Is Apple losing its way?

by Tom Albrighton 22 October 2012 Uncategorised

Perhaps the world’s most famous Zen Buddhist, and certainly the richest, was Steve Jobs. While he certainly failed to follow the eightfold path in his dealings with those around him, he did use Zen as the guiding principle of everything his company created. Indeed, the charitable view of Jobs is that he gave so much attention to things, he had none left for people.

Some use words like ‘focus’, ‘simplicity’ and ‘purity’ as a punchline. Jobs used them as the backbone of a life spent defending something. We can see it in the design of individual products like the original iPod and the Mac Mini, and his insistence that Apple restrict its range to a few key products. And we can see it in his ideal of an enclosed, neatly tended Zen garden in which every aspect of the customer’s experience would be carefully controlled.

That vision has served Apple remarkably well. But things are changing. Obviously, Jobs is gone. But perhaps more importantly, the world that Apple inhabits is changing – partly because Apple itself has changed it.

Empty landscape

For the first two decades of its history, when it was primarily a computer company, Apple’s persona was that of the plucky outsider: the David to the Goliath of IBM compatibles. More recently, as it’s diversified, its major successes have been in colonising empty landscapes: transforming consumer markets that were unpopulated or underdeveloped.

Consider Apple’s strategy following Jobs’ triumphant return to the firm in 1997. He envisioned the iMac as the first step towards a digital nerve centre in which every aspect of our lives would be managed, integrated and curated. Jobs saw that the ‘home computer’, as nobody now calls it, would become the umbrella for stuff like music and photos, as well as the central hub for satellite devices like cameras, phones and tablets.

Today, the concept seems so obvious that we take it completely for granted. But it wouldn’t have happened if it had been up to Michael Dell or Gil Amelio. Or, if it had, it would have happened in the most fragmented and frustrating way you can imagine.

Into the broad, inclusive template of the ‘digital life’, Apple dropped product after product that turned something we already loved into a stunning user experience: the iPod, iTunes, the iTunes Store, the iPod Shuffle, iPhoto, iMovie, GarageBand, the iPhone, the iPad. Time and again, Jobs and his colleagues worked miracles at the confluence of science, culture and art, taking the stiff clay of technology and giving it life.

Apple didn’t invent the technologies behind these products. Nor was it the only firm to commercialise them. But when we look at competing offerings like MusicMatch Jukebox or Zune, it’s not hard to see how Apple took the crown. Thanks to Jobs’ relentless focus on simplification, Apple consistently delivered products that ‘just worked’.

Changed landscape

However, things have changed. The landscape is full now, and that means there are fewer big wins to be had. Short of TV, or perhaps games consoles, it’s hard to see an area where Apple could crash the party in the same way it did in the past. Instead of leaving competitors standing, it has to make sure it stays ahead.

Launches of Apple products, once dazzling and earth-shaking, have become incremental. An iPhone with a bigger screen. A lighter MacBook. An iPod that runs apps too. A lighter iPad, with a thinner screen. And, if we believe the rumours, an iPad Mini, to sit between the iPad and the iPhone. Not radical new products, but augmentations or anagrams of existing ones.

Now, these are all things that people want, and they’ll buy them. But they also clutter the Apple offer, making it ever more bitty and granular. Step by step, Apple is moving from iconically individual products to the anonymity of a ‘line’ or ‘range’.

Traditionally, the firm never flattered the customer that they could make an intelligent choice about much more than minor differences in RAM or clock speed. The iMac came out, and you either bought it or you didn’t. That simplicity put real distance between Apple and the baffling array of Wintel machines available – just as it continues to distinguish the iPhone from the myriad Android phones out there. And because Apple still makes both the hardware and the OS, it still enjoys a level of control over the user experience that few other firms can match.

More is more

At the same time, as we own more and more devices, with more and more functionality, it becomes harder and harder to keep the user experience clean and simple. While each individual first-party app on iOS may be a model of clarity, dealing with the totality of multiple apps, and their interdependencies, can be daunting – particularly for newcomers. Multiple devices linked by iCloud add another layer of complexity; the workings are locked away from the user, but this also can also lead to confusion over what’s actually going on behind the curtain.

I’m sure most veterans like me are grateful that the technical engine of Apple tech is so much more reliable than it was. Nobody wants to go back to spending entire afternoons trying to get a SyQuest disk to mount, or chasing down a rogue system extension. (‘Welcome to Macintosh. Extensions off.’)

However, there is also regret for the passing of the simpler products of the past. If OS X is a comfortable family saloon with all the options, OS 9 was a racing car – basic and rough to drive, but incredibly tight and responsive, so it could get you to the destination a lot faster. Even though you might have had to make a cup of tea while Photoshop resized a 300dpi TIFF, you still felt much less encumbered, less mollycoddled.

The fate of the iPod is instructive. In my view, the design of the iPod Classic simply cannot be improved. It perfected listening to music – not just ergonomically, but experientially too, because it excluded everything that was not essential. Turning the iPod into a glorified Pocketeer by adding a load of apps hasn’t added to that experience; it has diluted it.

From cool to fool

The gradualism of Apple’s product strategy is inevitably reflected in its marketing. To illustrate the point, let’s look at a couple of TV spots. Once, we had ads that sold an entire experiential concept, like ‘music + movement’ with the iPod shuffle below.

Here, the tone is supremely self-assured, magisterial almost. No words are required; indeed, they would only get in the way of the product. The whole thing is ineffably cool, and it positively screams ‘desire me’.

Fast-forward seven years and we have far more modest affairs that focus on details rather than the whole deal – like the Genius service in Apple Stores or the size of the iPhone 5’s screen.

Matching that devolution in content, the tone has been scaled back to homely humour backed by whimsical pizzicato. In terms of strategy, we’ve gone from confident ‘showing’ to insecure ‘telling’. And the Apple user, once flattered as the discerning consumer who ‘thought different’, has turned from snake-hipped hipster into head-scratching doofus. (For a more authoritative critique of these ads, see this post from Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman.)

Reality check

Wait a minute, you say. The reason why Apple’s ads are more populist is that its products are more popular. These changes are its considered response to the new landscape: picking key points of differentiation and hammering home the point. In Walter Sobchak’s words, ‘nothing is f—ed here’.

The numbers certainly back up that argument. By many measures, Apple is the best company in the world. It’s the largest by market capitalisation. It delivers a customer experience that’s second to none, from retail right through to replacement. Its brand, most marketers would agree, is one of the most powerful and iconic in the world. And its broader appeal has in no way impaired the fierce devotion it inspires.

Faulty maps

And yet, when you look at recent events, you have to wonder. With poetic irony, the point at which Apple lost its way may be marked by a faulty map. Having failed to agree on licensing terms for Google’s voice-directed turn-by-turn navigation, Apple went with its own equivalent, the snappily named Maps, which turned out to be riddled with inaccuracies and omissions, leading to TIm Cook’s famous apology.

The first point to make is both obvious and inevitable. Even though he hated Google with a passion, Steve Jobs would have made the map deal, just as he made deals with the major music labels to secure the songs he needed for the iTunes Music Store. When the quality or credibility of an Apple product depended on third parties, Jobs made it happen.

Failing that, he would have distorted enough reality, or kicked enough ass, to make sure his team shipped. And if he’d been around for the ill-starred birth of Maps, he would surely have meted out the harshest justice to the team that created it and then put right the mistake – just as he did with MobileMe (later reborn as iCloud).

Having reached the peak, Apple can do one of two things: maintain its supremacy or relinquish it. Given that no firm can sustain world-beating success indefinitely, the question is when Apple will lose its way. And right now, the combination of circumstances inside and outside the company look set for exactly that.

After all, when you get to the top, there is nowhere to go but down.

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