show that recruits you to his revolution. The new Apple is more directed by CEO Tim Cook’s pragmatism, and that means the big changes come out when they’re ready. Where Jobs maximized marketing value, Cook maximizes sales and operations value. The fact that the product launches are different doesn’t diminish the products launched.
Apple critics say that Apple isn’t innovative anymore. They say it’s behind because competitors have beat it to launching new products or features. They seem to forget that the Mac, the iPod, and the iPhone weren’t the first of their kinds. Those products were the best though because Apple knew the right customer experience and waited until the technology could provide. The new product suite continues that tradition. In many ways, Apple is the same company it always was: a company that builds the best products; a company that understands that design is not just how a product looks but how a product works; and a company that is about more than just building boxes, it’s about making experiences for people who want to change the world.
Apple investors would be wise to consider that the company’s UI revolution—its pursuit of the magical user experience—is the primary driver behind the 150x stock appreciation over the past 15 years. In 2007, Apple’s leading wireless customers spent $500 on an iPhone. Now, Apple’s leading wireless customers will spend $1,800 on the wireless suite (iPhone X, Watch 3, and accessories), plus at least $250/year on entertainment and cloud services. Note, that suite cost is up around $500 from the last version alone. Those are remarkable increases in revenue per customer.
Apple’s product launches may not have the same revolutionary excitement but, to me, the magic is still there. The technologies underpinning the new iPhone and Watch create a new platform for more magic as products to hear, see, and know you better than any others. That will continue to draw customers closer, deepening their connection and increasing their spend for quite some time.