Ap­ple Park: Steve Jobs’ last great prod­uct

Ap­ple’s new Cu­per­tino cam­pus is a re­flec­tion of the com­pany’s co-founder, ar­gues Jason Snell

Macworld - - Contents -

One of the words I use a lot when re­view­ing Ap­ple prod­ucts is opin­ion­ated. I firmly be­lieve that great art or de­sign can’t hap­pen with­out a point of view – and the more you de­part from a fo­cused point of view, the more likely a cre­ation will be com­pro­mised, work­man­like... good, maybe, but not great.

When it’s at its best, Ap­ple strives for great­ness. It doesn’t al­ways get there – and ev­ery now and then you get the sense it’s not ac­tu­ally try­ing to get there – but when things are hit­ting on all cylin­ders, Ap­ple re­leases prod­ucts that are backed by a strong point of view about what will de­light and serve its cus­tomers.

The Mac­Book, for ex­am­ple, is a prod­uct based on a fo­cused vi­sion: That a sin­gle port and a slower class of pro­ces­sor are wor­thy trade-offs for an in­cred­i­bly thin and light com­puter with a Retina dis­play. You don’t have to agree with Ap­ple’s take – in the case of the Mac­Book, the com­pany’s prac­ti­cally dar­ing you to dis­agree – but you can’t deny that it’s an amaz­ing ex­e­cu­tion of a par­tic­u­lar set of pri­or­i­ties.

I’ve been think­ing about Ap­ple’s ap­proach to prod­ucts re­cently be­cause I read Steven Levy’s ex­cel­lent in­side look at the new Ap­ple Park cam­pus for

Wired. It’s worth a read – I highly rec­om­mend it, if you haven’t dug in yet. Levy’s been cov­er­ing Ap­ple longer than just about any­one, and in great de­tail. In his story about Ap­ple Park, he sug­gests that the fa­cil­ity it­self is an Ap­ple prod­uct – in fact, the last prod­uct to truly be con­ceived of by Steve Jobs. Here’s a key sec­tion:

Ap­ple Park is the ar­chi­tec­tural avatar of them an who en­vi­sioned it, the same man who pushed em­ploy­ees to pro­duce those sig­na­ture prod­ucts. In the ab­sence of hi sri go rand clar­ity, he left be­hind a head­quar­ters that em bod­ies both his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and his val­ues. The phrase that keeps com­ing up in talks with key Ap­ple fig­ures is‘ Steve’ s gift ’.... The cur­rent lead­ers of Ap­ple are de­ter­mined not to dis­ap­point him in what is ar­guably his big­gest, and is cer­tainly his last, prod­uct launch .“I re­vere him ,” Cook says .“And this was clearly his vi­sion, his con­cept. Our big­gest pro­ject ever .” As de­tailed by Levy, Ap­ple Park is an Ap­ple prod­uct through and through. The com­pany took great care to

make de­sign de­ci­sions, and cre­ate cus­tom hard­ware, at many key points – from the mas­sive glass sheets that re­quired the build­ing of a gi­gan­tic fur­nace, to the toi­lets, to the han­dles on the doors, to the pizza boxes in the cafe­te­ria. It’s a one-off prod­uct de­signed by Ap­ple for it­self, yes, but it seems to have re­ceived the same at­ten­tion to de­tail as any other ma­jor prod­uct launch.

(In fact, read­ing Levy’s story, I won­dered to my­self if some of Ap­ple’s prod­uct slug­gish­ness over the last cou­ple of years might be some­how re­lated to the de­sign en­ergy go­ing into the new cam­pus. Prob­a­bly not, but you never know. I’m more con­cerned about the hit in pro­duc­tiv­ity the com­pany may ex­pe­ri­ence when it has to move so many of its em­ploy­ees to new workspaces and al­low them some time to adapt to their sur­round­ings.)

In the end, Ap­ple’s choices about the ma­te­ri­als used in con­struc­tion and the hard­ware adorn­ing Ap­ple Park aren’t that im­por­tant (un­less you work there). What does fas­ci­nate me is one bit of crit­i­cism lev­elled at the plan, which says a lot about Steve Jobs’s vi­sion for Ap­ple and how it con­flicts with the ap­proaches many other tech com­pa­nies are mak­ing: [There are cri­tiques] that the cam­pus is a snobby iso­lated pre­serve, at odds with the trendy ur­ban i st school of cor­po­rate head­quar­ters .( Ama­zon, Twit­ter, and Airbn bare all part of a move­ment that hopes to in­te­grate tech em­ploy­ees into cities as op­posed to hav­ing them com­mute via fuel-gob­bling cars or numb­ing W i-Fi-equipped buses .) That the lay­out of

the Ring is too rigid ... That there is no child­care cen­tre. “It’ s an ob­so­lete model that doesn’ t ad­dress the work con­di­tions of the fu­ture ,” says Louis eM oz in go, an ur­ban de­sign pro­fes­sor a tU C Berke­ley.

Steve Jobs’s vi­sion for Ap­ple’s head­quar­ters was to stay close to home, in the low-den­sity sub­urbs that form Sil­i­con Val­ley, rather than em­brace a more high­den­sity, ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment. Ap­ple’s never been a city com­pany, from its very start in that sub­ur­ban garage. Us­ing that as a given – Ap­ple’s a com­pany that isn’t go­ing to stray too far from its sub­ur­ban roots – Jobs en­vi­sioned a hub of ac­tiv­ity sur­rounded by a tran­quil park of hills and trees that are rem­i­nis­cent of the area when it was mostly fruit trees and fields, be­fore it be­came a ma­jor hub of Amer­i­can in­no­va­tion.

Ap­ple’s de­ci­sion to make Ap­ple Park a ring will be a con­ve­nient metaphor for those who wish to crit­i­cize the com­pany for be­ing se­cre­tive, in­su­lar, and ar­ro­gant – Levy quotes one critic who calls it a “ret­ro­grade co­coon.” There will be more, and worse, when the cam­pus opens and in the years there­after.

Take those crit­i­cisms as you will, but any­one who’s vis­ited Ap­ple’s In­fi­nite Loop cam­pus – con­structed in 1992-93 – will tell you that Ap­ple’s been build­ings set in a ring with a large pri­vate space in the cen­tre for 25 years. Build­ing oases in the mid­dle of South Bay sub­urbs – this is in Ap­ple’s DNA.

Some­times you need to be true to your­self. I think it’s fair for Levy to note that Ap­ple is not do­ing what some other ma­jor tech com­pa­nies are do­ing, and in­te­grat­ing their cam­puses into ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments. I was in Seat­tle ear­lier this month and got to go past Ama­zon’s bio­sphere, where many large of­fice build­ings de­voted to Ama­zon are in­te­grated with a weird set of domes and a bustling ur­ban area with shops and restau­rants. Twit­ter moved onto Mar­ket Street in San Fran­cisco, and start-ups have thrived in San Fran­cisco’s South of Mar­ket area for years.

There’s a lot to be said for em­brac­ing ur­ban ar­eas, rather than hid­ing in the sub­urbs. From a com­mut­ing per­spec­tive, the sub­ur­ban of­fice park is ter­ri­ble. Ap­ple’s cam­puses, old and new, are poorly served by public tran­sit, lead­ing the com­pany to cre­ate a par­al­lel tran­sit sys­tem of fancy Wi-Fi equipped buses. City cen­tres are, in con­trast, gen­er­ally served well by re­gional trans­porta­tion sys­tems. A friend of mine re­cently got a job at Google and was won­der­ing which would be

bet­ter for her com­mute-wise – the hor­ror sto­ries of how ex­pen­sive it is to live in San Fran­cisco (Google has an of­fice build­ing just north of the Bay Bridge) made her as­sume that the sub­ur­ban Moun­tain View cam­pus would be prefer­able. I had to ex­plain that San Fran­cisco was ac­tu­ally a bet­ter lo­ca­tion, be­cause it’s served by the re­gional BART train sys­tem as well as fer­ries from across the bay.

It’s hard to imag­ine Ap­ple col­o­niz­ing down­town San Fran­cisco, just as it’s hard to imag­ine Google build­ing its new cam­pus in high-rises in San Jose. I can’t imag­ine Mi­crosoft de­camp­ing from its sub­ur­ban cam­pus in Red­mond, ei­ther. Then again, Adobe – who pre­vi­ously oc­cu­pied what is now the cen­tre of the Google­plex – did de­camp to new high-rise build­ings in San Jose.

In the long run, I think it’s a mis­take for big com­pa­nies to build sprawl­ing sub­ur­ban head­quar­ters in ar­eas poorly served by public trans­porta­tion. I ap­plaud Twit­ter and Ama­zon’s em­brac­ing of the ur­ban cen­tre. (And Google’s de­ci­sion to in­clude child­care cen­tres in its fa­cil­i­ties plans, un­like Ap­ple and Mi­crosoft.)

But I un­der­stand why build­ing out­side of the sub­urbs was never re­ally a se­ri­ous op­tion for Ap­ple – or its Seat­tle cousin Mi­crosoft. Like their co-founders Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, they’re sub­ur­ban kids who never seem to have re­ally got­ten a taste for the big city.

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