Until recently Apple has been on an unstoppable roll. Apple’s iPhones and iPads have been flying off the shelf. But when Apple’s latest quarterly results got a thumbs down from Wall Street, from the market, lots of people started wondering if Apple had lost its mojo.

Dan Lyons put it this way here at ReadWrite, “It seems Apple has hit a wall. It’s not just about sales and earnings, but also about innovation. It’s been years since Apple did something truly revolutionary.”

A Delicate Balance Of Innovation

But truly revolutionary can also be truly risky. With 75 million iOS devices sold in Q1 of its 2013 fiscal year, Apple’s success is now increasingly all about iOS. To keep the iOS train moving and churning out profits, Apple needs to innovate – but not so much that it scares away the legions of happy iPhone and iPad users.

Might iOS, the very product that helped put Apple on top, require risk taking beyond what the new Apple can handle? Current users love iOS – but Apple seems to losing the numbers war to Android.

To turn the tide, iOS may need to be re-invented. That often happens to operating systems, but it is not easy to pull off without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Other companies have seen inordinately popular operating systems actually hold them back from getting fully behind new and improved versions.

The Windows XP Comparison

Look at Microsoft. Windows XP was released on October 25, 2001 and it took until August 2012 before Windows 7 had more users. Windows 8 – given its challenging new interface – might have an even tougher time moving the needle.

Windows XP was successful because – as David Johnson, an analyst with Forrester has noted – “It was a very, very good operating system… a superb OS because it removed a lot of pain.” While the Macintosh was often called great, Windows XP was often said to be “good enough” and with inexpensive hardware as a platform, it won the desktop computing war.

Windows XP retains a strong hold on many users, to Microsoft’s chagrin. The company would like to see them buying new computers loaded with Windows 8.

Is it conceivable that Apple has achieved that magic “good enough” formula with iOS on its current iPhones? People hang onto to their iPhone because it has been a positive experience for them and it works – will that affect Apple’s ability to get the to try something new and presumably better?

The iPhone and iOS revolutionized smartphones and tablets much like the Mac popularized graphical user interfaces. Now, in spite of huge Apple numbers, the smartphone and tablet markets are slipping away to Android much like the computer market went to Windows XP.

Is iOS Falling Behind?

Where does iOS stand today? Erica Ogg at Gigacom argues that while there have lots of releases of iOS, there has been little change.

“While iOS has seen six new releases since its debut in 2007, there have been few major changes. The arrival of the App Store in 2008, and push notifications in 2009 were the last big adjustments in how the software works.”

John Martellaro, a Mac Observer writer who used to work for me at Apple, recently had this to say in his article, We’ve Changed and Grown. Apple’s iOS Hasn’t:

“iOS, now roughly six years old, was designed in an era of much less hardware capability and launched on the small 3.5-inch display of the original iPhone. Now, it’s being pressed into service on ever larger iPhone and also iPad displays. One of the big annoyances is the single foreground app/single window design.”

The iPhone is also losing some notable users and influencers, including Steve Wozniak and Robert Scoble. Yet in spite of all this, the number of people who own iPhones and who are planning to switch to another platform remains small. A recent study suggests that the number of iPhone users planning to buy another iPhone has dropped only from 88% to 75%.

Why Change Will Be Hard

If the iPhone and the iPad are no longer the clear technology leaders, big change seems in order. Ironically, Apple’s loyal customers who still plan to buy a new iPhone might be a hurdle. How much Apple can change iOS without losing the loyalty of those customers?

In a recent Ars Technica survey – iPhone users: what does Android have that you want? – 8% said they wanted bigger displays – but 10% said they would never switch from their iPhone.

Apple Has Been Here Before

Finding just the right amount of change in that environment won’t be easy. But Apple has successfully faced this type of pivotal moment before – sometimes even without the help of Steve Jobs. Apple’s history demonstrates a willingness to make technology breaks when needed.

Today’s need for innovation while maintaining a satisfied customer base calls for the same boldness that Apple displayed when it moved users from the Apple II line to the Macintosh line, and later from Mac OS9 to Mac OSX and finally to Intel processors. Apple users gave Apple high marks for these difficult transitions.

Can Apple Do It Again?

But this is a different Apple – and a different, arguably less-forgiving market. As Blackberry and Nokia so clearly demonstrate, things happen quickly in the mobile space, with little room for error.

Whether Apple can innovate enough to stem the Android march while keeping current users happy might be the first big test for the new, post-Jobs Apple.

Apple still has one key advantage. Apple owns the whole widget, the hardware and the software. In the past it has made the ecosystem change so compelling that loyal customers followed without hesitation. But Google and Microsoft are starting to copy Apple’s whole-widget strategy – and that could make any iOS transition even harder.

What’s Next?

All things point to Apple making significant changes in iOS in 2013. Most Apple iOS users will follow wherever Apple goes – but that is only half the battle.

It all boils down to two things. Does Apple have the vision to make the next version of iOS a true advance? And even if the next iOS is a huge hit among current users, will it be enough to stem the tide toward Android?

If Apple can pull off this difficult transition, it could find itself set for another 5 years. If not, it will face increasing pressure from many sides.

Image by Fredric Paul.