First things first: Innovation isn't dead at Apple.
From a thousand yards away, the full product line looks terrific. The MacBook Airs are thinner and cheaper, the MacBook Pros have new Intel processors that greatly improve performance and battery life. The iPads are thinner and sharper, and iOS 7 future proofs Apple’s mobile product line with its 1,500 new APIs and 64-bit architecture. Apple is still the king of industrial design and trendsetting in the computer industry.
But something is rotten in the state of Cupertino. The lust is gone, the magic has been exhausted. Innovation may be alive and well at Apple, but the excitement is gone.
If you're familiar with Apple product events, they often follow a familiar script. CEO Tim Cook comes on stage, announces how well Apple is doing with all of its products in a confident but muted voice. Apple has sold 170 million iPads. It has paid $13 billion to Apple developers. There are nearly 475,000 apps available for the iPad.
Then there's an overproduced video, a commercial during which the audience can ooh and ahh at how good Apple is at … everything. Cook comes back on stage and introduces his lieutenants. Craig Federighi talks about all the new features in both of Apple’s operating systems. Phil Schiller throws subtle jabs at Microsoft, Google and the media. There's another melodramatic video featuring Sir Jony Ive. Then there's a new product announcement—a MacBook or an iPhone or an iPad. The executives coo softly to each other, congratulating themselves at how good they are at announcing new products.
That script is well traveled and became trite long ago. If you watched the iPad Air event today, you might have thought that Apple was replaying the keynote from its World Wide Developer Conference in June—straight down to the same introductory video. Or maybe last year’s iPad event when Apple unveiled the Mini.
The anticipation that once accompanied Apple product announcements during the reign of Steve Jobs has dissipated. The airtight secrets that Apple used to lock away are now bruited about openly. There's no “one more thing”—and people don’t really care if there is, because they probably already know what it is going to be.
Then there are the products themselves. It may be hard to see on a year-to-year basis, but Apple’s steady state of evolution is its own form of innovation. We don’t hear about Apple moonshots or research products the way we do with Microsoft or Google or IBM or SAP, and that's because the research is in the products themselves, which are in consumers’ hands. Research scientists call this sort of work “sustaining innovation”—basically the polar opposite of "disruptive innovation"—and Apple is a master at it.
The problem with sustaining innovations is that they're, well, sort of boring. And Apple plays the game very well. It comes out with a particular new product feature such as the "retina" display, the 64-bit A7 chip, Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth Low Energy features like AirPlay or iBeacon, or the fingerprint sensor with Touch ID and makes a big deal about it with one product launch.
Given that Apple’s cash cow is the iPhone, most times the new product features appear first in an Apple smartphone. Apple will then take those features and spread them across the rest of its product lineup, to the iMacs and MacBooks and iPads and iPods. If one gadget line misses a feature at some point, it usually catches up the following year—such as when Siri jumped to the third-generation iPad after its debut in the iPhone 4S.
All this is iteration and evolution and steady progress forward. If you look at the iPhone when it was released in 2007, or the iPad in 2010, and compare those products to what they've evolved into, the cumulative effect of that iterative work is fairly staggering.
But that makes Apple a victim of its own success. Everybody expects big things, and some people are let down when the new products only seem marginally better than the last. With each successive product, Apple loses a little bit of consumer mind share, the unquantifiable buzz that is the best type of marketing a company can possibly generate. Apple’s executives fall into the trap of sticking to the script that has now been replayed over and over again. After a while, even Cook, Schiller, Ive and Federighi seem bored with their own success.
Project this trend far enough and eventually the thrill will be gone entirely. Absent some entirely new product category—which could break the cycle, at least until it, too, finds itself on the treadmill of sequential iteration—Apple will no longer hold that special place in the minds of consumers across the world.
And as that happens, Apple will find itself just another high-end gadget maker with useful, beautiful and expensive products.
Lead image via Flickr user deerkoski, CC 2.0