There are those who say that Apple isn't innovating anymore. Where is this year’s whizzbang revolutionary device? Why isn’t there a bigger iPhone? Where is the iWatch, or the long-rumored Apple TV set?
Wall Street in particular has picked up a case of the anti-Apple willies, with deep valleys in the performance of AAPL stock, which hit a low of $390 a share in April 2013. That’s down from $701.91 per share that the company posted in October 2012. It’s recovered a little since then, but investors still seem deeply skeptical. This year’s crop of products—the iPad Air, the iPhone 5s and 5c—are nice and all, but they’re not much different from what came before.
Pundits everywhere seem to relish the idea of a post-Steve Jobs Apple sinking under the weight of too few new groundbreaking products, lackluster advertising, and a stream of generic and boring keynote presentations at Apple’s once-riveting media events.
VentureBeat’s Editor-In-Chief Dylan Tweney was disappointed in the latest iPhone 5s reveal, attributing Apple’s past successes to the driving force of Steve Jobs.
“This is a company that is slowly but surely losing the final stages of its war for the phone industry,” he wrote. “Merely keeping the faithful happy is not working. Incremental upgrades are not going to stem the tide."
Dave Winer complains over at Gizmodo about the iPad mini, calling it the beginning of Apple’s decline. The iPad Mini “signals a new Apple that's no longer beyond compare, no longer insisting on delighting its users to the point of orgasm,” he wrote. “This Apple is content to be a competitor. Not my idea of what Apple is, and definitely not Steve’s.”
Seriously, though? Let’s call this for what it is: total hogwash!
Apple's Strong Core
Apple is running the same exact team that was responsible for all the hit products of Apple’s resurgence, including the iPhone, iPad, iPod and the incredibly successful MacBook line of laptop computers. Sure, the executive team has had a few shakeups, but the main players—head designer Jony Ive, CEO Tim Cook, and marketing head Phil Schiller—have had their part in creating the very products in a mythical “golden age” that many analysts say ended with the passing of Steve Jobs.
Eddy Cue, for example, head of Apple’s Internet software and services, has worked for Apple for more than 25 years, helping to create the Apple Online Store in 1998, the iTunes store in 2003, and the disruptive App Store in 2008. Cook took the job of senior vice president of worldwide operations in 1998, and was Chief Operations Officer until he was named CEO in 2011. Ive came onboard in 1992, and has been the driving design force behind every iconic Apple product since. Schiller came to Apple in 1997, and has spent that entire time in various marketing and management positions until being named senior vice president of worldwide marketing.
This is not a new team. According to analyst Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, the team’s stability and longevity is key.
“The management team that is in place was tutored by Steve Jobs and knows exactly how Steve thought and how he approaches product design and focus,” Bajarin wrote in an email. “More importantly they had 10 years to work with him as he developed a vision for Apple's future. Jobs had an actual roadmap in place before he died, a roadmap that I am told covered at least the next 10 years. But the team in place knows that to deliver this vision or roadmap takes time and—like Steve—never worries about rushing a product to market.”
Cook, Apple's CEO since August 24, 2011, has not yet had a major crisis he couldn’t handle. His ability to apologize and clearly enunciate the Apple vision has been a welcome skill through issues including the Foxconn labor problem, the loss of Scott Forstall and John Browett, the Apple Maps fiasco, the bitter rivalry with and legal action against Samsung, and even charges of tax evasion from the U.S. government.
Throughout it all, Cook has shown incredible poise, tact and equanimity. He’s the ideal candidate to run the most profitable company in the world, a worthy successor to the mercurial and unpredictable Jobs. He has shown a marked emphasis on the things that have made Apple great: design, customer service and an unmatched product experience. Placing Ive in a position to oversee both hardware and software (formerly Jobs’ role at the company) was a stroke of brilliance and long overdue, and his executive restructuring has created what looks like, from the outside at least, an incredibly cohesive and well-oiled machine.
Cook has kept Apple at the top repeatedly and with style.
As for advertising, sure there have been some missteps, but it's getting better. The currently running Apple holiday ad, “Misunderstood,” is a brilliant spot that succeeds on many levels. It’s on par with the iconic "Think Different" campaign, though it comes from a very different Apple, one that doesn't need to prove anything, and yet still does. The short film underlines everything that Apple is without ever having to utter a single word of explanatory voice-over.
The company behind this advertisement knows that Apple products are only good for what people can do with them. The young man in the ad seems to be the quintessential bored teenager: utterly involved in his iPhone while forced to participate in the family's holiday activities. By the end of the video, however, we see that he’s created an emotional video with his iPhone, bringing his family (and us) to tears with his insight. What’s not directly stated, of course, is how easy all of this was to do with Apple products, from the iPhone he uses to capture and edit his footage to the Apple TV he uses to share his loving familial tribute up on the big screen.
Compare that to Samsung’s latest ad for its Gear watch (“Hey, pretty lady…”) and you’ll really get it. Apple’s advertising is the best there is.
But What About Innovation?
Innovation? Behind the scenes, Apple is innovating like no one else. It’s just happening inside the company famous for its secretive nature. Apple’s design team, led by Ive, appears to be working on several new technologies that have the power to once again disrupt the entire tech industry.
How do we know this? Check the long, sometimes confusing spray of Apple rumors over the past year or two and you’ll see some groundbreaking, potentially market-disrupting product categories being talked about: an Apple television set as well as the iOS in the Car initiative that we’ll be seeing more and more of, and the wearable technology that every other lesser company has already moved to counter with a spate of horrible watch gadgets. The hiring of Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry, to the newly created position of senior vice president of retail and online stores means she'll likely unify Apple’s retail efforts both online and off … and bring fashion savvy if and when Apple releases a line of smartwatches and other wearables.
These are the industry-crushing products (and, more essentially, product categories) that Apple could possibly own in the next few years. Unlike Apple’s rivals, the company rarely pushes out products that are simply good, then fixes them later when they're on the market. Apple does its market testing in-house, behind closed doors; refining technology until it finds the best user-experience and go-to-market strategy. The iPad itself was under development for seven years before it ever saw the light of day. Apple waited very patiently until the stars aligned for its release.
The same was true under Jobs’ watch. If you take a look at the string of innovative products under Jobs after he returned to Apple in 1997, you’ll see there were sometimes long periods between them. Ironically, it’s a time that has come to represent Apple’s mythic Golden Age—a period when the hits came thick and fast. In reality, there were often years between blockbuster products.
“After following Apple for 35 years,” said Creative Strategies analyst Tim Bajarin, “I have learned that Apple never delivers a product unless they feel it is truly ready. Under Jobs it had to also fit into his overall roadmap and vision, and be part of a controlled ecosystem of software and services.”
The iMac G3, with its iconic gumdrop design and Bondi Blue see-through plastic case, was a watershed moment in computer design. It was the first computer for ordinary consumers, a device that made it very easy to get onto the fast-growing Internet. It was a friendly, utterly unique form for the personal computer when introduced in 1998. It served as the touchstone of Macintosh computer design through 2004, influencing the look and function of everything from iBooks to PowerMac towers. Apple iterated on this idea for six years.
In 2001, Apple introduced the iPod, an MP3 music-player that popularized and essentially created the entire digital music industry as we know it today. The iPod was another innovation, but like the iMac, Apple iterated on the original for several years, introducing variations on a theme like the iPod Mini and iPod Nano. These were not revolutionary products, but evolutionary.
Six years later, Apple introduced the iPhone. We all know how revolutionary that was. Just ask Samsung, Microsoft and Google, which each have made (with varying success) their own takes on the same form factor and user experience that Apple pioneered in 2007.
Apple redefined personal computing yet again with the iPad in 2010. So many of us had no idea why we’d want such a device, what with our laptops and smartphones, but want it we did, and still do. The iPad itself, though, is still an evolutionary step away from the iPhone. Innovative, surely, but it “only” created a sub-category: the useable tablet.
Tech industry insider Joe Feyereisen agrees. “Even during Apple's ‘down years,’ their innovations led to today's products,” he said in email. “The Apple Newton led to iPad. The Apple Lisa led to the Macintosh. The eMate was the foundation for other company's Netbooks. But they had dozens more that were never released until technology caught up with them (iPod). It took iTunes to make iPod successful.”
Setting The Record Straight
So here we are, six years after the introduction of the iPhone. Apple has steadily iterated on all its products, from the stunning, recently revealed Mac Pro, to the still best-in-class MacBook Pro and Air lines, to the iPad mini with Retina. All of these things are best-in-class, high-quality products that grew from Apple’s process of continually refining its products.
Even under Jobs, Apple went through plenty of time in between category-defining moments. This is how Apple does business.
“There will always be ebbs and flows,” Feyereisen said. “Just because they are in a perceived ebb doesn't predict a downward future. Only a wait and see future.”
And that’s just it. Historically, Apple has innovated on the level of the iMac, the iPod and iPhone or iPad infrequently, choosing to release these landmark products when Apple chooses, when they represent the height of current usable technology. The focus has always been, and continues to be, making insanely great consumer technology that anyone can use with ease and comfort.
Sure, no company can only have hit products. No company at Apple’s scale will please everyone, whether they be analysts, consumers or investors. There are going to be missteps, failed product categories and disappointing releases of iterative products.
Apple is still one of the most valuable companies in the world. The company that two hippie pranksters began in a garage is now pulling with a weight of a titan, and of course it’s besieged from all sides.
Sure, Apple could make quick, ill-considered moves to match analyst and pundit opinion, but it hasn’t. Apple is fine. Apple is continuing to do the very same things that caused it to become such a behemoth in the first place: innovate quietly in-house, iterate carefully and fully, and then wait for the right time to release.
The iPod came out at just the right time to catch the wave of digital audio technology, and it did it in a way that connected with consumers. The iMac made good on the promise of computer hardware that worked for everyone, and the iPhone hit at the crossroads of accessible technology and user-friendly software and hardware design.
Yes, Steve Jobs was a visionary. Yes, he was instrumental in making Apple what it is today. But he did so not only by sheer will and personality alone, but by making sure that the big talents, the Ives and the Cooks, were given the power and influence they needed to make the world's best consumer products. There’s no reason to assume that will change.
Read more articles on innovation.
Photo: Getty Images