By Dan Moren
June 7, 2021 6:32 AM PT
Can Apple change the narrative with WWDC?
With just hours to go before the company’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference kicks off, I find myself wondering if Apple—a company that has long maintained an unparalleled mastery of storytelling—can indeed narrate its way out of the drama in which it’s become enmeshed.
Apple’s been in jams before, to be sure. Like the entire 1990s. But the challenges it withstood in those days came predominantly from the outside, even as its most loyal customers sticking by its side to ride out the storm.
These days, that selection has inverted: while Apple’s financial success and external consumer support have reached stratospheric levels, the criticism now comes from those who have traditionally been its most ardent supporters—and, more to the point, the very developer audience that WWDC is designed to appeal to, highlight, and uplift.
This morning, Dieter Bohn’s piece at The Verge laid out the case that perhaps the most apt metaphor for Apple’s recent behavior is that of the carrier. And though, like any metaphor, the comparison is imperfect, parts of it ring true in a deeply uncomfortable fashion.
It’s not fair, but the tune sounds familiar because the parallels strike a chord. And the bitter harmony that I hear is the stifling of innovation to maximize profit.
Apple forces all apps selling digital goods of any kind to use its payment system and pay its cut. The arguments for why Apple thinks that is necessary are well-known. But the effects of that (and other) rules are that new and innovative business models simply aren’t possible. Instead of paid upgrades, developers must resort to subscriptions. The nascent market to pay creators directly on services like Twitter and Substack must account for Apple’s platform fees. Instead of game streaming apps, there is… well, nothing.
I don’t want to get into arguing the nuts and bolts of this particular discussion, because it’s not really about this piece itself. It’s that this is the prevailing narrative right now. When it comes to Apple, this is what people—or, at least, the tech press, pundits, and outspoken developers—are talking about.
Usually, the hours before Apple’s keynote event are filled with speculation and excitement, but this year there is far more frustration and antipathy than I can remember seeing in my decade and a half covering Apple. There’s always been some degree of dissatisfaction, especially amongst developers, but it’s hard to escape that the current story about Apple is less about its products and more about its attitude.
Throw in the recent kerfuffle over Apple’s decision to have employees return to the office for the majority of the week starting this fall and it has more than a few folks less excited and wondering if Apple even really listens.
WWDC marks Apple’s opportunity to take control of the story. Whatever its executives announce when they take the stage later today has the potential to dominate the tech news cycle for days and weeks to come.
But the real question is whether, by sheer compelling nature or simply by volume, it can drown out the existing narrative.
Short of announcing a massive overhaul of the App Store and its developer policies—which seems unlikely, given that the company just engaged in a lengthy trial which it seems likely to win—it’s hard to imagine that any flashy feature or product announcement could wipe away the undercurrents of dissatisfaction, though it may mute them for a while.
In the past, Apple’s live events have fed off the energy of the crowd. It’s unclear whether or not this year’s WWDC keynote, which Apple merely says will be “streamed directly from Apple Park”, will be the same slickly produced videos we’ve seen over the past pandemic year, or eschew them in favor of a presentation more like the traditional in-person event, but it occurs to me that, if the latter, it’s not out of the question that Apple employees themselves might be in attendance.
And, as is traditional for the WWDC keynote, there may come a moment when an Apple executive—perhaps Tim Cook himself—boasts about the amount of money the company paid out to developers, potentially teeing up a moment where that figure is wildly applauded by a cadre of Apple employees. I can think of no more tone-deaf moment that would truly encapsulate the moment in which we find ourselves.
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]
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