Apple Built a $1 Trillion Empire on Two Metaphors. One is Breaking

On August 2, 2018, Apple became the world’s first public company worth more than $1 trillion. If anything, that abstract figure understates the company’s reach. Apple makes the first thing that hundreds of millions of people look at when they wake up. The company’s supply chain can extract trace amounts of rare-earth minerals from a mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, embed them in one of the planet’s most advanced computers, and deliver the whole thing to the steppes of Mongolia. And yet Apple’s rise is nothing more or less than the story of three interfaces: the Macintosh OS, the iPod click wheel, and the iPhone touchscreen. Everything else has been fighting about how the pie would be divided up among competitors and copycats. [Image: courtesy of the author] In the user-friendly world, interfaces make empires: IBM, with its punch-card mainframes, was an empire until the 1970s. Then came the graphical user interface, which transformed both Apple and Microsoft from niche companies into mainstream Goliaths. (In April 2019, Microsoft became the third company in the world to reach a $1 trillion valuation, right behind Amazon.) Apple, of course, nearly died in the late 1990s; a major part of what saved the company in the years after Steve Jobs returned was the iPod’s click wheel, which cracked the problem of making it fun to browse incredibly long lists. Blackberry, with its telephone lashed to a keyboard, was another empire until the iPhone. Even Amazon grew from an interface idea: 1-click shopping. The value of the patent alone is staggering: Amazon made billions licensing it to Apple for the launch of the iTunes store. But its value to Amazon has been far greater. By eliminating all the check-out steps required to buy something online, 1-click gave Amazon a decisive edge against cart abandonment, which, according to some studies, averages 70 percent and remains one of the two or three biggest challenges to online retailers. 1-click made impulse buys on the web actually impulsive. The boost from 1-click shopping has been estimated to be as high as 5 percent of Amazon’s total sales—an astonishing figure, given that Amazon’s operations margin hovers below 2 percent. Moreover, it also incentivized Amazon’s customers to stay logged in to Amazon at all times—which then allowed Amazon to silently build up a user profile in its databases, which then allowed Amazon to become a platform for selling and recommending anything, not just books. Amazon’s 1-click would easily be the single most consequential button ever invented, but for the Facebook Like button. Apple’s two great innovations, the graphical user interface and the touchscreen, are cousins united by a deeper vein of metaphor. The Macintosh OS got its user-friendliness from the intuitive physics of its interactions, which sprang from trying to create interactions that were natural exactly because they were borrowed from our intuitions about the physical world. The bridge was the desktop metaphor. The touchscreen wasn’t so much a new metaphor as it was a better input device. First, the mouse cursor stood in for your hand, when the world was a screen. Then the mouse cursor disappeared, when the screen itself could sense your touch. The iPhone wasn’t a break from the Mac, so much as its fulfillment. It may seem strange to say that the iPhone inherited its logic from the desktop computer, especially if you didn’t grow up using a mouse. But it’s there: the way you tap an app to open it; how you can drag apps around the home screen; the idea of an app itself, able to deliver email or calendar…

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