You could practically hear the yawning as Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage during Tuesday’s iPhone 5S/5C and iOS7 event, a collectively ordinary response to another ordinary product launch in an ongoing sequence of ordinary product launches. You could sense the frustration that the company chose to introduce mildly updated versions of already existing products instead of swinging for the proverbial fences with radical rethinks and visionary offerings. You could sense the frustration that Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs, and never will be. You could sense the frustration, period.
Indeed, by the time the show was over and investors had a chance to absorb the news of Apple’s freshly colourful devices, the company’s shares sank below $500, down 1.8 per cent on the day. The stock is well off its all-time high of just over $700 thanks to ongoing concerns that Apple’s vaunted innovation engine has largely forgotten to innovate, that iteration is now the name of the game in Cupertino.
Criticism is easier than reality
Of course, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and berate the company for not being more aggressive. It’s just as easy to criticize Tim Cook for leaning too heavily on now-legacy product families instead of developing entirely new product categories and building out markets that previously didn’t exist. If his predecessor could jumpstart demand for media players, smartphones and tablets, the thinking goes, then what’s stopping Mr. Cook from building his own legacy in, say, televisions, smartwatches or even home automation? If Steve Jobs were still around, would he be happy with his company continuing to churn out slightly evolved hits from yesteryear? Or would he be angling for something entirely new to put a ding in the universe?
Apple finds itself between a rock and hard place precisely because of its earlier success. Whereas it was once the counterculture hero to oppressive and dominant corporate-think – the Orwellian commercial from the original Mac launch in 1984 practically sealed the company’s reputation as an underdog – its massive success and market influence over the past decade-and-a-half have firmly changed Apple from dominated to dominant. With almost 700 million iOS devices now in consumers’ hands worldwide, Apple must be very careful to maintain the integrity of an ecosystem that now defines mobility for almost a tenth of the world’s population.
All of which explains why, calls for revolution notwithstanding, the just-announced 5S looks pretty much like the 5, why the 5C uses warmed over components from earlier models, and why iOS7 still sticks with user interface paradigms that have been in place since 2007 and now pale in comparison to sexier, more configurable environments over in the Android camp.
Don’t upset the Apple cart
Because if Apple caved to the pressure and supersized the iPhone, radicalized the UI, tossed in a bunch of long-missing features (NFC, anyone?) and painted everything it sells in all the colours of the rainbow, it would risk abandoning the fundamental simplicity that’s always been at its very technological and cultural core. Developers would suddenly have to create and test their apps for multiple screen sizes, resolutions and aspect ratios, and maintain compatibility with more heterogeneous processors and chipsets. Just like Android. And in a world where the sheer number of apps is slowly giving way to the need to have key app releases and upgrades available for your platform before anyone else’s, simplicity keeps iOS at the front of the line for developers. And if developers prefer it, then so, too, do consumers and businesses.
Because my iPhone 5-toting daughter doesn’t want to have an old, feature-poor Instagram app – or, worse, no Instagram app at all – while her Samsung Galaxy S4-wielding older brother gets all the photographic glory. Because businesses making platform decisions can’t afford to have their developers bogged down by a complex, fragmented environment that challenges project budgets and leaves some end users completely out in the cold. Because if this happens often enough in either case, no one’s going to be buying iPhones again.
Against that backdrop, Apple’s careful-as-we-go strategy to iOS evolution makes a certain amount of sense despite the catcalls from the balcony. In the end, it isn’t the sexy hardware or the flashy product reveals that keep a mobile platform company moving ahead. It’s how the company chooses to treat its existing stakeholders. In that respect, maybe Apple has already figured it out. I wouldn’t bet against them.