Apple: The New Headquarters of Computing

You probably thought that the biggest news out of Apple this week was about iCloud, the new cloud data sharing service unveiled at the World Wide Developer Conference in San Francisco. Or maybe you’d point to iOS 5, the next version of Apple’s operating system for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, or Lion, the impending update for the OS X desktop operating system. Nope. Those developments are all important, for reasons I’ll dissect a bit below, but they were also widely expected and, to a large extent, inevitable.

To my mind, Apple made its biggest news this week 50 miles away from WWDC, at Cupertino City Hall. That’s where Steve Jobs shared the company’s eye-opening plans for its new headquarters campus, which will be dominated by a vast, circular, spaceship-like structure with room for as many as 13,000 people, or nearly everyone Apple employs in the city. (That’s a workforce now scattered across 60 separate buildings; only 2,600 of them fit on the company’s Infinite Loop campus.)

The new Apple HQ won’t quite rival the Pentagon, which holds twice as many workers. But with 3.1 million square feet of floor space, it will be by far the largest structure in Silicon Valley, and the most iconic, making Oracle’s Redwood Shores towers look so 1989.

All of which befits Apple’s emerging role as one of the world’s most important companies. Indeed, I think the symbolism behind the design for the edifice—unveiled, just as if it were the latest iPhone or iPad, by Jobs himself—bears some examination. It isn’t just that the new headquarters will be big—about three city blocks in diameter. It’s that it’s a circle, which to my mind has all sorts of interesting connotations:

1) Ancient philosophers such as Plato considered the circle to be the most perfect and mysterious shape—a symbol of truth, divinity, and transcendence. (Today we know that pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, is literally a transcendental number.) That seems pretty appropriate for a company obsessed with simplicity and great design—and for a structure that Jobs hopes will be “the best office building in the world.”

2) A circle is the most efficient shape for putting a lot of employees within close walking distance of their managers and one another. That’s an important factor at a company known for strong, top-down leadership. Related to this (and perhaps on the downside):

3) Apple’s design recalls the panopticon, a circular prison designed in the 18th century by English social philosopher Jeremy Bentham to allow guards to observe all of the inmates at once. The only thing missing from Apple’s plans is the central tower.

4) The Apple “spaceship” design looks a lot like the UK Government Communications Headquarters, home to MI 5, MI 6, and the rest of Britain’s spy community. (See a theme here?)

5) Glass circles are big at Apple’s retail stores—the downtown Boston store has a cool circular staircase, for example, and the atrium of the Shanghai store is one giant glass cylinder. Once Apple gets a design meme in its collective head, it works it and reworks it. So it will be interesting to see whether the idea pops up in the form of a product. Maybe the iPhone 7 will be a round, glassy thing like the palm-held holo-projectors in the Star Wars prequels.

6) The circle retains the symbolism of Infinite Loop, the street that allows employees to circumnavigate Apple’s current campus at I-280 and De Anza Boulevard.

7) It also symbolizes the numeral zero, which, along with 1, is the foundation of the digital revolution. On top of that (as Scott Forstall would say), “circle” has the same root as “circuit”—the Greek base ker, meaning to turn or bend.

8) One ring to rule them all.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist that last one. I don’t really mean to compare Steve Jobs to Sauron or Apple to Mordor. But as longtime readers know, my ambivalence toward Apple does run deep (see my January 2010 column “The Apple Paradox“). I love the company’s hardware and software, and I have enormous respect for its history of innovation, which is truly unparalleled. But at the same time, I have a hard time seeing how anybody could be happy working there (if you read Fortune‘s May 23 feature on Apple, you’ll wonder too). And the success of companies like Google seems to show that you don’t need to be quite as secretive or autocratic as Apple to stay innovative.

My own qualms aside, though, it’s impossible to deny Apple’s new dominance in the technology world. Sure, there are still more desktop and laptop computers out there running Windows than machines running Mac OS X, thanks to the historic size of Microsoft’s installed base and the slower turnover rate for PCs. But on many other important metrics, Apple is winning. Apple’s iOS is the leading mobile operating system, installed on 44 percent of mobile devices (if you count tablets and the iPod touch, that is; Android is ahead if you count only smartphones). In 2010, Apple surpassed rivals Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, and Dell to become the world’s largest buyer of semiconductors. And these days Apple’s market capitalization roughly matches that of Microsoft and Intel—the old “Wintel” consortium—combined. (Apple was worth $307 billion as of yesterday, compared to Microsoft and Intel’s combined $317 billion.)

The message here is that Apple’s perfectionism is working. More than any other company, it’s showing consumers a vision of how computing and communications should work that fits with their practical needs and their instinctive desires. So Jobs is absolutely right that the headquarters campus of the world’s most successful consumer electronics company should be more than a hodgepodge of buildings surrounded by parking lots. Maybe this is my inner Don Draper speaking, but why shouldn’t Apple’s headquarters embody the same perfectionistic dream built into Apple’s products—a dream about a future where everyone is affluent and travels by bike or Prius and works in eco-conscious buildings and is inspired by their high-tech tools and their pastoral surroundings to be more creative and productive? (If you watched Jobs’ presentation to the Cupertino City Council, you couldn’t miss his repeated references to Apple’s greenification plan. The company will cover 80 percent of the 150-acre site with native trees and grasses, even returning parts of the land to 1930s-era apricot orchards.)

Within that bigger painting of Apple’s future, this week’s announcements about Lion, iOS 5, and iCloud are just brushstrokes, and predictable ones at that. To me, the changes previewed at WWDC were all about taking touch-driven interfaces and cloud-based sharing closer to their logical conclusions.

Once Apple realized what a hit it had on its hands with iOS for the iPhone and the iPad, it became clear that the OS X interface would have to be reworked to incorporate the best ideas from the touchscreen universe. So Lion makes a Mac work more like an iPad—and there’s not much more to be said. As for iOS 5, I can’t wait to get it on my own devices, but in most ways this version of iOS is about housecleaning and catching up with features offered by competitors and third-party developers. For example, the operating system will now have a central “newsstand” app that brings some order to the mess of separate apps currently offered by magazine publishers. It will offer a notifications system that matches Android’s, and it will include an Instapaper-like system for saving and reading stories on the Web.

The iCloud announcement was a little more interesting. From a consumer’s point of view, cloud computing isn’t about far-away data centers; it’s about being able to share, update, and back up apps, office documents, and media (songs, photos, videos) in a way that’s instant, automatic, and wireless. So iCloud isn’t a product as such. It’s just Apple’s way of branding the fact that it’s baking cloud sharing more deeply into its own software, from OS X to iOS to apps such as iTunes and iWork, while helping third-party developers do the same.

Jobs made a big deal at WWDC of the fact iCloud replaces and improves upon MobileMe, an unreliable service that he never liked. But I think it also marks the beginning of the end for another product: iTunes. I’m on the record about my dislike of the horribly bloated program, which has long been the only tool Apple customers have for moving apps and media between their computers, phones, music players, and tablets. “The sooner Apple demolishes iTunes and builds a new software tower as the hub for its nifty complex of media devices, the happier I’ll be,” I wrote back in September 2010. So I’m pretty happy about iCloud and the associated changes in iOS and OS X, because they’re finally going to allow Apple customers to cut the cord and bypass the crufty old iTunes software.

As Jobs explained, the arrival of iCloud means that your laptop or desktop computer is about to get a demotion: it will now be just one of the devices that needs to be updated every time something changes on one of your other devices (say, when you buy a song or an app or make a change to a Pages document). The updating will all be handled by Apple’s cloud servers, not by iTunes, and your Apple ID will the consistent thread linking your devices, instead of your USB cables. Apple will probably keep iTunes around as the media nerve center for your Mac, and as the gateway to the iTunes Store for buying music and movies, but that’s all it will be. I wish it a long and quiet retirement.

By the time Jobs or his successor is cutting the ribbon at Apple’s shiny new headquarters in 2015 or so, we will all have forgotten about iTunes and Lion and iOS 5. And no one will talk about “cloud” computing, because that’s the way all computing will work. This week was all about getting a little closer to that future.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Wade, thanks for the really thought provoking article. You have deftly articulated the love-hate relationships in Apple products & management style that both excite and annoy. I too think it notable that Mr. Steve Jobs himself unveiled the building plans to the city council – and that its form and future will continue to fuel discussions about loving/hating Apple. They have earned respect for their vision and execution, whether one agrees with them or not.

  • joshuadf

    Great points, though you don’t mention a new competitor to Apple in the tablet space, which is with their no-frills music store and Kindle. Also interestingly is in the middle of a new headquarters as well, though this article says it’s roughly half the size as Apple’s proposal at 1.7m sq ft:
    Architecturally the Apple and campuses are quite a contrast, One Building to Rule Them All vs 11 buildings of varied design in an urban area with public retail and restaurants on the ground floor.

  • … and the hammer that was thrown into the Orwellian screen so long ago is still flying through the ether … and into The Ring!

  • Apple’s proposed new HQ is the Pentagon for the technology age

  • Bob Shaw

    I wish they would have first paid some dividend on shares or bought back some stock prior to spending money on the new HQ. Atleast it would have moved the stock price up rather than stagnating for past 8 months.

  • Most of the features I read on Web looked science-fiction kind of which is unlikely to be released by Apple. Let’s see what Tim cook has cooked for us on Oct 4th :)