Life’s complex enough. I fear your next iPhone will make things worse
It was just before 10am, Pacific time, on Tuesday, and as the crowd gathered at the new Steve Jobs Theatre in California for the launch of Apple’s latest products-cum-miracles, they were serenaded with the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love. It had been chosen, presumably, as a signifier of the boomer supremacism still built into Apple’s culture, the company’s boundless ambition – John Lennon’s first line, let’s not forget, is “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done” – and its senior management’s apparent belief that making billions of dollars is a serendipitous byproduct of the company’s mixture of philanthropy and art.
God knows, capitalists have always been at pains to assure us that they are in the business of selflessly helping the rest of us, rather than turning a profit. But the giants of Silicon Valley are in a league of their own, as Apple competes with Facebook for pole position, and anyone with any sense boggles at their hubris. Apple Stores, said Angela Ahrendts (the company’s senior vicepresident of retail), are now nothing less than “town squares”. At one point it was implied that the Apple Watch’s cutting-edge biometrics were going to save humanity from heart attacks and strokes.
At the event’s end Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, quoted the omnipresent Jobs: “One of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there.”
In the build-up to the launch, another Jobs quote had been rattling round my head – uttered in 1998, and long held up as another embodiment of what Apple is all about. “Simple can be harder than complex,” he said. “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” The previous year – when he had returned to Apple, and cut down its number of products by 70% – he had made the same point in slightly more Confucian terms: “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”
Is this something the people at Apple still grasp as soundly as their immortal guru did? I wonder. As well as the Apple Watch 3, this week’s launch was all about the iPhone X (pronounced “ten”), the iPhone 8 and the iPhone 8 Plus – which apparently render obsolete such recent triumphs as the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus (2016), the iPhone SE (ditto), the iPhone 6S (2015), and the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus (2014).
In addition to innovations such as face-recognition security – which failed its first public demonstration, but is presumably ready to go – and wireless charging, Apple also announced the arrival of Animojis: “custom-animated messages that use your voice and reflect your facial expressions”. If you find the process of manually selecting emojis hopelessly taxing, and have long craved pandas, frogs and little yellow people that sound eerily like you and your friends, you may now rejoice.
Despite their price tags – the iPhone X goes for $999, or a very post-Brexitish £999 – the new phones will doubtless fly out of all those “town squares”. So, for all their air of Gareth-from-The-Office silliness, might the watches. But I have a good idea where many of the associated software innovations will go: into that great soup of indifference and annoyance that now defines too much of the Apple user experience.
Just to make this clear, I have been a loyal Apple customer and borderline junkie since the mid-1990s, and I well know that the only realistic alternative is Windows, and a world in which even copying a file from a memory stick can be an ordeal. But how come each incarnation of iTunes seems more maddening than the last? If I cannot understand how Keychain works (it apparently keeps “your Safari website usernames and passwords, credit card information, and wifi network information up to date across all of your approved devices that are using iOS 7.0.3 or later …”), is that important? Does anyone actually use 3D Touch, a bamboozling innovation that allows you to “immediately access functionality” in some apps without going to the mind-sapping trouble of actually opening them?
The Apple promise is that if you run your life on their devices and platforms everything will be gracefully integrated, but the fragile tangle of threads you end up weaving can easily unravel. A cautionary tale. Last Monday, as the big gorillas and worker ants at Apple’s HQ in Cupertino prepared for their big day, I was staying the night in a Premier Inn on a ring road in Hatfield (aspiring journalists take note: Silicon Valley might pay, but this is still a dependably glamorous job). At around 9pm, my iPhone 6 parped with a software-update prompt. Out of habit, I pressed “Later”, and thought nothing of it, and eventually left the phone to charge. Then, at 11pm, I noticed that underneath the Apple logo was the progress bar that denotes something serious has been loaded in: in this case, seemingly to bring me up to date just before everything changed once more, iOs 10, the operating system first introduced last September.
Then, cold fear: the phone blinked again, and showed only the icon of a charger cable, and the suggestion that I plugged it into iTunes. As with many victims of the new system (and despite Apple’s claim to have long since fixed the problem), my phone had been “bricked”: rendered unusable, pending its connection with a computer I didn’t have with me. When I got home, for reasons that may or may not have been connected to the aborted update, my iTunes library had disappeared. I then discovered that I had not backed up my phone since spring last year, and had therefore lost no end of text messages, contacts and apps.
When I tried to raise my spirits by watching two episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm on Apple TV – see, I really am an Apple addict – my rebooted phone kept receiving verification codes I suddenly needed to input, but none of them worked. The alerts said: “Your Apple ID is being used to sign in to a device near Trowbridge, Wiltshire.” That was right; that’s where I live. For a while, I mutated into Larry David in full tantrum. Then I switched the TV unit off and on again, and everything suddenly worked.
Since then, I have been wondering whether all those little black rectangles – with their alerts, updates, atrocious battery life and absurd centrality to everyday life – might be more trouble than they’re worth. Given that the fundamental challenges of mobile telephony, email, good-quality photographs and GPS navigation have been solved, are the developers and engineers now in the realm of innovation for innovation’s sake, even as they claim that their latest leaps might take us all to new heights of enlightenment and “functionality”? We know what it’s all about, surely: the eternal tendency of a certain kind of clever person to sell the rest of us things we don’t really need, and the way today’s great leap forward can easily become tomorrow’s yawn.
In that sense, the hype of Tuesday’s launch put me in mind not of the hippy dreams conjured by the Beatles, but the Smiths, and a line from their anti-consumerist anthem Shoplifters of the World Unite, which might resonate with an increasingly large army of Apple users: “I was bored before I even began.”
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist
Today’s great leap forward can easily become tomorrow’s yawn
Tim Cook, the Apple chief executive, on stage at the Steve Jobs Theatre to introduce the ‘latest products-cum-miracles’.