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San Francisco's New Apple Store Shows Little 'Think Different' Spirit

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A pedestrian stands across the street from the new Apple Inc. flagship store at Union Square during the grand opening in San Francisco on May 21. The flagship location boasts 40-foot-tall doors opening onto the square and comprises five departments, or what Apple prefers to call "features." David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty

Entering the new Apple Store in San Francisco’s Union Square, I felt as if I’d stumbled on some distant outpost of the late Roman Empire, a crumbling fort in the Welsh countryside that is a reminder of glories past, but also of the passing of all glories. For the glory of Apple is inevitably passing, the company having posted its first quarter of revenue decline since 2003, back when iPods were the size of baseball mitts. In the past year, Apple’s invasion of China has been slow, and like Alexander the Great, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has found India difficult to conquer. As went Rome and Constantinople, so must go Cupertino.

The new San Francisco store is Apple’s “first global flagship,” I was told by employees on each of my visits. What this means was never explained, probably because it has no meaning at all, the kind of corporate jargon that would have once been beneath Silicon Valley’s merriest band of computer geeks. Nevertheless, this opening marks an important occasion for all who've bitten the lovely fruit of Wozniak and Jobs. Apple gadgets are never just phones or just watches, and its stores are never just stores, which is likely why your iOS device corrects Apple store to Apple Store. Shopping there suggests a kind of cosmopolitan cool, a borderless sophistication. It is a place where you can consume without feeling like a consumer.

Designed by the firm of famed British architect Sir Norman Foster, with Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts, the Union Square store replaces an older outlet nearby on Stockton Street that opened in 2004. The message of the new store, in the heart of San Francisco’s high-end shopping district, serves as a warning all those who are already writing elegies for the House that Steve Built: Everything under control, nothing to worry about, we aren’t anything like those losers at Yahoo. The sleek surfaces, the cheerful employees in green T-shirts, the rows of iPhones and Apple Watches—all work collectively to reassure us that the ingredients of greatness may need to be updated, à la Coke Zero, but they will never be bastardized, à la Coke BlāK.

I, however, came away unconvinced by the performance. Two prolonged visits—which I used in part to write this article, at one of the many laptop stations on the second floor balcony, which overlooks Union Square—left me a little uneasy about the hype Apple had generated over the store’s opening. One question lingered, simple and damning: Was that it? And let me add that I had previously bought happily into Apple hype, entirely willing to treat the introduction of the latest iPhone like a Roman citizen cheering madly Caesar’s return from a Gallic conquest. Because, honestly, the latest iPhone makes me deeply happy, as did all the iPhones that came before it. Yet will there not be a time when there will cease to be new iPhones? A time when we will all be forced into Android or some other dreary platform? And then a time when we won’t have phones and platforms at all? Will the joys of the swipe and drag be replaced by retinal movement or neural waves? Must the world I know pass away?

Is this first global flagship really just a fancy crypt?

What has happened to Apple is what happens to all the rest of us: it got old. It’s not yet pathetically old, like the Berkeley gray-hairs with “McGovern ’72” stickers on their ’70 Beetles, but there will come a time when shopping at an Apple Store will be as lame as shopping at a Best Buy. Which, of course, became only lame because of the Apple Store. Sic transit gloria mundi, goes the ancient admonition. We are all fated for oblivion, or at least the half-vacant strip mall near the airport. 

Foster + Partners designed the space, which broadcasts wealth and prestige far removed from the company’s “Think Different” era. Foster is the architect for corporate patrons who want to think themselves good citizens: Swiss Re in London, Hearst in New York. He has designed Apple Stores elsewhere, and is designing the new Apple headquarters in Silicon Valley. Announcing the "global flagship" in San Francisco, the Apple press release quoted Jony Ive, the company’s design genius, crowing about “breaking down barriers and making it more egalitarian and accessible.” This seems to be a clever allusion to Apple’s famous 1984 television ad, in which an iconoclast hurls a sledgehammer at an Orwellian figure on an enormous screen. More than three decades later, though, Apple is much closer to the powerful figurehead than to the lone rebel. Its new store is a box of gray metal and glass, at odds with the neoclassical architecture of the surrounding blocks. You feel power at work, not imagination at play. You wonder if it too will meet the sledgehammer one day.

It is true that the store has 42-foot glass doors that slide to create an opening to the street. But a row of trees in planters stands in front of those open doors, slowing the flow between street and store. Once you do get inside, you’re on the main sales floor, which seems to resemble the sales floor of every other Apple Store: rows of products you are free to use, provided that you look like the sort of person who might buy something. And everybody here, whether from Omaha or Barcelona, looks like she might buy something. For all the talk of community and creativity, the profit motive is what truly counts here.

You might have also come because you can’t get “Hotline Bling” to play when a new text message arrives. On the second floor (a balcony cleaved in half by a large wall that serves, on one side, as an enormous video screen), there is a Genius Grove, an update of the Genius Bar. The Foster + Partners release celebrates this as a “more relaxed setting amongst a small grove of trees.” There are trees: eight of them, in leather planters that double as seats. This does not constitute a grove, in my non-arborist’s opinion. The first time I asked, I was told the trees were avocados, which was not true, but did introduce the enticing possibility of guacamole. The next time I asked, I was given the accurate answer: ficus. So there will be no guacamole in the Genius Grove.

While waiting for your Genius appointment, your eyes may alight on the offerings of “The Avenue,” which, in Apple's unwelcome jargon, “is inspired by the window displays along a boulevard.” Alas, these are simply shelves stocked with third-party merchandise. If you want a boulevard, I suggest a trip to Paris. Which you can book entirely from your iPhone.

The other half of the balcony is devoted to a sort of hang-out space grandiosely deemed “The Forum,” with long tables where you can work on a laptop or get help with your device. There are also rectangular chairs where you can sit and, presumably, conference with colleagues from your Uber-for-pizza startup or listen to a tutorial on how to achieve the enlightened state known as Inbox Zero. There is also a “Boardroom,” which entrepreneurs can book for meetings and consultations. It is behind a door, in a corner, next to the bathrooms. The outdoor space (“The Plaza”), with its Ruth Asawa fountain, predates the store. It has one of those living walls covered in plants, a feature I’ve come to find disorienting: nothing natural can be so purely vertical.

There’s something sadly ironic about Apple trying to create “community,” given that its devices have so efficiently atomized people, leaving them alone and sleepless, ever alert for the iPhone’s needful ping. Touting “community” to hawk hardware is exactly the kind of bullshit play a leaner, tougher Apple would have never tried. I am not loyal to my iPhone because of community. I am loyal to my iPhone because I can stream Veep, annotate a book and edit an article while flying seven miles above the surface of the Earth. If I wanted community, I’d take one of those classes in which you can paint while drinking wine.

Standing on the balcony of the new Apple store in Union Square, I saw a billboard peeking above the trees. It advertised another American company overtaken by more nimble competitors. Its market share remains impressive, but that has more to do with legacy than the kind of innovation that captures young hearts and minds. There, looking down into the Apple Store, was an advertisement for Bud Light.

I lingered for a little while, then went back downstairs, where tourists crouched to photograph the rows of gleaming Apple devices with their own Apple devices, sullied with fingerprints and dandruff, evidence of happy, continual use. The store was full of cheerful activity. The persistent popularity of Samsung? The rise of virtual reality? The advent of wearables? These were distant concerns. There was no need to think of them here, in the empire’s resplendent heart.