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Is Apple losing its cool?

By John C. Abell, Special to CNN
February 19, 2013 -- Updated 1719 GMT (0119 HKT)
An employee of a mobile phone shop in Seoul, South Korea, holds up the Apple iPhone and a competitor, the Samsung Galaxy.
An employee of a mobile phone shop in Seoul, South Korea, holds up the Apple iPhone and a competitor, the Samsung Galaxy.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Abell: Reactions to iPhone 5 and iPad Mini were, for new Apple products, lukewarm
  • Abell: Apple a prisoner of its reputation; we expect new products in quick succession
  • Android-run products are threatening the once-invincible Apple iPhone, he says
  • Abell: Apple's being ganged up on, but it will stay strong for at least 10 more years

Editor's note: John C. Abell is the tech columnist and reviewer for Reuters, and a former Wired editor. Follow him on Twitter: @johncabell

(CNN) -- Apple is getting pushed around a lot these days. Digerati reaction to the iPhone 5 was "meh," response to the iPad Mini was akin to "it's about time" and we are all more excited about unicorn-like products such as an iWatch and iTV than the things you can buy right now.

Apple's strength is its Achilles' heel: We expect it to reinvent on schedule and when, in our infinite wisdom, we believe it is not, we treat it like the kid who no longer belongs in our clique.

John Abell
John Abell

Some of this is to be expected when a company with as incredible a recent track record as Apple's seems to be resting more on its laurels than finding new battles to win. Since the quixotic introduction of the iMac in 1998 -- reinvigorating the desktop computer well into the age of portables -- Apple has been on a tear:

• The iPod (2001)

• The iTunes Store, allowing the purchase of single music tracks (2003)

• The Apple retail store (2004)

• The iPhone (2007)

• The iPad (2010)

And you can add to list that Steve Jobs' revitalization of the animated feature film through his acquisition of Pixar.

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That's a lot of imagination in a very short time. Apple hasn't just dominated the story for a decade: It has written the story of the past decade. That is a lot to live up to. Most companies can't. It's particularly brutal for tech (as opposed to, say, shampoo) companies, which at best can usually hope to set the pace for only about generation until they settle into a comfortable middle class.

Call it the Microsoft Curve. Microsoft dominated through the red-hot '90s, the height of the PC era. It isn't going anywhere. It still prints money by selling MS-Office and Windows licenses. But look at a five-year stock price chart, and you'll see it has gone exactly nowhere. The only people dancing for joy about owning a Windows computer seem to be in those Surface Pro TV ads.

At the bottom of the pile there is the sad tale of Palm -- the hottest tech company on the planet for far too brief a time. Palm Pilots were once everywhere. But the company stumbled by failing to recognize quickly enough that, in the age of the Internet, no one wanted a portable device that couldn't get online.

How Samsung is out-innovating Apple

Another hard luck case is Research in Motion -- now BlackBerry. That company did get the portable device memo, but it spectacularly misjudged the smartphone revolution sparked by Apple.

Now Apple is this unfamiliar territory: Successful on paper, products seen everywhere, Macbooks and iPhone placed in seemingly every TV show and movie and yet ... the cool factor is cooling off.

There is a big difference between atmospherics and actuality, of course. But nobody wants to be thought of as a has-been in the making.

The lesson of tech history is that smart companies crash when they believe what they have already done is all they need to do: that doubling-down and trash-talking the competition is what it takes.

Exhibit A? Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer himself, whose initial public reaction to the iPhone was that business customers wouldn't want it "because it doesn't have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good e-mail machine."

This would be a good time to mention that increasingly large numbers of these "business customers" now want an iPhone at work, challenging Microsoft at what has been its enterprise stronghold.

Apple's search for its next billion-dollar product

Success is never assured, but it can only be extended only two ways: If you corner the market, impossible in the uberdisruptive tech space, or if you are unabashedly willing to question everything, all the time.

Facebook began life as the world's most exclusive private social network -- only Harvard students need apply. But it became a public company worth $68 billion because it decided instead to become the world's least exclusive private network.

Even Palm's trajectory might have been different if it had inverted its thinking in time: Imagine a Palm Pilot not as a personal information manager with connectivity, but a connected device with PIM applications, and you have described exactly what the smartphone is today.

There is no reason to think Apple won't thrive financially for years to come, just like Microsoft. But its continued reputation as the chief arbiter of cool is being challenged. Apple may still have the best-selling smartphone in the world, but the many others powered by rival Google's Android operating system -- and especially those made by Samsung -- far exceed the iPhone.

For years, tech writers reviewed each new smartphone on a simple grading scale: Is this the iPhone killer? None has been, but collectively the point has been made:

No phone has killed the iPhone, but plenty of them co-exist just fine, thank you very much.

We expect the unexpected from Apple, and the company does nothing to tamp down these expectations. So when it doesn't dazzle us, ennui begins to creep in. Apple is also burdened by what I called at the time the meaningless milestone of having become the biggest company ever. Where do you go from there? You are either still the biggest, or slipping. Consolidating your lead is fine and all, but it isn't sexy.

My own prediction of Apple's prospects is that needs to worry about becoming a mid-packer only after the CEO Tim Cook and designer Jony Ive -- the other tow members of the triumvirate headed by Steve Jobs -- are no longer with the company.

Until then, perhaps a decade from now, you bet against Apple at your own peril.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of John Abell.

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