Apple's Humanity

John Gruber stands on stage, microphone held tightly in his hand as he casually shifts his weight from foot to foot. He is about to announce his guest at this year’s live episode of The Talk Show, and he prefaces the introduction with a sentence that succinctly describes what appears to be his own disbelief: “I shit you not.” This is more for him than it is for the people in the crowd, but when he says the name, “Phil Schiller,” the audience couldn’t respond with more vigor. The cheers continue as John backs away from the narrow, focused glow of the spotlight, conceding the moment is not his own, but his guest’s. The excitement in the room is staggering.

As the stage remains still and no Schiller is in sight, that excitement quickly dissipates and the crowd cools, suddenly realizing they’ve been the victims of a very cruel joke on John’s part. They sigh. They boo. But John stands vigilantly in the shadows until the proverbial man of the hour reveals himself with a dramatic flourish of the curtain. Fucking Phil Schiller walks out on stage and the din erupts once again as both the host and the guest take their respective seats.

What takes place in the following fifty-seven minutes is the best episode of The Talk Show John has ever created, as well as the best interview an executive from Apple Inc. has ever given. Seriously, if you haven’t listened to or watched this yet, you are wrong.

This interview is special for many reasons. Not only does John Gruber hold his own as the host and ask Phil Schiller the questions that deserve answers—real answers—but Phil responds in kind and gives Apple a warm, forthcoming voice filled to the brim with earnestness. Phil is a fighter ready to spar, but he is also a gentleman willing to yield to the man sitting opposite him. The rapport between Gruber and Schiller is one of mutual respect, and they've learned over their years of casual correspondences to know exactly where to poke and where to prod, as well as where to draw the line. Phil speaks from the heart with his responses, and it’s this honesty and passion that leads someone like Marco Arment to write of the experience:

Apple is just people. Their usual communication style makes that hard to see and easy to forget.

Phil’s appearance on the show was warm, genuine, informative, and entertaining.

It was human.

And humanizing the company and its decisions, especially to developers — remember, developer relations is all under Phil — might be worth the PR risk.

This interview is special because it is human. It’s a conversation between two men about topics that impassion them. It’s a conversation between two men that want to share that with the world.

Apple is a human company. It can be difficult to see that if you’ve never been a part of their ranks. At times, my own passion for the company—fueled by my years working for them—causes me to forget that not everyone gets the same sort of perspective that I did. So when someone’s cynicism gets the best of them and they accuse the company of chasing profits, or being disingenuous with regards to their values, or deliberately debilitating their products with software upgrades, my instinct causes me to reel. How could they think that? Few companies are as open and honest about their passion for creating amazing things that help people. Their criticism is harsh and unfairly targeted. This is not the Apple I know.

The problem with Apple is that not enough people know the Apple that I know. In all honesty, it’s Apple’s own fault. Decades of secrecy and, at many times, hostility toward the press caused a rift between the reality of their mission and the public’s perception of them. With Steve Jobs at the helm, this rift wasn’t as much of a factor. His legendary ability to mold opinions and find with pinpoint accuracy the it of Apple’s products, that special something that made everyone want one, made Apple cool and desirable without the need to cater to the wider public persona.

Steve’s passing ushered in an era of uncertainty. Sure, Tim Cook had successfully helmed the company before, and surely their product roadmap had been mapped out for the next five years, if not a decade. Apple would be fine in the short term. But that didn’t stop that seed of doubt from being planted. Without the mystical founder that resurrected his company from the ashes, how long before it withered once again to embers? One of Steve’s greatest achievements was that he made Apple. He was Apple. What is Apple without him?

If one of Steve’s greatest achievements was embodying Apple, pulling up the curtain in front of the eyes of the public at large, then one of Tim Cook’s greatest achievements is tearing that curtain down. He has revealed what’s been true of Apple all along: it is a company comprised of passionate people who have made it their life’s work to create great products and help enrich the lives of their customers. Steve brought them there. Tim shows them off. I’ve written a couple of times now about what Tim Cook’s Apple is, and I stand by my assessment that he understands what makes the company truly great is the people it employs. Letting them take the reigns allows their passion for their projects to shine through. They’re allowed to be honest, open, human. At this point in the company’s life, I think this is exactly what it needs.

Tim Cook doesn’t want to be another Steve Ballmer, a corporate-friendly stand-in for the guy who used to run things. He doesn’t want Apple to be so successful that they rely solely upon the brand deposits they’ve banked on in the past. Those would only get them so far. Instead, he wants the company to be open to risk, open to criticism, and open to listening. To be as human as their computers try to be. In the last few years, Apple has slowly shed its shell and opened itself up to the world. This strategy will only serve to benefit them in the long term. As the memory of Steve continues to fade, and the company continues to move on in its own direction, Apple’s willingness to listen, to engage, and to wear its passion on its sleeves will solidify the good will its customers already give it.

Phil Schiller isn’t the first executive to show this side of Apple, but John Gruber gave him the chance to be the best. With Gruber’s astute understanding of Apple’s culture as a developer, a commentator, and a fervent customer, he gave Phil all the chances he needed to be a person. He asked tough questions and bantered playfully. This wasn’t a dance, well choreographed with a slow, deliberate build that finished in a calculated climax. It was a boxing match, with two fighters whose abilities were tested, ultimately ending not in a knockout, but with each combatant giving it their all and paying respect to the other as an adept adversary. That all sounds super dramatic, and I’m sure John and Phil think nothing but the best of one another. That doesn’t change the fact that this is new territory for Apple, and coming face to face with the public and being willing to hear what they have to say is going to be a fight. Phil handled himself wonderfully, in a friendly and passionate way you would expect of a person who loves his work.

By extension, Apple handled itself wonderfully, too.