Friday, 21 September 2012

Judging Apple: It's Really (Still) About Steve

It's been interesting to watch the passionate reactions flow back and forth about Apple's iPhone 5 announcement.  Most of them fall into two camps:

-Apple is failing.  The announcement was a boring disappointment, Apple is falling behind on features, and its execution is deteriorating.  Just look at the mapping app in iOS 6.


-The Apple haters don't get it.  Look at the huge sales, Apple has always focused on functionality over feature list, and you have no idea how impressive it is that they packed that much circuitry into something so thin and elegant (link).  Oh, and that map thing is a tactical retreat to get a better long-term future.

Both sides have some valid points, but I think what's driving the peculiar energy in the debate is a question that almost no one's putting on the table, and that no one can answer yet: Can Apple without Steve Jobs still put lightning in a bottle?  Can it come up with that new category-busting product, like the iPhone and iPad, that overturns whole industries and makes us all nod our heads and say, "yes, of course, that's how the future should be"?

I think the Apple defenders generally believe that Apple can do it, and judge the current announcements as the normal incremental steps Apple takes between product revolutions.  The Apple critics don't take it for granted, and are studying each announcement for signs of bottled lightning.  When they don't get it, they feel uneasy, and that colors their comments.

The reality is that we don't know what the new Apple is capable of.  It's unfair (and unrealistic) to expect magic in every announcement.  The market can't absorb that much change, and no single company can produce it.  But until Apple rolls out a new category-changing product, we can't know if it is truly the same power it was before Steve died. 

Apple today is huge, rich company run by a bunch of middle-aged white guys who drive very expensive cars (link).  Like any company run by a homogenous team with low turnover, it makes them potentially vulnerable to getting out of touch with the real world.  That was also pretty much true before Steve died, but most people trusted that he had the mystical power of product design that enabled him to discern new product categories and make brilliant decisions about feature trade-offs.  We don't know if his acolytes can do that.  Is there a process for brilliance, or did that pass away with the founder?

When Apple made mistakes in the past, people trusted that it was an aberration that Steve would soon fix.  Now when there's a mistake, I think there's fear in many minds that this isn't an aberration, it's the new normal for Apple; that the company is turning into a big successful outfit that often does good incremental work but also makes big glaring errors because of inertia or internal politics, and is too self-absorbed to see them before they go splat in public -- like the abortive decision to withdraw from Epeat green certification (link), like the rescinded staffing changes in the Apple stores (link), and like the mapping situation.

Apple's success makes it a target for huge, powerful competitors: Samsung, Google, Microsoft, and others. Its ultimate defense has always been its ability to change the rules, to alter the competitive landscape in ways that put the other guys at a lasting disadvantage.  If Apple has lost its ability to change the world, the fear is that it'll become the business equivalent of the battleship Bismarck: a stationary target as more and more business firepower is concentrated against it.

We don't yet know what the new Apple can really do, and it'll take another two years or so to find out for sure.  Until then, we should expect the passionate debate between the faithful and the skeptics to be renewed every time Apple announces anything.  Just keep in mind that the debate won't really be about the products.  It'll really be about Steve.

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