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How Apple shares and borrows its way to success

Jeff Williams Apple's senior vice president of Operations, speaks about the Hermes watchband for the Apple Watch, during an Apple media event in San FranciscoJeff Williams Apple's senior vice president of Operations, speaks about the Hermes watchband for the Apple Watch, during an Apple media event in San Francisco
Apple Watch with Hermes bandPhotograph by Beck Diefenbach — Reuters

I’ve decided to judge Apple’s big product reveal Wednesday by two measures: the company it keeps and the ideas it appropriates.

Let’s start with the former. During the two-hour-plus presentation at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, I made a list of the companies Apple (AAPL) corralled to help announce its new watches, smartphones, tablets, and TV set-top boxes. These included Facebook (integrating its Messenger app with the Apple Watch), GoPro (ditto), and Hermes, which designed a lovely leather watch band. Apple CEO Tim Cook namechecked IBM and Cisco, Apple’s new best buddies for corporate applications, especially targeting the iPad. Other corporate partners were more surprising, including two that have been bitter enemies of Apple’s, Microsoft (MSFT) and Adobe, each of which showed apps designed for Apple’s supersized iPad Pro.

The usual supsects appeared on the entertainment side, with apps to show off the redesigned, Siri-enabled Apple TV. These included past Apple comrades Netflix, Hulu, and HBO. Other, fresher TV partners that got air time included Airbnb (choose your vacation home on the TV screen!), Zillow (find your next home on the TV screen!), and Gilt (shop for a new wardrobe on the TV screen!).

It always has been a plum assignment to show your wares alongside Apple. For anyone with a sense of Apple history, though, the sight of a Microsoft executive showing off how PowerPoint can work on an iPad was nothing short of electric. In 1997, Apple developers booed when Bill Gates appeared by video hookup at a Macworld conference in Boston. Steve Jobs had to encourage the crowd not to further offend the company that was investing $150 million in Apple and producing a version of Windows for the Mac. Times have changed. Both companies showed humility Wednesday by so publicly working together to further their respective best interests.

Apple is as good at taking as sharing. Anyone who can remember the Newton and the scorn Steve Jobs heaped on styluses made by the likes of Palm would have been flabbergasted to see the Apple Pencil. It’s a $99, sensor-rich object that makes drawing on the iPad come alive. Never mind that a startup called Fiftythree has been pushing a similar product for two years. Apple abandoned orthodoxy—and history—and decided this is a good idea now. Similarly, Apple showed a keyboard that connects magnetically to its new iPad. This was an innovation Microsoft—a frenemy indeed—trumpeted for its Surface tablets. Scratch that one off the list of comparative strengths, Microsoft.

This was one of Apple’s product events marked by evolution, not revolution. Apple even winked at acknowledging this by saying “nothing has changed” in its same-size-as-the-last-version iPhone 6s—and then detailing all the changes under the hood. The Apple TV is genuinely new, and Apple very well may sell a lot of them.

As Apple has shown before, it doesn’t always need to change the world to satisfy its customers and make a ton of money. After all, sometimes doing business with the right partners and adopting the right features trumps putting a dent in the universe.


Here’s a video that summarizes Apple’s presentations from Wednesday: