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Steve Jobs has been dead for about two and a half years now, and it’s hard not to notice that the regular parade of game-changing Apple products for which he was famous seems to have disappeared with him.

Yes, Apple has announced some impressive features and design changes in the last couple of years. The iPhone has gained fingerprint recognition that actually works almost every time. The new iPad Air has been made amazingly skinny and light, while actually increasing battery life.

iPhone Touch ID

And, yes, in the 2013 holiday season, the company once again set new sales records for iPhones and iPads, even as its share of the smartphone and tablet markets declined in the face of an onslaught of mostly inferior, but faster-selling, competitors from a host of companies using Google’s free Android operating system.

But there have been no new game-changing products, the kind that establish whole new categories, or which finally get product categories right after others had attempted for years to do so. The last of these, the original iPad, was released four years ago this month.

This has naturally led to a debate about the fate of the most influential American company of the past 15 years. Some have argued that Apple’s era of greatness is over, that with CEO Tim Cook sitting in Mr. Jobs’s chair, the magic is gone, and Apple is now, at best, just an ordinary company. Others have countered that, financially, Apple is still doing quite well, and that there’s no evidence that it’s out of ideas.

But I think the most useful way of thinking about Apple is to see it as a movie studio. Studios release blockbuster franchise movies every few years, and then try to live off a series of sequels until the next big, successful franchise. We are in the early stages of one such project right now: On May 2, Columbia Pictures will release “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the first of what may be several sequels to the original 2012 film, that was itself a reboot of an earlier series.

Paramount Studio Gates

Gerry Boughan / Shutterstock

Looked at in this way, your almost-new iPhone 5s and iPad Air are mere sequels, iterations of Apple blockbusters that rocked the world when they first appeared. The same goes for your MacBook Air, which has gone through many changes and improvements since Mr. Jobs theatrically slid it out of a manila envelope in 2008 to show how thin it was.

Just because these things are sequels doesn’t mean they’re bad, or even worse than the originals. Sometimes, as with “The Godfather Part II,” the sequel is considered by many to be even better than the original. (Of course, sometimes — as with “The Godfather Part III,” a sequel may be reviled as so bad that it’s unworthy of the series.)

And sequels can make more money — sometimes much, much more — than the originals. This certainly must have been true of Apple’s follow-on iPods, iPhones and iPads. And it’s certainly true in Hollywood. In fact, Wikipedia maintains a list of movie sequels — and even sequels to sequels — that took in more at the box office than the original film.

Still, after awhile, audience interest in sequels wanes, and competitors come up with alluring new things. Then you’d better have a whole new franchise, because you can’t live forever on sequels.

Mr. Jobs understood this well. It’s one reason why he maintained a drumbeat of game-changers over a dozen years, from the iMac to the iPad, that rocked his competitors and upended other industries, as well.

And this is why Apple, unique in many ways among tech giants, is the most like a movie studio: Steve Jobs built it that way (while simultaneously running a real movie studio, Pixar.) He created the expectation that every few years there would be a single, obvious blockbuster to be unveiled.

Steering the company through what must have been a tough transition in recent years, Cook has done just enough to keep his sequels appealing. I still believe that — when you combine hardware, software and the ecosystem — the iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air remain best-in-class.

Cook has had some dangerous moments that did him no favors. These include the awful quality of the initial Apple Maps service, still being repaired; and the more recent self-rebooting bug on iOS7 devices, fixed by a patch. High quality and reliability can never be taken lightly.

However, he has been helped lately by Apple’s main competitor, Samsung, whose latest Galaxy smartphone, while good, was pretty unexciting (and whose fingerprint recognition is awful.)

I think the doomsayers are, at the very least, premature. While I certainly can’t say for sure that Apple has a great game-changer in the pipeline, the fact that four years has passed — especially four years of management uncertainty and transition — doesn’t mean that its cupboard is bare.

It’s worth remembering that nearly six years passed between the launch of the iPod and the launch of the iPhone, which was described by Mr. Jobs at its unveiling as a touchscreen iPod with a phone and Internet communicator built in.

But sequel time is almost up. It’s time for a new franchise. And it had better be desirable, logical and elegant. Apple executives have assured me that the second half of 2014 will have impressive new products. And Mr. Cook declared nearly a year ago during an onstage interview that “We have several more game-changers in us.”

What might those be? Well, I believe we are bound to see iPhones with larger screens, and I’d guess that these will sell well. But I would still regard those as sequels.

The world’s worst-kept secret is that Apple is working some new type of television experience, well beyond its current Apple TV product (which has quietly become a real business, attracting new competition from Google and Amazon). This one could be a real franchise. But if Apple settles for something too much akin to its current TV product, it might be just a sequel.

The company also appears to be exploring becoming a major player in the mobile payments field. Done in a big way that finally makes the smartphone your wallet, that could become a franchise.

But the most exciting possibility is monitoring and managing health, using an app on Apple’s current devices and possibly a new wearable product or products. Cook has hinted strongly that the company is very interested in some sort of wristband — but only if it could be compelling and go well beyond what’s out there.

Health, sensors and wearables would fit the Apple pattern: Taking products that already exist, but aren’t very good or coherent, and turning them into something that is at the same time practical, aspirational and desirable, and that can be part of a larger platform.

Sometime in the next six to eight months, I expect we’ll see if Cook is the kind of producer who grinds out too many sequels, or the kind who brings forth an original “Godfather” or “Spider-Man.”

 



16 comments
jameskatt
jameskatt

In 23 years at Apple, Steve Jobs had only FOUR game changers:  


1. Mac

2. iPod+iTunes

3. iPhone = Partial Mac + iPod + Phone

4. iPad = Partial Mac + iPod


Each year, Apple does sequels of its products, each better than the previous one. That is Apple's core business - iterations of existing products.  


Steve Jobs every year would introduce these products so MAGICALLY well, that people believed that each iteration of an existing product was a game changer.


Among the game changers, you can see that the actual original ones are the Mac and iPod.  The iPhone is based on the Mac OS, emulates the iPod in software, and adds a cell phone.   The iPad removed the cell phone from the iPhone and made it bigger.  Thus, the iPhone and iPad are actually mixtures of previous products. And other than the iPod, they are all based on the foundation of OS X. Even AppleTV is based on OS X.


Steve Jobs did such a great MAGICAL presentation of each Apple product that he gave us the illusion that every year we had a game changer.  But in reality,  Steve Jobs only introduced FOUR game changers.  Everything else he introduced was sequel to an existing product.  That was his power.




MadDogUK69
MadDogUK69

I like Walt, but this is a poorly thought-out article built upon a faulty premise.

BrianStegner
BrianStegner

Like many others, Mossberg chimes in with the "where did all the game-changers go?"


Before "the sky is falling" becomes conventional "wisdom," let's consider: The Mac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad. Arguable "game-changers." Steve Jobs tenure: '76-'86, and '96-2011. I get 5 "gamechangers, in 23 years of Jobs' input.


But Walt Mossberg, and a slew of others, think thatt 2 1/2 years of "OMG, no gamechangers!" is time to cash it all in. Do you hear yourself Walt? You're a writer, so, you probably skipped all the math electives. That could explain it, I suppose.


Get over yourselves, folks.

phil28
phil28

I think Cook still has much to prove. Apple quality has taken a big hit, with the maps as you mention, but also with Mavericks and its inability to work correctly with Gmail. Over 6 months and its mail client still does not work. A high ranking Apple CSV said it's a known issue and suggested I use another mail client and hope the engineers can figure it out soon. 


Apple should have had larger screen iPhones out by now. I suspect Cook didn't read the market very well. There's no reason with their huge resources it should be 4 years after the category began for their first model to appear. 


I'm a huge Apple fan and use the iPhone, but a recent use of an Android phone exposed me to some useful Google features such as Google Now and a really helpful predictive keyboard.





sveinol
sveinol

Technology advance comes first, in case of iPhone and iPad it was display technology that matured to make  it possible for such products. Today there is no such leapfrog in technology development occurring. Therefore Steve Jobs would be in same product draught as Tim Cook is now if he would be alive today. Don't disregard, timing, cause and effect in history.

Hill60
Hill60

What's a Mac Pro?

Jfoskett
Jfoskett

Interesting analogy, though I would argue that Apple only developed two blockbusters (i.e. game changers): iPod/iTunes and iOS. The iMac was clearly not a game changer for the company or shareholders; the temporary rise in stock price after the 1998 launch of iMac was the result of the dot com bubble and not game changing technology.


Apple was early to digital convergence and the concomitant rise of consumer device(s). iPod/iTunes redefined music accessibility, storage and mobility. iOS redefined mobile computing and communications. The iPhone was the first commercial incarnation of the iOS software, and in many ways was an extension of the iPod form factor and touch interface. The iPad was simply a change in iPhone format and, despite its huge success, should be considered a sequel (or "prequel" if you believe the reports that iOS was first developed for tablet computing only to be reprioritized internally for mobile phones because of the obvious market opportunity). 


In this context, there is nothing predictable or reproducible about Apple's ability to release blockbusters. Unlike the film industry where creative possibilities are endless, and blockbusters (and the potential for sequels) can emerge from almost anywhere at any time, the game changing, mass market technology opportunities for Apple are much more constrained. The digital convergence of media, consumerization of computing, connectivity of devices, etc. are now maturing trends. Apple will certainly continue to leverage the company's vast resources and entrenched iPhone/iPad/iTunes multimedia ecosystem but I would bet on more sequels rather than an imminent blockbuster. 

freddysrevng
freddysrevng

Great piece, Walt.... the only problem is that Tim Cook (of the iPhone 5C fame) has not proven himself to be some movie mogul maverick leader of a studio..  He is, closer to, overseeing the "Porky's" series and we know how that ended.


The other issue is that the inferior products that Steve Jobs took to a whole other stratosphere - don't exist.  A great scene in the "Jobs" movie was when he was listening to a Walkman - put the head set down and says, "junk"...


Televisions are not as inferior and the Samsung wearables are not only not selling - but where would Apple go from what is on the market from Samsung, Nike et al in that department.


Apple is, officially, a victim of the "Law of Large Numbers".... think of it more of a Microsoft....


The Wall Street hype and spin machine around Apple will be feckless to protect it, at this point and expect another quarter of Apple losing market share in the USA....ouch...




gprovida
gprovida

The treatment by the market on Apple stock seems consistent with this narrative, however, Apple is a real company on a huge and arguably unprecedented scale early money on hardware at margins that have no parallels. So it is dangerous to see and measure Apple against either entertainment, hardware, or software companies, Apple is unprecedented.

The market breakers or disrupters that succeed are cherry picked in hind sight and so it is dangerous to speculate too much regarding Apple's non-Jobs legacy. I think Horace Dedui's view regarding Apple business is innovation large and small that continuously changes and transforms industries and that everyone looks to mimic, but can't get the processes right.

The ongoing failure in TV, wearables, entertainment, and home automation waiting for Apple to define the market to mimic reflect a. how hard this is to do lead and b. no one has got it yet as a leader(not Google Glass nor Android (no money here for everyone including a Google except Apple copier, Samsung)).

Attention getting headlines and blogging from decades of CES or other events are not what changes markets again and again and again.

The question is not why Apple has not done "it" again, but why no one else has done it more than once. Google is still Search, MS is still desktop windows, Amazon is still online store (my bet is Anazon is the best candidate to be "like" Apple, but still early), and Samsung a "fast follower" (whether Sony or Apple). Just throwing stuff up on the wall is clear evidence of cluelessness and leadership failure.

iPadCary
iPadCary

Did Walt get fired from WSJ or what?

TechgeekDC
TechgeekDC

Mossberg nails it. He's right that Apple is due for some game-changing products while acknowledging that, under Jobs, those disruptive moments only happened every few years. Too many "Apple is sinking!" pundits are under the impression (or for their own reasons want others under the impression) that Apple was changing the world every six months.


One thing for which Cook doesn't get enough credit is firing Forstall and putting Ive in charge of both hardware and software design. The result was iOS7, which -- love it or hate it -- adhered to Jobs's philosophy of harmony between hardware and software, in function and design. In this regard, Cook was more Jobsian than Jobs himself!


Mossberg is also right about the bugs in iOS7. Even worse, Exchange mail under Mavericks wouldn't even update new mail until 10.9.2. That was disgraceful and Apple should work harder on quality control. 



AronLeB
AronLeB

With the iMac having been launched in 1998, the iPod in 2001, the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010, Apple have released a game-changing product an average of once every 4 years. If the iWatch (or iBand or whatever) comes out later this year and is a 'must have' product, that means they're right on track. I doubt it though. Apart from the health and fitness apps (presumably the reason why Nike have moved into software and left the hardware division) and discreet vibration notifications so we don't have to put up with ringtones anymore, I really can't see anything it could do that wouldn't be more satisfactorily done with your iPhone. I hope they prove me wrong.

ViewRoyal
ViewRoyal

@freddysrevng  "The Wall Street hype and spin machine around Apple will be feckless to protect it"


Actually, the "Wall Street hype" has been very negative about Apple since Steve Jobs died.


"at this point and expect another quarter of Apple losing market share in the USA"


Actually (again... bringing facts into the conversation) Apple has been steadily increasing its revenues, profits, and sales numbers. Take a look at what those numbers were 2 years ago, and compare them to this years numbers. Numbers don't lie... but people who have an anti-Apple bias, or simply don't know what they are talking about, do! ;-))


Her is just one example of how well Apple has been doing, and is continuing to do:

In the 2013 fiscal year, Apple claimed 87.4% of worldwide profits from the sales of mobile phones… A year ago, Apple accounted for 77.8% of mobile phone industry profits. (source: Raymond James Financial)

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