What Would It Take to Turn Apple Into Research In Motion?

On the heights, all the paths are paved with daggers -  Robert Jordan

The Apple rumor cycle is gearing back up. It is always exciting when the mass of Web pundits get on their high horses and start making prognostications about who, when, what, how the new iDevice will be. With all the attention that new versions of the iPad and iPhone receive, it begs a question: what happens when/if Apple releases a complete flop? You know, something along the lines of a BlackBerry Storm-like disaster. The driving force of Steve Jobs is gone and, one way or another, that is going to affect Apple's products. What happens to the Cult of Apple and its iDevice line if the next iteration is widely disgusted?

Apple gets its fair share of criticism. The iPhone 4S was not the iPhone 5. It did not have NFC, LTE or a variety of other things that people expected the company to include in the new phone. Those improvements will make their way into the next iteration. That is how Apple does things. It holds back on certain innovations until they are more commonly available and stable and will not ruin the user experience. Apple also will have some new marketing tools for the next in the series - "iPhone 5S, now with NFC!"

This iterative product release strategy makes it all but certain that Apple will not come out with a dud in the next couple of years. The roadmap is pretty clear. The iPhone 4S may not have been what a lot of consumers or pundits thought they wanted, but it is still a good device with a little talking search engine baked inside. The user interface for iOS 5 is polished and leaves little wanting.

Now come the rumors for the iPad 3. What is it going to be? Is it going to be smaller? Will there be two new iPads next year, a big one and a small one? Will it have retina display and an A6 processor (it is probably pretty safe to say "yes" for these)? Apple has two things going for it with the release of the next iPad: money and time. Apple's cash reserves could literally bail out the banks of a couple small-to-medium sized countries. Research and development will get all the money it needs to figure out what consumers want, run through a couple of prototypes and carpet bomb the market next year. Apple does not need to rush the next iPad. The iPhone 4S did not come out until near 15 months after the iPhone 4. The iPad 2 is still a great device that many have a hard time envisioning any better. Outside for some spec bumps, what could and iPad 3 really show us?

Yet, there is a well-known slope in the tech industry for device makers with poor product releases. Look at Nokia, Hewlett-Packard and Research In Motion. All three of those companies dug themselves holes that will take years to climb out of, if ever. RIM has had the biggest drop of all of these companies. Revenue is dropping (even though smartphone sales are technically increasing) and market share has been depleted as Android and iOS gobble up would-be BlackBerry users. The company released its quarterly earnings statement this week and things are looking bleak in Waterloo. RIM has been savaged by mismanagement, poor product decisions, failure to innovate quickly, delayed product releases and infamous service outages. It is a company in disarray.

BlackBerry is an interesting corollary for Apple. It is a product that once engendered cult-like feelings, just like Apple does now. For years though it has been releasing products that are "good enough." BlackBerry OS 7 does not really look all that different from BlackBerry OS 5 or 6. We are in wait-and-see mode for BlackBerry 10 (the formerly named BBX, RIM cannot even get names right these days) but even the QNX-based operating system is being pushed back to the end of 2012 as opposed to Q1 2012, as previously thought. Pushing back product releases is almost as bad as releasing poor products in the eyes of the consumer. Unless you are Apple or an Android Nexus device, more time does not mean more anticipation. It means your company is going to be forgotten when the newest shiny toy that came out (on time) arrives.

Apple is never "late" on its product announcements. That is because Apple does not issue estimates of when a new device is coming. They let the tech press do that for them. Apple's recent strategy has been to announce a product and then release it about a week later. Instant gratification, a brilliant strategy. In contrast, RIM announced the BlackBerry PlayBook in September 2010 and said "eventually." It was put off several times before finally coming in April 2011, still a half-baked shell of what consumers were expecting.

Could Apple ever be in danger of turning into RIM? The fact that the company only releases two mobile products a year gives Apple little room for error. A couple of mediocre releases in a row that do not excite the public could whittle away at the Occult and Apple loses its luster. As we have seen, iOS users will not be swayed to a different product because it is different or shiny. The only way they are going to leave is if Apple shoots itself in the foot, multiple times in a row. That is what RIM did and not only did the product lose mindshare but the corporate infrastructure (which was never great in the first place) crumbled around it.

What it comes down to is the ability of Apple CEO Tim Cook to steer the company and its product releases in the next several years. Cook will need to oversee a significant innovative jump in the iDevice line eventually. Consumers are smart, they know when a company is milking their pockets. The iterative approach to iOS updates is only going to work for so long before Apple needs to make a major upgrade to the platform. When that time comes, Apple will need to make sure that its new products are the type that consumers have come to expect from the behemoth. Because, as we have seen so many times, the slope to decline is cobbled with good intentions gone bad, products that fail to live up to up to expectations and companies taking their cult status for granted.

Apple has enough money and brilliant engineers to avoid any type of decline for years. But, if Cupertino is not careful, the downward spiral is clear. Ask RIM if it ever thought it would be in the situation it is in now. Or Nokia. Success is not guaranteed, no matter how much people like you today.

Top image: Samsung Galaxy S II commercial