By Stephen Schenck | November 13, 2012 7:02 AM
Apple’s announcement of the first iPhone marked a sea change in what we expected from smartphones, single-handedly transforming the market. Gone were the days when a smartphone was little more than a cellular radio stapled onto a clunky PDA operating system, replaced by a multi-touch-based environment that, more than just being functional, was fun to use. In the years that followed, Apple saw many competitors rise up and try to usurp its spot at the top, but few even came close to giving Apple anything to worry about. Lately, however, there’s been some talk that Apple has been letting its game slip, and the advantages the iPhone once enjoyed over its competition are starting to become less relevant. Let’s take a look at four ways in which Apple has found itself on the decline.
Let’s not split any hairs here; Steve Jobs was an absolutely huge part of what Apple was, and why it found so much success with smartphones and tablets. While we’ve seen since his passing that Apple has been able to carry on with its business without straying too far from what we had come to expect from the company under Jobs, his absence is nonetheless palpable.
Tim Cook is certainly accomplished, and no one’s doubting his management ability, but he’s had some positively gargantuan shoes to fill. Without even considering his business acumen, it’s become clear that Cook just doesn’t have the presence that Jobs commanded, and a large part of what made Apple so special wasn’t just what products it had, but how the company made you feel about them. Jobs was a master at keeping us on the edge of our seats, captivated in interest and wonder. While the legacy that Steve Jobs left will continue to ripple out into Apple’s future, it’s difficult to argue that today’s Apple still has quite the same magic without him.
Time was, Apple’s new products arrived much like a manufacturer delivered each year’s new car designs. While Apple thought up its own naming strategy, it could have easily released the 2007 iPhone, 2008 iPhone… up through the iPhone 5 as the 2012 iPhone, without confusing anyone. Even though those releases didn’t come like clockwork, they fit a general-enough schedule that you could pick up a new model around launch time and remain confident that it would still be state-of-the-art for about the next year.
That’s becoming less and less of a certainty now. We just heard rumors that limited production runs of iPhone 5S hardware could kick-off in a month’s time, and seeing the iPad 4 arrive so comparatively soon after the iPad 3 made its debut already has Apple users concerned that the company is releasing hardware faster than they can keep up with it.
After all, part of the allure of being a dedicated Apple user is following the company’s release cycles, and even when things get expensive, keeping yourself outfitted with the company’s newest and best gear as soon as it becomes available. If Apple pushes its luck too far and makes that sort of fandom untenable for many users, it could lose the backing of some of its most ardent supporters.
A good product should very nearly sell itself. Last year, when Apple introduced the iPhone 4S, one of its big selling points was Siri. That made a lot of sense, as more nebulous improvements like a slightly faster processor are difficult to demonstrate in very impressive ways to a non-technical audience. A futuristic feature like Siri, on the other hand, was just made to be promoted. Problem was, Apple needed a way to sell the new iPhone, so it decided not to bring Siri to the iPhone 4.
As we subsequently saw thanks to the work of the very talented iOS development community, there weren’t any real technical limitations for that restriction. Where in the past iOS users could derisively point to all the OS fragmentation and spotty feature coverage seen by Android devices, here they were getting the same treatment from Apple. Ultimately, the whole affair seemed to highlight Apple losing a bit of confidence in its ability to drive sales the old fashioned way.
Loss Of Innovation
It’s been a while since Apple’s manged to “wow” me. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure I’ve been soundly impressed since the debut of the Retina display on the iPhone 4. Even subsequent improvements along that line, like the move to a widescreen display for the iPhone 5 or bringing the same high-res screen to the iPad 3, lack the same impact; they’re obvious next steps, not bold first steps.
In a lot of ways, Apple’s been playing catch-up in recent years. It was slow to dual-core, it was slow to LTE, and who knows if it’s ever going to get around to implementing anything like NFC. Instead, over in Android-land, manufacturers are trying everything new they can think of. Sure, 3D displays on smartphones fizzled on arrival, but at least Android manufacturers gave them a shot. Phablet-sized handsets aren’t for everyone, but more and more manufacturers are making five-inch-and-up models available for customers who are interested.
The net result of this is that, all things considered, Apple’s devices are becoming less compelling as time goes on. It absolutely still makes some very attractive models, but they’re no longer head-and-shoulders above their competition. With the release of the iPhone 5, quality control issues reared their ugly head, and it became harder to argue that Apple gear was better-made than everything else that’s out there.
So, what’s all this going to mean for Apple? Will it continue to be able to demand the premium prices that have been so profitable for the company? Especially considering the incredibly low price tag Google secured for the Nexus 4, the smartphone market could be in store for some big pricing shake-ups. Will Apple adapt, or continue to move at its own pace, regardless of what its competition is doing?
Apple needs to think long and hard about its place in the smartphone and tablet spheres. After lasting for so long as the unqualified “guy to beat”, it may finally be time for Apple to look at how it fits in among everyone else, rather than sitting loftily above them. The Apple story is far from over, but its best days may already be behind it.