Apple rot

In The Lost Luster of the Juicy Apple Rumor, Steve Smith writes, “Most of the current rumors surrounding the fabled company involve Apple catching up to trends.” Ouch. In Samsung vs. Apple: Losing My Religion, which ran in AdAge last month, Barbara Lippert, a longtime member of the “Cult of Cupertino,” wrote, “The truth hurts.” That was in reference to Samsung ads that made fun of Apple, which she called “open for parody” — especially after the iPhone 5 turned out to be “a bit of a ‘meh.’” (I know: it’s not, but if that’s the perception…)

Look around the world today and you see a lot of Apple. If you’re making apps, you need a good reason not to make them for iPhones and iPads, just like you needed a good reason not to write for Windows late in the last millennium. There are just too damn many Apple thingies out there.

But we’re talking about high-turnover consumer electronics here. The life expectancy of a phone or a pad is 18 months. If that. Meanwhile, look at what Apple’s got:

  • The iPhone 5 is a stretched iPhone 4s, which is an iPhone 4 with sprinkles. The 4 came out almost 3 years ago. No Androids are as slick as the iPhone, but dozens of them have appealing features the iPhone lacks. And they come from lots of different companies, rather than just one.
  • The only things new about the iPad are the retina screen (amazing, but no longer unique) and the Mini, which should have come out years earlier and lacks a retina screen.
  • Apple’s computer line is a study in incrementalism. There is little new to the laptops or desktops other than looks — and subtracted features. (And models, such as the 17″ Macbook Pro.) That goes for the OS as well.
  • There is nothing exciting on the horizon other than the hazy mirage of a new Apple TV. And even if that arrives, nothing says “old” more than those two letters: TV.

Yes, there is a good chance Apple will have a big beautiful screen, someday. Maybe that screen will do for Apple what Trinitron did for Sony. But it will not be an innovation on the scale of the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone or the retail stores, all of which debuted in the Steve Age.

Steve built Apple on the model of a Hollywood studio — or, more specifically, Pixar. Apple’s products are like what Hollywood calls “projects.” And, like Pixar, Apple has very few of them. The business model — yea, the very nature of the company — requires each project to be a blockbuster: one after another, coming out a year or few apart. This model is suited to movie studios and the old computer industry. But it isn’t to consumer electronics, which is where Apple lives today.

There hasn’t been one Apple blockbuster since Steve died. Dare we consider the possibility that there won’t be another? It’s more than conceivable.

And let’s not forget how iOS 6 default-forces you to use Apple’s still-awful Maps app, which may be the biggest value-subtract in the history of computing. It still sees no subways in New York. (Stops, yes; but nothing more at any of them than links to the MTA website.) As fails go, it has few equals.

Apple’s job is to make trends, not to chase them. At that it is failing today.

This can change, of course. For the sake of Apple and its nervous shareholders I hope it does. But for now, Apple is getting ripe.

18 comments

  1. Stu’s avatar

    “There hasn’t been one Apple blockbuster since Steve died…”

    It’s been barely over a year since Steve died. Some perspective, please? It was six years between the iPod and iPhone.

    Harping on Maps is getting a bit old, since Google maps is back (and free), and actually supports all the features that Google did not previously give Apple access to.

    “The iPhone 5 is a stretched iPhone 4s which is an iPhone 4 with sprinkles. The 4 came out almost 3 years ago.”

    And what of the Android devices that are basically incremental improvements of the original iPhone? With minor tweaks and extensions every year, and some questionable experiments (NFC). Or tablets that merely mimic the iPad, which if you recall, was considered a disappointment by the pundits on day one?

    Step-changes can’t happen every year. You seem to be seeking Apple as theatre rather than Apple as a consumer product company. The company can stay profitable for years on the current line – growth will stall, sure,
    but one doesn’t upend industries on a set schedule.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Stu, Steve died fifteen months ago. That’s a long time in the consumer electronics market, which is where Apple’s center of gravity is now.

    True, Androids originally knocked off iPhones. Now Androids are ahead in any number of ways, not least of which is lacking an imperative for locking the customer into a single hardware maker or phone company operator.

    As I said, Apple’s products are like Hollywood projects, and all of them today are stale. They’re movies that have gone to DVD. As step-changes, they need to speed up the pace. I’m sure they will, because they have to now. Meanwhile it helps to face the facts as they stand today.

    Here’s a question for you, or anybody. What of Apple was so not-Steve, yet still Insanely Great, that it survives as a persistent and reliable essence — one that produces blockbuster after blockbuster? This is what Tim Cook needs to show the world. We haven’t seen it yet.

  3. PXLated’s avatar

    Sorry Doc but this has to be the biggest bunch of malarkey you’ve ever written.

  4. calvin’s avatar

    I feel this Apple miasma too. Apples been here before. Where you can’t buy a box that does everything you need (like big enough harddrive) but that long interview with Tim Cook in business week made me feel better. And a couple days ago I began imagining what a computer phone could really be like… and the image in my mind was Mac OSX… only easier, but with all the hacker power of Unixy-Next baked right in.

    as cycles go, Apple’s next product should be for developers. but I wonder if it’s going to happen, or if it’s going to cost so much that the innovative developers can’t afford it. and by innovative, I mean young people with lots of ideas but not too much $.

    my iphone5 is as powerful as my PowerMac g4 350mhz that is still running in my closet as a webserver… and strangely, I can do more with my old mac than I can with my phone.

    I hope Apple can remember about the deep power of general purpose computing. That is the next great thing. Can Tim Cook swing Apple back in that direction? Because that is how Apple has always renewed… because that is how it was born.

    new creative power – development – maturation – perfection – stagnation – gestation and birth of new creative possibilities. it’s a cycle. Steve followed it his whole life. I wonder if he knew he did. The birthing process is the most messy, impossible, dangerous, misunderstood, process of all.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    PXLated: Ha! Could be you’re right. As I said, for Apple’s sake I hope that’s so.

    As for your tweet, I’m not whining, just observing.

    Just wondering if you think this was malarkey too, when I wrote it in 1997.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    calvin, I hope you’re right too. Though I gotta say the Tim Cook interview in BusinessWeek didn’t tell me much I didn’t know already, or could have guessed. One interesting thing is this stuff on the eleventh page of the article, where Tim says Steve didn’t want Tim to ask “What would Steve do?” In other words, Steve was handing the keys to the company over to Tim and saying “you drive.” Same car, new driver.

    What I see with Tim, and through this whole interview, is maturity. I mean that in both the good and bad senses of the word. Apple is a grown-up company, run by a grown-up guy. But, as Steve Smith says, it looks like Apple is chasing trends rather than making trends for others to chase. The only thing that will change people’s minds about that is some new trend-setting product. A blockbuster. Hope they have one soon.

  7. Craig Swanson’s avatar

    With friends like these…yikes.

    How to call bullshit on this tripe? Let me count the ways.

    1. They don’t march to an “electronics industry” drum. Is this right or wrong? I don’t know. Their tune is giving them what will shape up to be a killer decade. Beyond that, these alligator-tear laments about “meh” and trends and consumer perception, Jesus… unless you’re a Wall Street shill, why not calm down and see how it plays?

    2. Conflating Apple now and Microsoft then: you’re talking market share but you’re inferring a lot more. There is a huge difference to what drove MS dominance in the 80s and 90s and what drives Apple’s now. Are the reasons black and white? No. But by and large it was a non-computer age where precedents were set by a different set of (mostly enterprise-driven) factors. Versus recently, when technology as a commodity was ripe for a new set of ease of use paradigms and design sophistication. And if you think the story is different for developers, I doubt your crystal ball can see that far.

    3. “The iPhone 5 is a stretched” etc etc. Ai yi yi these complaints about iterative improvements shock and amuse the hell out of me. They remind me of a spoiled brat who’s always disappointed. (“That’s the Empire State Building? Meh!”) The retina screen: “amazing but no longer unique”… Jesus what a tough room. (When the thing can blow me, then we’ll talk.)

    4. “Nothing exciting on the horizon”… Excuse me I guess you do have a crystal ball. And you’re pissed it’s broken.

    Ah well WTF am I doing going through these points one by one? I’m just an acolyte after all.

    I think Apple is doing a great deal wrong too. Just not these ridiculously popular and successful product hardware related things so many people are complaining about. And nowhere near as great a deal as the number of things they’re doing right.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Well, this is the second time I’m writing this. The browser (Apple’s Safari, as it happens) crashed, and I lost the whole thing. So here goes again…

    Craig, I don’t mind if what I say turns out to be bullshit. I’m just saying what I see. So, to respond to your particulars.

    First (before the numbered items), I’m not a friend of Apple. I’ve been a customer since 1984, and a fairly impartial observer for the duration. I think they’ve done a lot of brilliant stuff that has made the world a better place in many ways. I had lots of nice things to say about them (and other companies) in The Intention Economy. But I’m also a professional Linux guy. So is Linus Torvalds, of course, and he’s lately been using a Macbook Air, for whatever that’s worth. So let’s do the numbers…

    On #1, Apple is an anomaly in any industry, and most recently in the consumer electronics one. So yes, they march to a very different drummer: long product cycles between category-defining innovations, minimized numbers of SKUs, high margins, great customer service, enviable retailing methods. Not your average consumer electronics company. But their biggest selling products occupy categories (yes, which they created) that are thick with ever-improving and ever-more numerous competitors. Look at Consumer Reports on smartphones and tablets. Apple’s are still at the top, or close, but no longer alone up there. They are surrounded by competing Android products, that iterate faster than Apple’s, and in most cases come at cheaper prices. This is non-trivial. Speaking of Wall Street, did you see how it reacted to Apple’s earnings today? I’m not alone in what I’m saying here. The difference is, I’m not a shill and I don’t get paid for it.

    On #2, I think you missed my point, which was simply that Apple’s iOS is a target platform of first resort for many developers, much as Microsoft’s was with the PC back in the decades. The reasons why are another matter.

    On #3, What I say about the iPhone 5 are assessments, not complaints. It’s a great phone. It’s also not the only one. I’m also not the one who called it “meh.” Hey, I’m not the tough room here. The market is. And it’s going to get tougher. Again, that’s not attitude on my part. It’s just observation.

    On #4, Apple wants us all to lack crystal balls. Do you see anything exciting on the horizon? Name it.

    FWIW, I devoted a chapter of the book to the symbiosis between Apple’s truly amazing market-creating vertical moves with the iPhone and the iPad, and Google’s horizontal moves with Android, and why the market needs both.

    I want Apple to do something new and cool and ground-breaking and sky-scraping, and then for others to knock it off and open up the new category and create a broad rich and open market surrounding the narrow, rich and closed market Apple likes to keep. But, I’m not seeing it yet. Nor is anybody else. That’s all I’m talking about here.

  9. Craig Swanson’s avatar

    Doc, thanks for taking the time to write twice. Of all coincidences, I know how annoying that is.

    I think there is some misunderstanding (on my part) of your intentions. You mention the market’s reaction in contrast to your own, OK, fair enough, I’m more than willing to say it’s the overall attitude of the universe that has my panties strangling my nethers, and if you say your writing is clear enough to separate you from the pack, that’s fine by me. I’m often guilty of having my back broken by straws.

    I think we differ on point #1 simply because we both see the same history but have different expectations of what a company should do. I happen to think Apple’s way (including all the facets you mention, e.g. such topics as their strategic silence) is pretty cool and it’s only in the 21st century that it really started to work to their market advantage and dominance. (Not being a very savvy business guy, I had hoped for it to work better 1984–1996.)

    Points 2 and 3, we’re aligned. Point 4, this is where I don’t get it. How much “vision” do any of us have to possess, or put another way, how many times does the cycle have to repeat, before we give Apple a little benefit of doubt? I mean, it’s worse than a damn baseball game: some guy hits 1, 2 home runs in a row. Third time up, another home run. Next day at the park, well, he was great yesterday but what has he done for us lately? I know SJ is dead and people are scared. I dismiss “the market” reaction, as you mention, analysts who are idiotic about a lot simpler industries, how the hell are they going to be sophisticated about Apple? But it’s troubling the herd is so willing to follow. OK so I have to get over that pipe dream. Do I know what’s on the horizon? Of course not. If there is one beauty about Apple, it’s that all people can do is guess 5S, “sprinkle” innovation, that’s as far as the herd imagination will go. And then folks cry that Apple isn’t innovating. To me, this is reasoning a la Kafka.

    There is only one thing I’m sure of: Apple has something wonderful coming. Will it arrive on your schedule or mine? Probably not. Will it be “too late”? Success? Failure? (One failure and they’re doomed, irrelevant!) Will there be another, or a string of other, market-defining products? I’m not betting against it.

    I guess my personality screams out “value investor”! And here I always thought I was growth.

    Thanks again for your reply.

  10. Duke’s avatar

    “my iphone5 is as powerful as my PowerMac g4 350mhz that is still running in my closet as a webserver… and strangely, I can do more with my old mac than I can with my phone.”

    But you’re certainly not going to put that PowerMac G4 in your pocket and be able to use it wherever you go. So I question the use of “more” in this statement.

  11. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Craig. I’m enjoying the dialog.

    On Point 4, you’re right: we don’t know what we don’t know. What we do know about Apple is that is is a profoundly original company. I am sure they have some number of wonderful things cooking in the oven, and with Tim cooking it (pun intended), everything will be lined up perfectly before it rolls out. It wasn’t with the iPhone 5 (the Maps debacle), and I’m sure that won’t happen again.

    There are two larger issues here. One is Apple without Steve and the other is the fate of all companies.

    Apple and Steve have always been examples only of themselves. You can’t copy what they did. Apple in the Steve Years was amazing and anomalous. And you could easily predict what would happen with Steve running things. I laid them out in 1997 in an email to Dave Winer after Steve returned from exile and promptly killed off the clones. Dave published it (at that link) and for awhile it was the top result in searches for Steve. Here’s what I said:

    The simple fact is that Apple always was Steve’s company, even when he wasn’t there. The force that allowed Apple to survive more than a decade of bad leadership, cluelessness and constant mistakes was the legacy of Steve’s original Art. That legacy was not just an OS that was 10 years ahead of the rest of the world, but a Cause that induced a righteousness of purpose centered around a will to innovate — to perpetuate the original artistic achievements. And in Steve’s absence Apple did some righeous innovation too. Eventually, though, the flywheels lost mass and the engine wore out.

    In the end, by when too many of the innovative spirts first animated by Steve had moved on to WebTV and Microsoft, all that remained was that righteousness, and Apple looked and worked like what it was: a church wracked by petty politics and a pointless yet deeply felt spirituality.

    Now Steve is back, and gradually renovating his old company. He’ll do it his way, and it will once again express his Art.

    These things I can guarantee about whatever Apple makes from this point forward:

    1. It will be original.
    2. It will be innovative.
    3. It will be exclusive.
    4. It will be expensive.
    5. It’s aesthetics will be impeccable.
    6. The influence of developers, even influential developers like you, will be minimal. The influence of customers and users will be held in even higher contempt.
    7. The influence of fellow business artisans such as Larry Ellison (and even Larry’s nemesis, Bill Gates) will be significant, though secondary at best to Steve’s own muse.

    Later I got kudos for being a prophet there, but all those were easy calls, just given who and what Steve was.

    So the first question is, Can Apple remain animated by the spirit of Steve — and stay true to that list there — in Steve’s absence?. All companies have souls. Lee Scott, the former Walmart CEO, told me that Sam Walton made all the big decisions, long after he died, because it was clear what Sam would have done. I believe the same will be true for Apple. And enough of Steve lives in the minds and hearts of Jony Ive and Tim Cook to keep the company on track for some time to come. But there was stuff Steve did that nobody else can do. Steve changed industries. Radically. Over and over. Personal computing. Publishing. Printing. Music. Movies. Phones. Tablets. Retailing. In a heat map of any mall occupied by an Apple Store, that one store outshines all the others, combined. It’s freaking amazing. Can Apple keep doing that? For its sake, I hope so. But one can’t discount the absence of a genius CEO of Steve’s heft.

    Which brings me to the second question: Can Apple escape the fate of all companies? Which is, they die. See Geoffrey West’s TED talk on the math of cities and companies, and why the former tend to keep living while the latter die. All of them. Eventually. Trees do not grow to the sky.

    No big company in history has ever been more identified with its founding CEO, or owes more of its success to that one person, than Apple. Now that CEO is dead. This is a non-trivial matter with extreme existential implications. Steve himself did all he could to leave the company in capable hands. But companies are mortal.

    Apple will look a lot less mortal after it comes out with that “something wonderful” you’re waiting for. But it will be no less mortal in the long run. And, in the meantime, one would be wise not to discount the rot. Because it’s real, for every big company, no matter what.

  12. Craig Swanson’s avatar

    I knew you agreed with me. ;-)

    Seriously, I think it’s a question of tone. My point is not that a company, any company, will live and thrive and make magic forever. Far from it. But we’re all way, way, I say way too early to make any pronouncements one way or the other. (After all, IBM is still doing all right. For that matter, so is Brooks Brothers, Wiley Publishing, and Jim Beam.) And I mean early even if Apple hits 2 or 3 innings worth of foul balls. (Of course such a thing would cause the market to really freak out, if yesterday’s response is any indication.)

    As I said before, or meant to, I don’t know how long Apple can run. But the first lieutenants and contemporaneous apostles are at the helm. I don’t expect Wall Street to take note, but the rest of us who have some sense of history and proportion, surely we can.

  13. Duke’s avatar

    “Lee Scott, the former Walmart CEO, told me that Sam Walton made all the big decisions, long after he died, because it was clear what Sam would have done.”

    That makes me chuckle, because I actually worked for Wal-Mart, starting about two years after Sam Walton died. And while I was there, all I ever heard from the old-timers was that everything was changing. That Sam never would have done it that way. That Sam was for the employees and management was taking everything away. So a former CEO might have felt that way, but the people I knew that worked in the stores certainly did not.

  14. putri’s avatar

    Apple today seems to be a bit “lame” in compare to its competitor Samsung. You can see that when Samsung launched Galaxy S3 Apple also launched their product i.e. iphone 5. They are at race in the sales right now. But recently Samsung released Galaxy S3 mini which answer that ths S3 is expensive. What about Apple, is there any of their product that not only satisfy their consumer with a high quality product but also affordable?

  15. PXLated’s avatar

    I think what you wrote in 1997 was true/accurate back then – Different times, different team now. Will be interesting to watch and see what transpires.

  16. PXLated’s avatar

    Good back-n-forth between you two (Craig/Doc) — I tend to look at Apple more as Craig does though.

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