The launch of the iPad yesterday put an exclamation mark on an increasingly obvious point: Apple is the company that has captured the cultural zeitgeist. The massive hype leading up to the event--apparently achieved in a groundswell with very little effort on Apple's part--shows that it really is the "It" company right now.
Not so long ago, Google claimed that position. The amount of press ink (literal or virtual) that Google has been able to create every single day for the last decade is just astonishing--it is not uncommon to see two or three articles on the same day about some aspect of Google's business, whether it be a new product or another story about the Googleplex's free food. No other organization, save perhaps Obama's election campaign, can claim such a blanket of coverage on such a consistent basis.
But the honeymoon is over, and we are in the midst of a mild backlash against Google, and at the same time Apple's cultural and financial stock has been climbing. No one sees them as just a maker of overpriced niche products for designery types anymore. It is truly a mainstream mass-culture company that, while focused mostly on consumer electronics, touches so many other areas of our lives simply because the boundaries among computers, electronics, media, communications, and social life have all blurred so thoroughly.
Looking back over the decades, we can see a string of companies that have managed to go beyond being just successful business enterprises and have captured something special in the culture. GM perhaps epitomized this in the 1950s and '60s, summed up by the well-known phrase "What's good for General Motors is good for the country". GM helped shape the aesthetic and cultural agenda in a way that reached far beyond the automotive realm.
IBM arguably held this position in the 1970s, and Microsoft in the late '80s and early '90s, to be superseded by Google at the turn of the millennium. But none of the tech companies besides Apple have quite been able to win hearts in the same way GM did.
But one thing that all these companies have in common is strong leaders who are not just good business thinkers but are also active in the weeds of product development. Think of Harley Earl at GM, Thomas Watson Jr. at IBM, Bill Gates at Microsoft, Sergey/Larry/Eric at Google, and of course, Steve Jobs at Apple. These men all recognized that there is a clear connection between a company's strategies and the details of the products they bring to market. Ignoring the latter is a good way to scuttle the former.
The iPad is but the latest result of the hand of Steve (with help from a huge team of people, of course). The apparent ease with which hype appeared around it is in fact no accident: Apple has invested enormous amounts of work over the years to build a reputation around its products and brand, and that investment is now paying off in spades. Jobs himself is well tapped into the cultural zeitgeist, he transfers that to Apple's products and strategies, and in turn the company comes to reflect and even steer the zeitgeist.
It's not magic, but it is hard to do. Very hard. If history is any indication, there is room for only one such company at a time to hold this pre-eminent position, and its time in the sun is temporary. Apple's winning streak will come to an end, but in the meantime it deserves all the credit it gets.