Apple's quest for perfection and enduring beauty

Apple wants to you to believe in Apple, that it transcends the competition with design and engineering genius that you can feel even if you can't see it.

Dan Farber
5 min read
Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, shows off iOS 7 at WWDC 2013. James Martin/CNET

Product introductions are usually predictable, orchestrated events. Company executives in jeans stalk a football stadium-sized stage and let their products do the talking: "This is our great new product, here are the specs, and now we'll demo some of the features. It's better than anything else on the market, and it's available soon for this price in these configurations. It's really amazing."

Apple execs did their fair share of stalking the stage Monday with well-rehearsed, Steve Jobsian product intro panache, demoing alternately what they described as "incredible" and "stunning" products at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference. It was an impressive performance, with some elegant refining of OS X and iOS, as well as MacBook Airs with longer battery life and a reimagined Mac Pro. (You can read all the Apple WWDC 2013 news here.)

The upcoming iOS 7 now has the Jony Ive touch with a new palette of colors, redesigned icons, translucency and distinct functional layers. Apple

However, the beginning and end of the two-hour keynote, attended by more than 6,000 developers, employees, special guests and media, broke with tradition. Bookending the lovefest were two videos that seemed to bare Apple's tortured, transcendent soul, and perhaps covertly sent a message to the competitors and critics who claim that the company is losing its way and market share.

Just prior to Apple CEO Tim Cook taking the stage, a minimalist, black-and-white video with animating geometric patterns, music of the spheres and Zen koan-like phrases appeared on the immense screens at San Francisco's Moscone Center West auditorium with the following message:

If everyone is busy making everything...how can anyone perfect anything? We start to confuse convenience with joy, abundance with choice. Design requires something: focus. The first thing we ask is what do we want people to feel. Delight...surprise...love...connection. Then we begin to craft around that intention. It takes time. There are a thousand no's for every yes. We perfect. We start over, until everything we touch enhances every life it touches. Only then do we sign our work: Designed by Apple in California.

The first part of the video takes a shot at Samsung and other mobile device competitors, who Apple contends don't have design at their core, which is another way of saying their products are inferior. Nor do they have complete control of the hardware, software and ecosystem, as Apple does. During the keynote Cook pointed out several times how the iPhone didn't outsell the competition but cited research that it garnered far more Web usage and customer satisfaction awards, not to mention profit.

Tim Cook touted Apple's leading the J.D. Powers customer satisfaction survey for the last nine years. James Martin/CNET

It's also a blatant defense of Apple's lack of any significant new hardware in recent months. In fact, it's been more than eight months since Apple gave the world a new mobile phone, and more than seven months since the iPad Mini debuted. While Apple's engineers have been quietly toiling to achieve perfection in their secret workshops scattered around their Cupertino, Calif. campus, Samsung, HTC and others have been launching bunches of mobile devices that are getting good reviews.

Apple did roll out a pair of updated MacBook Airs and teased the sexy, cylindrical Mac Pro, which inspired marketing chief Phil Schiller to tell the crowd, "Can't innovate any more, my ass!" However, mass market, game-changing new phones, tablets, TVs, watches or glasses were not seen or teased.

Apple unveiled the all new, radically designed Mac Pro computer today at the World Wide Developer's Conference Monday in San Francisco. James Martin/CNET

The second part of the video goes more to Apple's drive for perfection, and to the point that being perfect can be tortuous to the soul and typically requires more time between iterations. "We have to focus on products, making the best products," Cook has said. "If we do that right and make great products that enrich peoples' live, then the other things will happen." In other words, be patient with us, the tortoise. Our mission is difficult and requires gargantuan effort and focus, but you will be rewarded.

For decades Apple has been a design-driven company -- it's part of the company DNA. Apple doesn't ask people what they want, but apparently asks themselves what they want people to feel. Is Apple attempting to intuit intent and determine what feeling users should experience when they encounter a calendar entry, notification, control panel or icon, or a hardware enclosure? Less obtusely, Apple is attempting to design products that generate feelings of delight, surprise, love and connection to predispose or even addict people to the brand. When asked what market research went into the iPad, Jobs famously said: "None. It's not the consumers' job to know what they want." His way of articulating Apple's values is a bit more straightforward than "the first thing we ask is what do we want people to feel."

The second video (see below), a TV ad set to air this week, was prefaced by Cook at the close of the keynote. "Words are more than just words to us," he said. "They are the values we live by...they drive us. You have seen them reflected in our products. We have created an ad to help us express just how deeply we feel about this."

It reiterates much of the first video -- Apple spends a lot of time on a few things and strives to make peoples' lives better through the product design...and talking about values and whether features should exist, like a larger screen on an iPhone:

This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product. How will it make someone feel? Will it make life better? Does it deserve to exist? We spend a lot of time on a few great things...until every idea we touch...enhances each life it touches. You may rarely look at it...but you'll always feel it. This is our signature...and it means everything.

But the second video also alludes to an element of magic, or sleight of hand, what Apple design chief Jony Ive refers to as "profound and enduring beauty." Each element of the design is part of a whole, a devine symmetry that brings order to complexity, which Apple believes users may not be consciously aware of but can innately "feel," creating an emotional bond with brand.

The quest for perfection and the devotion to creating objects of profound and enduring beauty seems to be working. Apple has sold 600 million iOS devices to date, and it tallies 1 million Apple Store visitors per day, 900 million apps in its store and 575 million online store accounts, most with credit card numbers attached. Mac sales have risen 100 percent over the past five years, versus just 18 percent for Windows PCs.

Who knows if it's divine symmetry at work, but as long as Apple can persist in creating an emotional connection with its customers, the tortoise wins enough to move on to the next race.