Underwhelming iPhone 5 Confirms that Apple Lost its Soul When it Lost Steve
Luca is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.
Reaction to the Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhone 5 is a horse. Long dead, it continues to be beaten. Thanks to extensive leaks, it was beaten half to death before the barn door opened on The New iPhone. Salvation is a strong word, but seemingly the entire world expected the device and experience built around it would change everything. Again.
It did not. It has not. It will not. The iPhone 5 is just a smartphone. Critical reaction is positive, but uncharacteristically unhysterical. A week before, Nokia (NYSE: NOK) announced its Lumia 920 halo device running Windows 8 Phone. It bests the iPhone 5 on two of Apple’s traditional strengths: features and hardware specifications. The Finns’ flagship is probably the first mass-market phone to directly challenge the photo quality of point-and-shoot cameras. It has wireless charging and NFC. It has a better, more sensitive touchscreen. Nokia is desperate for market share, so it will probably be a bargain. Windows Phone lacks a vibrant app market, but when Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) rolls out Windows 8 proper, which supports the ARM architecture undergirding most smartphones, a huge developer community will coalesce around it.
Cupertino, We Have a Problem
Everything has changed, in a sense. For the first time ever, a new iPhone did not debut as the presumptive market leader. It did not make all other phones feel outdated to their owners. Even the evolutionary iPhone 4S progressed the art and science of handheld computing. Yet this was partially because the masterpiece that is Apple’s iPhone 4 left competitors so far behind.
Consider them caught up. The Samsung Galaxy S III, overlooked HTC One X, and mysteriously obscure Samsung Galaxy Nexus S are all viable alternatives --- and have been on the market for months. All four devices have unique strengths and weaknesses. A compelling argument can be made for the superiority of each. The Samsung Galaxy S III offers the most features and, for now, the best camera in real-world conditions. The HTC One X has the best screen of any mobile device, period, and is actually rated higher than its better-known Korean cousin. And thanks to Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) justified UX inferiority complex, the Galaxy Nexus S has the most advanced mobile operating system available: Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. The iPhone 5? It is hard to say what it is best at.
Just as Apple continues to offer features unique to its platform, Android now offers its own deck of potential trump cards. Jellybean will soon be pushed to the Galaxy S III and One X. Motorola recently released the exciting Droid Razr. HTC’s forthcoming One X+ will probably eclipse the iPhone 5. And to reiterate, Nokia’s formidable Lumia 920 is now leading the charge for Windows Phone 8.
The Root of the Problem
Comparing Apple products to others has long been a case of apples to oranges, but previously there was a clear sense that the oranges were inferior at any price, even if they were usually less expensive. The newest Google and Microsoft offerings are out for blood, and drawing plenty.
This partially reflects the nature of progress. Big groups of smart, dedicated product managers, engineers, and marketers have had time to adjust to the paradigm iPhone created. But the problem goes deeper. Apple is foundering because it has begun focusing on markets that are mature or rapidly maturing. It excelled when it created fantastic new worlds and made them feel familiar. The vision of one man put dent after dent into our universe. Now that man is gone.
When Apple lost Steve Jobs, it did not lose its culture. It lost its soul. Apple as we know, love, and revile it was Steve Jobs, and the key to Apple’s future is resolving a disconnect between its past and present created by the void he left. Jobs was not a good manager. He screamed and swore at his employees until they delivered minor miracles. But as noted, he had vision. His brilliance, originality, even his technological savvy, are open to debate, but the direction of Apple’s product portfolio in the last two years clearly reflects his absence.
Signs of Trouble
The new offerings have lacked the trendsetting impact Jobs’ obsessed over, as well as the ethereality of something “insanely great.” The newest iPad is wonderful but derivative. Early customers experienced annoying power management issues, unable to operate at full tilt without battery drainage, even plugged into a power socket. A device that runs out of power plugged into the wall? Steve Jobs would have been inconsolably livid. The MacBook Pro with Retina Display is also a great product. It actually does set a new standard for top-end notebook computing. But integrating what is essentially an iPad screen into a super-thin, wicked-fast midsize laptop is hardly revolutionary. Anyone could have thought of it, which is a problem.
Leaks. They were obviously an issue with the iPhone 4, but the rollouts of all other devices before the iPhone 5 were controlled as carefully as could ever be expected and deftly choreographed. Jobs was a showman. He understood how to work the media into a frenzy and dazzle consumers. Mystery was a key element of Apple’s intoxicating appeal. Yet seemingly every major iPhone 5 component was leaked. The world knew more than what it would look like: It knew intimate hardware details, ironic considering that Apple only ordains certified Geniuses to breach the carapaces of its devices. Granted, the breadth and depth of attention on the iPhone 5 was unprecedented, but it is hard to envision Apple and its suppliers mishandling what were essentially trade secrets so badly with Jobs in the picture.
As for pictures, each new iPhone screen had previously raised the bar, but as noted, the HTC One X has claimed the image quality crown. Just after becoming a household phrase, “Retina Display” has lost its luster. Apple developed a completely new type of thinner screen for packaging reasons, but left the resolution untouched. (Really, this should be much bigger news than the newest iPad trading a bit of heft and depth for huge performance increases over the iPad 2.) This is incompatible with Jobs’ commitment to progressing the user experience he envisioned as a seamless synergy of hardware and software.
To further illustrate the point, Jobs would never have approved the flagship software features of the last two iPhones. Siri was introduced in the iPhone 4S to great fanfare with a “beta” designation. Steve Jobs did not release beta products. He released meticulously finished products. The digital personal assistant was (and is, even after the iOS 6 update) unpolished and gimmicky, little more than fodder for implausibly slick commercials --- antithetical to Jobs’ ethos. Some might counter by citing iPhone 4 “antennagate,” but this empty controversy blew over when people learned not to hold their phones like hand grenades. It was also the result of a big risk taken for the sake of progressive design.
The signature feature of the iPhone 5 is an embarrassment. Apple Maps was supposed to signal Cupertino’s readiness to take the fight to Google’s home turf. Instead it is the Platonic embodiment of a punchline, with scores of Tumblrs, horror-story articles, and comical online photo galleries dedicated to its monumental inadequacy. To wit, the Washington Monument is represented as a virtual push-pin in a random patch of grass roughly two city blocks south of the actual obelisk. Such sloppiness is a complete travesty. Steve Jobs would have physically harmed the person who proposed releasing Apple Maps in its present form.
Apple is tarnishing its brand. It will have to start taking risks on new paradigms again, otherwise I doubt it will reach $1 trillion in market cap. IP disputes seem to have become a distraction, though it is true that Jobs repeatedly expressed a desire to wage jihad against Android, which he considered a complete ripoff of iOS. Apple can buy time through obstruction of competitors, but it cannot create new markets or growth opportunities that way.
One possible avenue forward is a full realization of Apple TV as a transcendent media experience. The future obviously lies in devices and services (not to mention content) that fully erase the line between television and personal computing. It has more money and, arguably, influence to throw at copyright and licensing obstacles than any other company.
But that is part of the problem. Steve Jobs conceptualized a tangible, practical tablet computer a quarter-century before technological development let him create the iPad. Apple lost his innovative forward thinking to cancer. Creating fantastic new worlds and making them feel familiar: This was the essence of Apple and the essence of Steve Jobs. Apple, consumers, and everyone else will have to make peace with the possibility that Steve Jobs was truly irreplaceable.
One quote best captures the insight that made him so successful and influential: “A lot of times people do not know what they want until you show it to them.” Unless and until Apple shows people something everyone wants but no one thought of, the great empire faces inevitable decline.
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