In my preteen years, I carried a CD player virtually everywhere. It was one of those thick yellow Panasonic anti-shock models—to prevent the dreaded skipping that was virtually guaranteed when riding in the car or resting a glass of water onto the table next to it—with the clunky side clips that locked the entire apparatus in place. The Shockwave, as it was called, was far too big to carry in a pocket, although JNCO Jeans did their best to design around that problem. I also carried a small CD binder in my bookbag—along with spare batteries—a carefully curated combination of albums and mixed CDs, ostensibly for any possible mood that could strike me although the only mood was emo.
I remember carrying around this chunky CD player, its accessories and its accoutrements, as clearly as I remember getting bullied, for that and other things. And I remember getting bigger and bigger headphones so I could sink further and further into the world the CD player permitted me to live in, a world in which I at least exercised some limited control over. At that time, not many kids in my class wore headphones all day, because there was nothing convenient to plug them into. MP3 players existed, but few people had them because they were bad products. They were either too big or too small with too many compromises to be useful and accessing the vast library of music MP3s offered ranged from annoying to impossible.
Then the iPod with its wheel came and everyone was listening to music between classes (or during, if you snuck the cord up your long-sleeve shirt and rested your head on your open palm containing the earbud). In what would become a consistent refrain for revolutionary Apple products, the iPod didn't invent something new, it made the first good one.
It is rare for a company to make a product so good it changes our relationship with the physical world. The iPod was that product, condensing vast libraries of music onto one handheld device that was actually usable. A few years later, the iPhone was also that product, and Steve Jobs was summarily anointed as a generational genius for coming up with both. Some argue the iPad was the trifecta.
In recent weeks, a growing number of reports indicate Apple is close to a deal to make a car, something so far afield its previous efforts it can only attract vast amounts of curiosity and attention while fulfilling a long time fantasy for both Apple and car nerds about how the company known for releasing revolutionary products would upend the car industry. As of now, we know basically nothing about Apple's plans, except for rumors the car may be fully electric, autonomous, and go into production in partnership with Hyundai-Kia in 2024.
The aura of Apple's design and technical genius hovers over the news like a halo, rarely directly invoked but ever-present with the implication this is different and big. Indeed, there are reasons to both be excited about what an Apple Car might be and hesitant to believe it will actually be those things. The implication of all of this excitement is Apple will do for cars what it did for consumer electronics, a revolution of product and design. It may be a revolution, but not in the meaning of the word Apple is accustomed to.
The heightened attention around an Apple Car can partly be attributed to the fact that the U.S. car market—like the computer and smartphone markets prior to Apple's intervention—is very boring. People, quite understandably, get excited at the idea of Apple figuring out how to make cars interesting.
Most modern cars look basically the same, come in the same colors, and offer the same features. There is little distinguishing, say, a Honda from a Toyota from a Nissan from a Ford in their sedan, SUV or truck offerings, which is why each company spends billions of dollars a year on marketing. Ford, for example, spends about $4 billion a year to make you feel like there's a difference. There are stans who maintain their preferred brand is more reliable, trustworthy, manly, or whatever trait they personally value, and these feelings rarely bear much resemblance to reality (in the case of Subaru, they claim to be the environmentalist's choice even though it is most definitely not). This is the whole point of marketing, and it works when actually being different either isn't feasible or simply too hard and risky.
There is one car company that is genuinely different in both good and bad ways: Tesla. For all of its many flaws, Tesla took electric cars seriously at a time when no other car company was, and ultimately succeeded in making a good car that happened to be electric rather than an environmentally-friendly transportation device that happened to be a car. The company is far from perfect and its CEO is far from an idol, but there's virtually no debate that Teslas are good cars with smart interior designs, fully integrated technology setups and have the best charging infrastructure of any electric vehicle. The minimalist interior, focus on both performance and design, and little touches to instill a sense of magic like the auto-deploying door handles are decidedly Jobsian. And it spends precisely zero dollars on marketing, thanks both to its truly differentiating product and CEO with tens of millions of Twitter followers who constantly says crazy things that get him in the news. All of this has—belatedly—forced the auto industry to pay attention and do better. There is a good argument to be made that whatever you think an Apple Car will do for the auto industry, it's already been done, and it's a Tesla.
It is certainly possible Apple will come in and do the thing Apple is known for, upending an industry and releasing a consumer product that changes the way we interact with that thing but also the world. Yet, I don't think it will, partly because I think Tesla already did it, but also because Apple hasn't done it in a while. It's not like Apple's recent track record is particularly glowing. It makes just as many questionable design choices as revolutionary ones. Removing the headphone jack still feels like a weird choice; five years later there are good phones being released with headphone jacks. Apple's accessories are ridiculously expensive—why is this keyboard $130?—and have occasionally absurd design flaws—why do I have to flip my $80 mouse over, rendering it unusable, to charge it? It spent years denying its laptops had a critical design flaw and then branded its fix as some major feature upgrade.
In the absence of groundbreaking products, Apple, like many other companies, works around the margins with upsells and surcharges in customer-unfriendly ways to seek an extra buck. It now charges $20 for new phone chargers that don't come with the phone, $200 for a mount adapter for its $5,000 monitors, $700 for wheels on its $50,000 supercomputer. Also like many other companies, Apple fights laws that would make it easier for people to repair their own products for the obvious reason that it will make these products last longer when the only thing keeping people buying new ones is that the old ones break.
In fact, a trip to the Apple Store to get your keyboard fixed or buy a new laptop—of which there are now a dizzying array of models to choose from with supposedly revolutionary under-the-hood changes that are virtually incomprehensible to the average consumer—bears a deep similarity to your average car dealership, complete with bizarre markups for seemingly basic fixes, mystery charges that make no sense but for which you have no choice, and the constant feeling if you're not on full guard you're about to be ripped off by buying a $70 adapter. If you decide the repair isn't worth it because a new one doesn't cost that much more and it has that fancy new chip you don't understand a thing about but assume must be better, there's a trade-in program—curiously enough—for the thing the guy just told you is not worth fixing because it's on its last legs but they'll give you money for it to make buying that new thing more palatable. And how palatable it is! Just as your average Honda CR-V comes with a head-spinning number of different trims and feature packs—if you can even notice the difference between an HR-V, CR-V, Passport and Pilot—so too are Apple stores now stocked with an endless array of both Macbook Air and Macbook Pro models in any possible configuration. "For every purse and purpose" applies just as well to Apple these days as it does General Motors.
Once a product becomes sufficiently successful, it stops being a product in a traditional sense because people can't well go without them. Some time ago, car companies stopped making cars so much as they started to make appliances. It happened gradually and in different phases, but cars became a thing nearly all U.S. residents had to have as a matter of practicality, like an oven or a washing machine. Cars became less an object of fascination and admiration in the same way no one would talk shop over the model of your Maytag. It's just a thing you have that does a job, and everyone else has one, too. Modern car marketing—with all the trailblazing and mountain-climbing and desert-racing—is entirely about making you feel like your car will be more than that. Phones, in all of their technological glory, are appliances now, too. They're things we have to do a job—and, like cars, increasingly things we wish we didn't have to have as much as we do.
For the last decade, Apple has behaved a lot like any other major appliance company, but most like one particular type, because the products it sells are similar. Hold up the latest models of an iPhone next to a Google Pixel next to a Samsung Galaxy next to a Motorola One next to an Honor 20 next to a OnePlus 8 and you have about as much product differentiation as between a Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion, and Kia Optima. The smartphone market, in almost every way, has mimicked the car market with its annual product release hype cycle, minor design tweaks, under-the-hood "improvements" to excuse it all, massive marketing budgets to help consumers feel like we need the newest model even if we don't, all to mask a broad, industry-wide stagnation. There is one industry that pioneered all of this: the auto industry.
Which is what makes the idea of Apple disrupting the auto industry so hard for me to believe. Apple making a car would indeed be a revolution, but not in the sense that the iPod was. It would be a company completing its metamorphosis and fluttering back into the vast capitalistic garden complete with hefty government subsidies from whence it came. That is modernity in its full, final form, the wheel completing its full revolution to end up right back where it started. Apple isn't about to become a car company. It already is.