The chorus of skeptics quick to proclaim that Apple’s best days are behind it is seemingly louder than its been in decades. According to this outspoken group of pundits and analysts, Apple’s penchant for innovation has been effectively tapped out. As the narrative goes, Tim Cook is ill-equipped to deliver innovative products and Apple, while still a money-making machine like no other, will inevitably suffer an unforgiving and tumultuous fall from grace.
In the process, Apple’s past successes and current market strengths are curiously glossed over while companies with less impactful products and less leverage within the tech industry are routinely afforded a disproportionate amount of praise.
The funny thing is, the idea that we’ve reached peak Apple is far from a novel idea. On the contrary, this narrative persisted even while Steve Jobs was still the CEO of Apple. For whatever reason, nothing Apple has ever done has ever afforded the company even the tiniest benefit of the doubt.
Touching on this point, one of the most insightful comments ever made about how Apple is often viewed by industry observers and influencers on Wall Street was made by independent analyst Horace Dediu who, back in 2013 when shares of Apple were plummeting, said the following.
At this point of time, as at all other points of time in the past, no activity by Apple has been seen as sufficient for its survival. Apple has always been priced as a company that is in a perpetual state of free-fall. It’s a consequence of being dependent on breakthrough products for its survival. No matter how many breakthroughs it makes, the assumption is (and has always been) that there will never be another.
This is 100% spot-on.
In a bizarre twist of logic, Apple’s success is often used as evidence to justify narrowly formed opinions about how the company simply can’t keep up with companies with less revenue, fewer users, and no similar track record of longstanding innovation to speak of.
It’s akin to someone in 2013 erroneously arguing that LeBron James had peaked because he had just won his fourth league MVP and his second NBA championship. “Where else is there to go but down?” Lebron skeptics were fond of asking.
Success, for all intents and purposes, should be viewed as a harbinger for continued success. Yet oddly enough, even after the iPod, the iPad and nine iterations of the iPhone, Apple still can’t seem to catch a break from analysts who, like clockwork, are all too eager to wax poetic about the company’s impending fall from grace.
Granted, tech companies do deserve to be scrutinized more heavily given how quickly the tech landscape tends to shift. As we’ve seen countless times over the last 15 years, established players can quickly be supplanted by newcomers in a blink of an eye. Citing two quick examples, Myspace was king of the world until Facebook came along while the smartphone market today is ruled by two companies — Apple and Google — who had no meaningful experience in the smartphone industry before 2006.
Nonetheless, the cloud of gloom and doom that currently envelops Apple today might have you believe that the company already missed the next big wave of innovation and will never again be able to catch up. It’s why we recently saw analysts at Oppenheimer articulate that Apple will soon “embark on a decade-long malaise.”
We believe Apple lacks the courage to lead the next generation of innovation (AI, cloud-based services, messaging); instead [Apple] will become more reliant than ever on the iPhone … We believe Apple is about to embark on a decade-long malaise. The risks to the company have never been greater.
The problem with this absurd take on Apple couldn’t be any more glaring.
Regardless of how iPhone sales are currently trending, making bold predictions about the state of the tech industry 10 years out is utterly laughable, if not downright insane.
Briefly, consider all of the products and services that didn’t even exist 10 years ago: the iPhone, Spotify, Instagram, Snapchat, Netflix originals. The list, of course, could go on and on. And just for good measure, remember when IDC’s 2011 smartphone forecast anticipated that Microsoft’s Windows Phone would own a greater share of the smartphone market than iOS? Yeah, that’s a tech prediction for you.
Point being, the tech industry is fast-moving and predictably unpredictable. It’s hard enough to pinpoint how industry tides might shift in just 3-4 years time, let alone in 10 years. All the while, a growing number of analysts and pundits argue that Apple’s future looks decidedly bleak, if only because another iPhone-level device isn’t on the horizon. The iPhone, however, was so revolutionary precisely because it literally was a once-in-a-lifetime type of product. The idea that Apple is doomed because it can’t release two revolutionary products on an arbitrary timetable dreamt up by analysts with seemingly a loose grasp on how innovation works is a strange dynamic that seems to uniquely affect Apple.
This narrative is all the more confounding because the next big thing in tech remains an open-ended question. Some believe AI is the wave of the future. Others believe the next big tech trend will be VR, while others have their eyes set on other areas like AR and self-driving cars. Perhaps one of the aforementioned items will move society forward in the same way the iPhone-led smartphone revolution did years ago. Or, perhaps in 10 years we’ll all be talking about some brand new tech product or service that won’t even be on anyone’s radar for at least another good 5 years.
It’s no secret that Apple is rarely, if ever, first to a given market. On the contrary, Apple prefers to sit on the sidelines, bide its time, and carefully observe where the market is headed before jumping in head first. Why, then, do so many people believe that Apple has already missed or is poised to miss the boat on the next wave of innovation?
Never mind the fact that Apple has been investing more and more R&D resources across a wider swath of research areas than ever before. It’s no secret that the company has been seriously looking into AI, machine learning, indoor mapping, auto design, automotive software, augmented reality and more. The takeaway here is that Apple isn’t watching the tech industry evolve as a casual observer. If anything, history tells us that Apple is watching the tech industry like a hawk and will decide to swoop in when it feels the time is right.
Now this isn’t to say that Apple’s next big foray into a new product area will automatically be a huge hit. As mentioned above, nothing in the tech sphere is predictable. Consequently, positing that Apple’s next big product will usher in a revolution a’la the iPhone would be ludicrous. By that same token, declaratively stating that Apple will be entering a 10-year period of stagnation is equally as absurd.
Some skeptics might point to the absence of Steve Jobs as concrete proof that Apple lacks a true visionary. While admittedly a fair point, this argument should be tempered by the fact that Jobs himself was not solely responsible for some of Apple’s greatest innovations.
For example, Jobs vehemently opposed Apple rolling out an SDK for the original iPhone. As Walter Isaacson noted in his Steve Jobs biography, many Apple executives and board members lobbied hard for Jobs to change his mind.
“Jobs at first quashed the discussion,” Isaacson wrote, “partly because he felt his team did not have the bandwidth to figure out all the complexities that would be involved in policing third-party app developers.”
As another example, the click wheel on the iPod, one of the device’s cornerstone features, wasn’t conjured up by Jobs, but actually by Phil Schiller. Per a 2006 profile on the iPod’s development in Wired: “The idea for the scroll wheel was suggested by Apple’s head of marketing, Phil Schiller, who in an early meeting said quite definitively, ‘The wheel is the right user interface for this product.'”
In other words, all of Apple’s innovations can’t be traced back to Jobs exclusively. On the contrary, some of Apple’s most impactful products and services resulted from a culture of innovation that Jobs instilled upon his return to Apple in the late 90s. Why pundits believe that this culture has seemingly ceased to exist is perplexing.
One would think that Apple’s long track record of innovation would afford the company even the tiniest sliver of a benefit of the doubt. But instead, we’re greeted with predictions that Apple is not only going to stagnate over the next year, but will become increasingly irrelevant over the course of 10! years.
So it goes in the world of Apple where up is down and down is up.