Why Apple's company culture could torpedo its streaming service
Can a company obsessed with discipline loosen up enough to create good entertainment?
Apple has always had a singular vision: Make the best computers with the best software. In that quest, it has arguably been successful. The iPhone, iPad, and MacBook are all among the best in their class.
But now, Apple is about to tackle something new: becoming a media company. On March 25th, at an event in Cupertino, Apple will almost certainly launch a paid news service and, after years of speculation, finally announce a video streaming service similar to Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Given Apple's track record, one expects this foray into media will have a similar level of quality. But paradoxically, the very culture that has led Apple to such highly regarded products may in fact hamper its attempts to take on the big streaming services.
But this is a move Apple must make. The company needs to expand its offerings from hardware to services. With the smartphone market having matured and with two-thirds of Apple's revenue dependent on the iPhone alone, the company needs to look for new ways to generate both profit and growth. Services provide recurring, monthly revenue, and with 1 billion iOS users, Apple has a built-in market to tap. The rapid success of Apple Music, which posed a challenge to Spotify only a year or two into its lifespan, is a testament to the power of capitalizing on that userbase.
But a company's success in new arenas is often dependent on its ability to focus its culture on a novel arena — and if the culture doesn't fit, failure often follows. If one were to look at Microsoft's attempts in mobile or Google's attempts in social — both unmitigated failures — it's clear that a company's structure can have profound consequences on its efforts to move into a new field. And when it comes to moving into media, there are already signs that Apple's culture is a barrier. A report from the New York Post suggested that CEO Tim Cook has had a heavy hand in the development of original content, suggesting creators "don't be so mean," and content on the platform shouldn't have an overly negative view of technology.
That kind of meddling rarely works well in the world of art and entertainment. But that it is happening at all shouldn't be surprising. Apple's success in technology is the result a disciplined, focused commitment to a coherent and fluid experience from top to bottom. It's why, for example, an iPad is often a joy to use and other tablets are merely functional. By exercising such strict control, users are offered a well-designed, purposeful device and then use it to create or consume as they see fit.
But art doesn't work that way. It can resist top-down intrusions that might ask creators to stay on message. Controversial topics that defy categorization or definition are part and parcel of what makes good TV and film, well, good. It's not that art doesn't require focus, but it is of a different sort and character.
That ineffable, indeterminate nature of art is anathema to Apple's discipline. While the company's built-in market means its video service is almost guaranteed to gain millions of users, one wonders if the cultural cachet that Apple has cultivated over the past couple of decades may be lessened by original content that plays it too safe, and tries to apply the rigor of well-made tech to what may inevitably become poorly-made art.
Strangely, Apple's discipline may in fact help its plans to turn its News app into a paid service. What people want from Apple is simplicity and effectiveness. The idea of an app with a single price that gives readers access to numerous publications seems appealing and potentially a lifeline to a struggling mid-size news media that don't have the reach of larger organizations like The New York Times. Additionally, given that Apple has no financial incentive to choose any particular news content over the other — aside from the stuff that's of good quality — the app may well become something better than existed before. That's what Apple does best.
The test of any company as it transitions into a new arena is not just whether it can make something good, but whether its leadership can self-reflectively consider how the company culture may help or harm its efforts. Apple's missteps have thus far been few, but for its new video product to succeed, Apple will have to decide if it is committed to making the very best thing for its customers, or if it is locked into a mindset of never giving up control.