Skip to main content

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.

Samsung takes a bite out of Apple
Locals dominate China smartphone market
Apple CEO remains confident with company

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.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT