Steve Jobs unveiled plans yesterday for a new Apple campus. The project is huge, visionary, impractical, expensive and beautiful. In other words, it's an Apple product.
Jobs presented the plans in outline to the Cupertino, Calif., City Council, the Silicon Valley city where Apple’s current headquarters and future campus reside.
Apple watchers are forever reading whatever tea leaves are available to divine Apple's intentions, vision and plans for the future. This is increasingly important because Apple's products are not only growing across the board in market share, but those products are arguably the most influential in shaping the direction of the entire industry. If you look at the iPhone and the iPad, and the iOS and App Store, you can see how Apple’s products influence most major products in the industry.
I think Apple's new building tells you everything you need to know about Apple, its CEO and the future of its products.
Here's what Apple's campus plans tell us:
Apple's new building is an absolutely enormous circle. My own estimate based on Jobs' presentation and Google Maps puts it at 1,200 feet in diameter. That means a person gazing out the window on one side of the building will be four football fields in distance away from a person doing the same thing on the other side, yet they will be in the same building. To walk around the outside of the building will involve a slog of three-quarters of a mile, and will take you at about 15 minutes. It’s huge.
The ambition of Apple's building reveals Apple's ambition as a company. They want to be the biggest and most successful maker of computers and mobile devices, control Hollywood and own the living room.
The whole project is designed to solve the problem of 12,000 extra employees in the area, staffers who can't fit in Apple's existing headquarters campus. Any other company would build a campus containing dozens of buildings. This is what Google, Microsoft and every other company facing growth have in fact done. But Apple is putting them all into one single building, which is also within walking distance to their headquarters.
Putting this many employees in a single building is inefficient, expensive, difficult and problematic in many ways (creating challenges around safety, parking, ease of access and others). But to Apple, simplification through consolidation trumps all other considerations.
The intent to consolidate the functionality of the iPhone 4's antenna with the functionality of its frame got Apple into trouble with the "antenna-gate" fiasco. Apple was willing to sacrifice call quality for simplicity through consolidation.
The impulse that resulted in the iPad having only one round button is the same impulse that will result in those 12,000 employees being crammed into one round building.
If Apple can simplify through consolidation, it will.
Silicon Valley is carpeted with endless office parks, which are efficient, inexpensive to build and maintain, convenient and practical. They also, according to Jobs, "get pretty boring pretty fast."
In recent years, as Jobs has successfully infected other Apple executives with his way of doing things, the company has become incapable of doing things that don't impress in a big way. The new building looks like it could become one of California's most impressive architectural achievements. It's the kind of thing that will probably move people emotionally, just by looking at it. And this is what Apple attempts with its hardware products and retail stores.
After this monstrosity is built (Jobs' optimistic estimate is 2015), you can be sure that the building will always be shown on news programs and articles about the company. Spaceship Apple will become a symbol of the company, its stature, aesthetic and power.
The giant structure will physically lord over Silicon Valley as the unmistakable King of the Campuses. The image in the minds of the public about Google involves nerdy geeks playing with colorful toys scattered around. But the image of Apple will become this space-age, all-powerful Pentagon, but without the unsightly edges.
I've been to the current HP campus that Apple has purchased and slated for upgrading, and it's a really nice set of buildings -- easily within the 98th percentile for office space in Silicon Valley. It has all the things Apple needs -- a bleeding edge conference center, great office buildings, lots of convenient parking, easy access by road and foot.