Apple, Disney, and Dreams of Corporate Utopias
The verdict seems to be in on Apple’s new iPhone 5: Superbly executed and likely to be extremely profitable for its maker, yet without any transformative feature—“completely amazing and utterly boring,” as Wired put it. What does this mean for Apple and information technology after Steve Jobs? A future of indefinite small improvements, reinforced by Apple’s victory against Samsung in a recent patent case, or an opening for new disruptive devices? The sleek device conceals questions about the company’s direction.
In a Fast Company blog post widely shared on the Web, designer Tom Hobbs has condemned Apple’s inconsistency in building modernist hardware and then populating it with anachronistic visual metaphors called skeuomorphs. In the iBooks app, E-books are displayed with their covers face-out on simulation 3-D wooden bookshelves. Once opened, the volumes mimic the appearance and page turning of paper tomes instead of exploiting the unique advantages of the screen. The Apple calendar has virtual stitched trim said to have been inspired by the leather in Steve Jobs’s Gulfstream jet.
The company appears to be divided between populists, who think these features are good for business, and purists, who revere the ideals of elegant Bauhaus information design, devoid of extraneous ornament, as practiced by great typographers like Jan Tschichold. There probably has always been a tension between the two at Apple. At least one of the original Macintosh fonts, San Francisco, would have made the Bauhaus founders spin in their graves. But Steve Jobs was there to resolve conflicts.
Revered Founders, Radical Buildings
The Jobs legacy and Apple staff thus may be divided against themselves, and all this comes as Apple is about to build a supersized new circular headquarters, the macro counterpart of the iPhone as a corporate symbol. At a time when landmark headquarters have largely gone out of fashion—think of the fate of Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building in New York, finished just as the company was breaking up in 1984—the new Cupertino structure will be a magnificent throwback, with a four-story circular main building offering 2.8 million square feet of office space for about 13,000 employees. For comparison, that is 70 percent of the square footage of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart and over 75 percent of the office space of the Pentagon.