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Lack of innovation will be the death of Apple

September 11, 2016


The worldwide media speculation about the iPhone 7 shows that five years after Steve Jobs’ passing, in October of 2011, Apple Inc.’s product launches retain much of the allure that Jobs ‘ wizardry as CEO invested them with.

It was amazing to see that in the hours leading up to the Wednesday, September 7 launch of the iPhone 7, the top trending item on the website of the New York Times was speculation as to whether or not Apple was dropping the 3.5mm headphone jack from it’s flagship device.

One could even speculate that as greatly insane as the leadership of North Korea may be, they still carefully scheduled their latest nuclear test not to coincide with one of Apple’s “insanely great” media-hogging product launches.

The only thing that’s changed is, uh…

As one pundit put it however, the launch of the iPhone 7 (sans headphone jack) was a far cry from the “insanely great” launches of Steve Jobs.

The two hour event saw Apple roll out incremental upgrades of two of its products: the iPhone and the Apple Watch. There wasn’t a major new product to be seen.

The closest things to news—the only things really—that the media could wring out of the event were that Apple dropped the 3.5mm headphone jack (something that had been expected for months) and that the company was coming out with expensive wireless earbuds called “Airpods”.

The iPhone 7 event highlighted the sharp differences between the second Steve Jobs era of Apple—which was about leading the market with seemingly revolutionary new products—and the Apple of current CEO Tim Cook, which is far more about evolving existing product lines and following the market with Apple versions of existing product categories.

There was nothing fundamentally new or groundbreaking about last year’s Apple Watch and there’s certainly nothing very new about wireless earbuds.

There are already plenty of the latter on the market and Apple’s plans for its wireless earbuds have been one of the notoriously secretive company’s worst-kept secrets for years.

The ones you’ve been waiting for

One of the drawings from Apple's U.S. Patent No. 9,277,309, for magnetically detatchable wireless earbuds.

Drawings from Apple’s 2012 U.S. Patent for magnetically “detachable wireless listening device”.

Apple has been sitting on U.S. Patent No. 9,277,309 for a magnetically “detachable wireless listening device” since October of 2012, and, in July of 2016, MacRumours convincingly showed that Apple was behind a trademark application for the term “Airpod”, ostensibly filed by Entertainment in Flight LLC (an Apple shell company) in October of 2015.

The drawings accompanying Apple’s 2012 patent application show earbuds sensibly connected to each other by an under-the-chin cord but speculation (accurate, as it turned out) was that the iPhone 7 Airpods would be, to quote SlashGear, “completely wireless, without a cord to even connect the two earpieces”.

Mighty small

No, not in the storm drain!

No, not in the storm drain!

Airpods look a lot like the original iPod earbuds without the foam covers or wires.

Those original iPod earbuds, I recall, were quite prone to popping out of one’s ears. The newer-style earbuds with the soft silicon tips are much better at staying put but they can still can pop out unexpectedly. If both buds weren’t connected to a cord, I’m sure I’d lose plenty of them—especially in the dark.

As for the Airpods, a writer with the Guardian newspaper gloriously and dismissively compared the them to a tampon without the string.

I was instantly reminded of the mittens that I had as a small child in Saskatchewan. Like traditional earbuds, these mittens were also joined by a long string, threaded up one sleeve of my parka, across my back and out the other sleeve. Thanks to that annoying cord I couldn’t loose those mitts for trying—though I certainly longed to lose that cord.

When I did finally outgrow this tyrannical symbol of childhood, I gained the freedom to…well, lose at least one glove or mitten every winter.

Decent mittens can be had for $15 or less, though. Apple’s Airpods are expected to cost about USD$159. There’s no word if Apple will sell single side replacements.

Apple has old written all over it


People may have forgotten just how prolifically Apple came out with really new stuff during the 13 years that Steve Jobs was the company’s CEO, between 1998 and 2010.

Before Jobs was forced by failing health to step down as Apple’s CEO on August 24, 2011, the company released at least one new major product every year—iMacs, the iBook, OS X, iPods, iTunes, the switch to Intel processors, the MacBook Pro, the iPhone, Apple TV, the MacBook Air, iPad, Time Capsule, just to name the highlights.

In the subsequent five years under CEO Tim Cook Apple has not released five new products—arguably, it has only released one, the Apple Watch, along with many new generations of existing products.

I’m not going to say that the magic has left the Apple headquarter at 1 Infinite Loop, in Cupertino, California (I don’t believe that Steve Jobs ever indulged in magical thinking) but compared to the frantic pace that Jobs maintained, it looks as though Apple has largely been living off the success of its established product lines, especially the iPhone.

No consumer technology company, particularly not one so known for innovation, can afford to rest on its laurels like this—not for five years. It has a way of catching up with a company, as it arguably has with Apple.

In Apple’s third quarter results for 2016 the company reported declining sales for each of its hardware lines; the second straight quarter of such declines.

Year-on-year, the numbers sold of iPhones dropped 15 percent; Macs, 11 percent and iPads, 9 percent. Apple doesn’t break out sales of the Apple Watch but computer industry analyst IDC estimated in July that Apple Watch sales had fallen 55 percent in 12 months.

At USD$42.4 billion, Apple’s revenue was down 15 percent year-on-year—the first such decline for the company in 13 years.

It’s hard to believe that the iPhone 7 will be enough to lift Apple out of its sales doldrums. The loss of the headphone jack may not discourage existing iPhone users from upgrading but it’s also not much of an incentive either.

There’s also the apparently growing problem of the iPhone 6 “touch disease” that can suddenly render the screen (and thus the phone) unusable. This is a sort of sequel to the earlier “bendgate” problem of 2014, which saw hundreds of first generation iPhone 6 models break from flexing in user’s pockets.

Apple ultimately fixed that problem by replacing broken phones and by reinforcing weak points in the design. The new problem is likewise blamed on Apple’s engineering choices to slim down the phone and is reportedly accounting for some 11 percent of Apple Store iPhone service traffic and has already led to some lawsuits.

This latest problem with the iPhone 6 could become a large media story just as the iPhone 7 actually goes on sale.

Apple really needs new and compelling products (in addition to updates of existing products). It needs them to keep its aura of being an innovative leader; it needs them to focus consumers and investors on the company’s future, rather than on any of its past stumbles. And of course it needs them to keep making money.

Apple clearly thinks different than it used to

Steve Jobs practiced this strategy of the “new thing” aggressively and successfully for 13 years. And he carefully evolved his existing product line.

Jobs worked to maintain a corporate culture with enough of a hungry startup mentality to keep Apple from turning into a slow, stodgy old thing like HP.

The current CEO Tim Cook, was Steve Jobs’ hand-picked successor. It’s hard to fathom, but under Cook’s leadership it looks like Apple is coasting, allowing other companies in its category to catch up, in terms of products, features and build quality.

Steve Jobs believed that Apple had to keep ahead of the pack or risk be overtaken by it. For whatever reason, Apple now risks being overtaken. Click the images to enlarge them.

From → Apple

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