Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Top 10 Apple Influencers of 2009 by Jon Phillips and Amy Keyishian

Apple is more than just a company that makes computers, gadgets, and software — it’s a game - changing free-radical that manifests in multiple dimensions. Apple is a school of design. It’s a fashion statement. It’s a media message. It’s an expression of wit and whimsy. It’s a catalyst for creativity. It’s a worldview. It’s a line of iPhone buyers that stretches three blocks long. It’s an 11 o’clock news story about that line. Apple is much, much larger than the sum total of all its parts.

Microsoft, Sony, Samsung — they’re product companies. Apple is a full-fledged zeitgeistical gestalt. And, so, in the context of the article you’re about to read, Apple isn’t Apple proper. Apple is code for the entire Applesphere: the products, the work generated by the products, the work generated for the products, the news, the rumors, the memes, the way people think about it.

So who’s instrumental in shaping Apple? Who influences the forward-march of Appleness? Who exerts remarkable sway in Appledom? Well, Steve Jobs, of course. Apple is Steve Jobs objectified. No other company is so inextricably linked to the fortunes (and cult of personality) of a single individual. For this reason, Steve doesn’t just land the number one spot in any “typical” list of top Apple influencers. He dominates all other influencers as the sun dominates the planets.

But what if you remove Steve from the equation? Who are the other people who’ve helped turn Apple into this hugely popular vector of relevance? Who are these folks?

Our list reveals the select Top 10. Some work for Apple, but have only one-twentieth of Steve’s name recognition, or remain virtually anonymous. Some work for Apple’s partners, helping to shape the ever-evolving Apple essence. And some simply use Apple products in such public, innovative, impactful and/or prescient ways, they help build public perception of what Apple “is” as a cultural force.

These are our Top 10 Apple Influencers, but there are surely more worth noting.

Senior Vice President of Surprise and Delight

The vision and leadership of Jonathan Ive is so essential to Apple’s success, we can’t imagine a plotline of Apple’s rise to the top that doesn’t include a leading role for the famously modest British ex-pat. As Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design, Ive is the point person for a team of tinkerers who have delivered, well, the most winning product design of the last 10 years.

“Ive is a huge influence in the design community and the world in general,” says Victor Ermoli, dean of the School of Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “He understands that it’s not about the object itself. It’s about the experience that the object will create.”

“Consider one of his signatures,” says Ermoli, “the handle of the G computers. The handle is like an extension of the hand when you meet somebody for the first time. The handle tells us, ‘I’m here to connect with you, to be part of you.’ It’s very powerful for Jonathan to have that signature — an introduction of the object to the person, from the moment you open the box.”

Indeed, it’s Ive’s ability to deliver that initial rush of connectedness that makes him such a master of “surprise and delight,” a dictum of product design that says simply offering the best, most effective traditional features isn’t enough; that to win our hearts and minds, a product must charm us with clever, ingenious features that we’ve never before imagined. Consider the translucent, innards - revealing shell of the very first iMac. Or the iPod clickwheel, integrating a full complement of button functionality into a sublime, buttonless interface. Or the warm, organic lighting that glows from the Apple logos of every MacBook. And let’s not forget the impossible smallness of the iPod shuffle and the impossible thinness of the MacBook Air.

In fact, it may be this reduction of size, bulk, and, most of all, forward-facing complexity that best encapsulates the Ive visual voice. Where, say, a Ferrari dashboard or a Breitling watch face impress us with a barrage of technical flair, the Ive product catalog charms us with magic tricks — the promise of features beyond belief inside objects that appear to have no features at all.

Ive’s creative hand has been manifest in Apple products since 1997. Steve Jobs had just returned to Apple and effectively liberated the designer to do his best work. And since that liberation, Iveian design cues have seeped into the world around us. PC case manufacturers copied the PowerMac G3’s trademark blue chassis in the late 90s, and Dell copies Apple’s use of color and whimsy in its notebooks today. Then there are all the 3D models of fake Apple products that explode over the Internet before every Mac Expo (Mac|Life’s own fauxtotypes will appear in next month’s issue). And let’s not forget that whenever Hollywood needs a computer to demonstrate a movie or TV character’s urbanity and sophistication, it inevitably reaches for the soft, cool edges of a MacBook.

An Apple Influencer? Jonathan Ive is second only to Steve Jobs, and, more to the point, completes Steve Jobs. As Dean Ermoli says, “When Steve came back, it became this chemistry between his vision and Jonathan’s execution that made this iconographic design language. The potential of the designer emerged.”

Next, Thom Yorke and Phil Morrisson

Inspiring a Legion of Garage Bands with Mac-Made Melodies

We’ll readily admit it: “Air-laptopping” is not going to catch on. Nonetheless, one of the most significant trends in music - making — whether you’re a DJ, a live band, or a studio producer — is to use a Mac to mix, manipulate, and create sounds. Björk, Erykah Badu, and Trent Reznor all do it, but perhaps there’s no better ambassador of Mac - music love than Radiohead, headed by Apple fanboy Thom Yorke.

The band uses two Macs during live performances -— with one serving as a fail-safe in case of a crash.

The indiegeek contingent of Appledom is always to quick to point out the MacBook Pros that conspicuously dot the Radiohead stage. The notebooks run Kontakt 3 and Reaktor 5 developed by Native Instruments, but there’s more to Radiohead’s Apple pedigree than using software to help support live performances. Music critic Hua Hsu referred to their later albums as “post-guitar experimentation,” with tracks dominated by deeply textured compositions layered by laptops. And Thom Yorke himself gave credit to his Mac in the development of his solo album, The Eraser. As he told Rolling Stone in 2006, “A lot of the basic ideas were kicking around when I got all of my software on my laptop. They weren’t things that would ever get to the band; they just worked in that isolated laptop space.”

Some will be scandalized to see Yorke listed as an Apple influencer. Sure, he’s famously pictured with an Apple logo on his guitar, but it wasn’t until their seventh album, In Rainbows, that Radiohead deigned to be distributed via iTunes. And even in this case, the album had already been available on the band’s website for three months — at the low, low price of “whatever you’ve got.”

Leave it to groundbreaking rockers to come up with a distribution stunt so novel, it made iTunes look like the safe, old - fashioned option.

Phil Morrison, Director of Commercial Success

From the very first episode of the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” miniseries, our collective mind was entranced. Every new installment triggers office chatter, and the entire oeuvre of ad spots has turned Justin Long and John Hodgman into pop - cult icons (after all, you don’t get 30-plus pages of YouTube parodies until you reach that lofty station). The commercials were created by TBWA\Chiat\Day, which has a single building dedicated to the Apple account and places its employees under unfailingly effective gag orders (a smart move, for as Gizmodo
.com’s Brian Lam says, the building likely “houses the greatest concentration of Apple secrets outside of Cupertino”).

So, while we don’t know who conceived or authors the ads, we do know they’re directed by indie filmmaker Phil Morrison — our go - to influencer du jour, as we lack a more identifiable choice — and they’re instrumental in reaping huge chunks of Apple mindshare throughout the Western world.

“There’s just one narrow, technical reason these ads do so well: They are perfection,” says Bob Garfield, cohost of NPR’s On the Media and columnist at Advertising Age. “Apple got to define the image not only of themselves, but of their own Antichrist. They get to say what PC is — and rather than actually portraying an Antichrist, they created an affable, harmless, ineffectual nerd, while the Apple guy is cool, hip, but nice and respectful, and in no way arrogant. It’s just magnificent.”

Of course, Microsoft has finally issued a response to the Mac-PC ads: a Hodgman-like figure kicks off a series of appealingly diverse Vista users declaring, “I’m a PC!” The commercials, however, only underscore the success of Morrison’s direction. As Garfield says, “You know you’re victorious in a campaign if the competition has to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to answer your ads. You expect it in a political race, but this is Microsoft, reduced to spending a fortune to make a direct retaliation.”

Next, John Loicano and Victor Wang
, Plotting the Future of the Mac’s Hardcore Creative Center

Back in the olden days, before iPhones, MacBooks, and even iMacs, Apple made cute, teensy, easy - interface computers beloved by guys who made rave flyers and grrls who published ‘zines. Some things never change: Apple’s still beloved by hipster artists. They’ve just been joined by hipster bloggers, journalists, musicians, and, well… you get the 1280x960 JPG.

But in those early days — when Apple really was just a maker of computers for the digital-design renaissance — had there not been Adobe PageMaker, Illustrator, and Photoshop, Macs might have gone the way of Betamax. Adobe products have always been the abdominal core of Apple’s creative chi, and Adobe continues to develop software with graphics - focused computer users firmly in mind. With the advent of OS X, Adobe saw a Quark-sized hole, and ushered in InDesign to dominate print publishin — along with the rest of Creative Suite, which helps skin the entire Web.

So that’s the past. What lies in the future? Designing that layout is the job of John Loicano, senior vice president of Adobe’s Creative Solutions Business Unit. “Apple and Adobe are similar in our target markets,” Loicano says. “Creative professionals, knowledge workers, and people who want their content to stand out. We’re both aggressive and creative. We also have areas where we overlap and where we’re competitive — neither of us shy away from that — and the yin-and-yang scenario creates magic between the two companies.”

So what lies ahead? Well, a pretty hilarious spoof of how Photoshop CS3 would work on the iPhone made the rounds in ‘07, but Loicano does have big aspirations for the wee computing platform: Flash support, the iPhone’s most glaring omission, save for maybe cut-and-paste.

“Flash is going to require Apple giving us more than just the SDKs that they provide for emulation,” Loicano says. “Apple plays it very close to the chest on sharing its technologies. They’re not shy about that, and we understand that. We’re still working behind the scenes very diligently to try to make [Flash] happen — but we’re not there yet.”

Sentry at the App Store Gate

Victor Wang — if that’s his real name — became an Internet meme when he signed a rejection letter that informed the software developer behind Pull My Finger that his app was of “limited utility” and would thus “not be published to the App Store.” Sure, the app was fartsy, and most everyone would agree that smartsier and artsier software is more essential to the human experience. Nonetheless, when Victor Wang kaiboshed Pull My Finger, he caused a minor uproar among developers, because if usefulness is a criterion by which apps are judged, then a whole mess of cocktail napkin sketches need to be revised. Even more significantly, Mr. Wang’s rejection served as a reminder that he who decides App Store–worthiness wields unusual power — power that will only grow as the iPhone and touch become full-fledged computing platforms.

Erica Sadun of The Unofficial Apple Weblog (www.tuaw
.com) wrote that “Mr. Wang has become a near legend for his rejection letters,” but we’re not convinced of Victor Wang’s existence. Apple wouldn’t confirm that it employs anyone by that name, and, reflecting the experiences of all the developers we spoke with, Justin Morgenthau, creator of the automotive data-logging app Dynolicious, told us, “I never had any interaction with Victor Wang. The App Store approval process is a bit of a magical black box.”

Regardless whether he’s man or myth, we’re not ready to assign overwhelming significance to any direct role Victor Wang might play in the app-approval process. For us, he serves as a proxy for whoever (or whatever) stands sentry at the App Store gate. This person (or people or thing) not only influences which apps we get to use, but also determines which software developers get to benefit from the App Store’s bounty of business opportunities.

"The App Store approval process is a bit of a magical black box"

Given that the App Store could bloom into anything from a $416 million to $1.2 billion marketplace by the end of 2009 (so proclaimed stock analyst - cum - Apple fanboy Gene Munster last June), we have to ascribe immense influence to one Victor Wang, or to whoever actually grants admittance to the Apple app bazaar. And we also hope that Victor Wang — be he man or construct — becomes more public soon. As Eric Métois, developer of the top-rated iChalky app, told us, “I would be a bit reluctant to dive into the development of a real business application unless I had a more direct line of communication with Apple — and some assurance that a large investment wouldn’t simply fizzle through Apple’s mysterious review process.”

Next, Arnold Kim and Hollywood, The Rumor-Sharing Raconteur

Arguably the most secretive of all consumer electronics companies, Apple has spawned its own unique information economy — and hype is the currency of the land. “How will existing product lines be updated? What completely new product is coming next?” The curiosity always crescendos on the eve of a big Apple press event, but the websites devoted to intel-gathering have more than enough fodder to operate all year long — which is good news for Arnold Kim, owner/proprietor of MacRumors.com, the biggest player in the Apple - hype game.

“It all feeds upon itself,” Kim says. “The more secretive Apple is, the more information people want to find out.”

According to Quantcast Web traffic scores, MacRumors traffic easily dwarves that of its main competitors: AppleInsider, MacNN, TUAW, and MacLife (all .com domains). Could it be that MacRumors is simply the perfect website name? Well, the name doesn’t hurt. But we also have to give credit to Kim for being right on top of the scuttlebutt as it develops and for cultivating a platform that’s so inviting to people with news, rumors, 
and (juiciest of all) spyshots they want 
to share.

Of course, MacRumors’ entire premise would be kaput if Apple suddenly dropped its nearly totalitarian approach to information - sharing and started offering early-look product demos and conducting press tours, like all the other companies we deal with.
Sure, Apple could do that — but would life be quite as fun? After all, it’s the trade of rumors and endless speculation that makes being an Apple fan so energizing.

“People want to see things that they aren’t supposed to see,” Kim says. “Some people think that Apple leaks things on purpose, but I don’t really subscribe to those theories. Just based on Apple’s history, we know they are very serious about their secrecy. I don’t think they play games with the media or try to use it to their advantage, per se. But I do think in the grand scheme, all the rumors surrounding Apple have a net positive effect.”

So says the most influential rumor-meister of them all.

Hollywood, Apples, Apples Everywhere!

When it comes to the big and little screens, the visual shorthand for “cool person you’re encouraged to like” is a glowing little Apple logo. From Carrie Bradshaw’s trademark PowerBook (so glaringly visible on Sex and the City) to Jim Halper’s iChat AV session with Pam Beasley (his MacBook Pro consumed a full 93 seconds of screen time on a recent episode of The Office), Macs dominate movies and TV in a way that’s, frankly, completely inconsistent with their share of the actual computer market.

image of sitcom Office

The Hollywood Reporter tracked some 250 visual mentions of Apple on prime-time network TV shows in a four-month period in 2006, and noted that Apple, unlike other brands, gets placed on-set for free. “When you have that kind of aura and image,” Ruben Igielko-Herrlich of the product - placement firm Propaganda GEM said in that article, “you don’t pay for [placement].”

But has Apple’s free - ride care of prop designers come to an end? Think about it: Paid product placement is all the rage in this post-TiVO era of fast - forwarding past commercials, and NBC’s lineup seems conspicuously Mac - packed.

Well, we’re inclined to think that promotional consideration is a two-way street. Still from Sex in the City

Set designers wouldn’t choose Apple products if they weren’t guaranteed to establish a character’s cool factor, and Apple — if it is, in fact, paying for placement — wouldn’t stick a Mac behind Hiro Nakamura of Heroes if they didn’t think the li’l time-freezer was someone we loved.

Bottom line: Pixar requested a friggin’ Apple robot in Wall-e, people! And Eve, that robot, was designed, in part, by Jonathan Ive. The Hollywood-Apple branding partnership is stronger than ever, and 2009 Hollywood set designers will continue to be some of the best influencers Apple has.

Next, Kurt Schmucker and Travis Boatman
, Managing Mac Détente in the Microsoft Megalopolis

Sssh…we have a secret: Despite the high - drama mudslinging on bulletin boards across the Internet, Microsoft and Apple are BFFs. Would your iBook be as useful if it didn’t run Word? Would the iPhone be as resounding a success if iTunes didn’t run on a PC? In the final analysis, Windows users — not Mac users — may be the most important block of iPhone, iPod, and iTunes customers that Apple has.

As Apple strives for an ever - increasing slice of the digital-technology pie, it must spend more time shaking hands and palling around Microsoft — and the end result is win-win, with increased market share for both companies. Hence Microsoft’s Macintosh Business Unit, headed by Kurt Schmucker, senior Mac evangelist.

“The Mac Business Unit is an internal Microsoft group, but it’s very independent,” Schmucker says. “We talk to customers directly, we manage our own budget, and we deliver the product ourselves.” They even have a cavernous bunker — the Mac Lab — lined with every Mac ever produced, so they can test their software and, you know, feel all Apple-y.

We live in that world of having the Mac, loving the Mac.

As members of the largest Mac software development team outside of Apple itself, the MacBUers flock to Mac Expo like fanboys and fangirls, haunt Mac user forums (so your exhortations that “Microsoft sucks!” might have reached the right eyeballs), and even send anthropologists into Apple - centric homes to watch users, from unboxings to full software integration. And you’ll be interested to know an identical unit at Apple performs the same function, making sure Safari runs on Vista and eyeballing the latest version of Office to make sure the Aquafication works just right.

As for their daily computing lifestyles, the MacBUers hit the Apple sauce nearly 24/7. “We use Macs to get our work done every day,” Schmucker says. “We live in that world of having the Mac, loving the Mac, needing it to be compatible, and taking it from there, to think about where we can make the most difference in customers’ lives.”

So what’s coming down the pike? That’s another thing Microsoft and Apple have in common: tight lips. We do know they’re in the middle of a massive hiring initiative, but Schmucker won’t say what for, beyond “the next version of Office.” Very mysterious, guys. We’ll wait and see — and maybe do a little underdog - rooting for that lovable John Hodgman.

Travis boatman, Delivering Triple - A Gaming with the Touch of a Finger

Thanks to its SDK and Apps Store offerings, the iPhone has emerged as a transformative product. Lying somewhere between the ultimate smart phone and the slimmest, most portable notebook, the iPhone represents an entirely new computing platform — a platform that just so happens to offer powerful, novel, and endless opportunities for handheld gaming.

Enter Electronic Arts, the BMOC of Triple - A videogame publishers, as well as the largest Triple - A publisher to make a serious play in the mobile games market. Whoever figures out how to dominate the iPhone gaming landscape will be an influence - wielder of enormous proportions, and in his capacity as vice president of Worldwide Studios, Travis Boatman is EA’s iPhone overlord. “The combination of a great device, a great software stack and development tools, and the iTunes storefront is like three stars aligning,” Boatman says. “It’s really driving the rest of the market to chase Apple.”

The big news here, of course, is EA’s Spore, perhaps the most hotly anticipated computer game of 2008. To Boatman, a truncated version of Spore was a great fit for the iPhone and iPod touch. “What we learned right away was that it’s great to use the touchscreen to play with the Spore creatures — move stuff around with your fingers, drag with the eyes, paint with your fingers, and have fun with it.”

In the coming year, the iPhone and iPod touch will demand development of games that skew differently from the Sony PSPs and Nintendo DSes of the world. Hence the games that EA has released (or announced) thus far: Tiger Woods, The Sims 3, SimCity, Yahtzee, Monopoly, Scrabble, and Tetris, among others.

All these titles are geared toward a broader (read: more female, less pimply-faced) market, and mesh well with the touch interface. As Boatman told us, “You can’t use the touchscreen for a lot of the action games, because if your fingers obscure the scene when you’re trying to play an action game, you can’t.”

It’s really driving the rest of the market to chase Apple.

Thanks to the App Store — which Boatman credits with having as much innovative power as the iPhone itself — EA’s releases can be distributed and played as soon as they’re ready. And though Boatman won’t say what’s coming next (yes, we asked about Tiger Woods, and, no, we couldn’t charm him into betraying a timeline), EA’s mass-market franchises are sure to bring touch-interface gaming to the limelight.

Next, Walter Mossberg and David Pogue
, The Applesphere’s First Two Stops for Hands-On Reviews.

Just as Siskel and Ebert are legendary for being a binary star system of movie - reviewing magnificence, Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal and David Pogue of the New York Times have emerged as the yin-yang rock stars of the Apple product-testing elite. The duo may not meet up once a week to argue and point thumbs, but their mindshare and clout are unmatched. Wired has dubbed Mossberg “The Kingmaker” for all the influence he wields, and when a new Apple product comes out, the Applesphere rushes online to read the opinions of the MoPo duopoly.

Along with the much less celebrated Ed Baig of USA Today, MoPo are among the select few journalists who actually receive Apple gear before it’s released to the masses, and, by extension, all bottom-feeding product reviewers. This gives them oodles of lead time so that they can publish thorough reviews on the very first day of a product launch. And even when MoPo don’t get a chance to trump other journalists with their semi-exclusive first looks, their placement in papers with such wide readership and influence holds considerable sway. At least one academic paper has tried to show a correlation between Mossberg’s reviews and stock prices (with mixed results, as a bump in prices only shows up for smaller companies, not behemoths like Apple).

So what’s it like to be such an influential top dog of tech criticism?

“If somebody is trading a stock based on Pogue or me, they’re kind of nuts,” Mossberg says. “When I sit down to write a column, my responsibility is to the needs of my audience. Not hobbyists, not enthusiasts, not techies, but average, mainstream, nontechnical people, who are very smart about many things, but don’t necessarily know how these products work inside—and don’t want to know.”

Pogue is similarly dismissive of his effect on market trends, calling it nothing more than media hype. Compared to Apple’s marketing machine, Pogue says, “Newspaper and magazine reviews are like gnats on the skin of a rhinoceros.”

“My credibility is all I have,” Pogue says. “There are a lot of people who trust my judgment, and there are a lot who think I’m an idiot. Either way, it’s a fixed point 
in the universe that you can steer your ship by—toward or away—because I write my reviews based on what I truly feel, without regard to the reaction of readers or manufacturers.”

Which is sort of the point. It’s MoPo’s very role as trained, responsible, grown - up journalists, rather than as Apple fanboys, that makes them the nonenthusiast’s comfy, reliable source for answers about new Apple products.

“There’s a lot of hype out there,” Mossberg says. “There’s hype about Apple, there’s hype about me and Pogue. People are very interested [in Apple] right now, and anything anyone writes about them gets disproportionate attention. But that wasn’t true five or ten years ago, and may not be true in two years time.”

Nary a Woman in the House?

It didn’t escape our attention that not a single woman made our Top 10 list. Is the Mac|Life staff dismissive of women? Or is it that not a single woman wields enough influence to warrant recognition? Neither, actually. Under different circumstances, we would have included Katie Cotton, Apple’s vice president of worldwide corporate communications.

Cotton runs the tightest public-relations ship we know of, helping to generate and respond to the unmatched buzz that’s described throughout this article. In some respects, Cotton might be the single-most important influencer in all of Appledom, as managing that perfect tension between reticence and revelation has been so incredibly integral to Apple’s success.

Nonetheless, we respect Cotton’s desire to remain behind the scenes, a silent partner to the exceedingly public-facing Steve Jobs. So all the mention we’ll give her is the mention you’re reading here.

1 comment:


nice article!
clearly apple is great at visual marketing.