Skip to main content

Is Apple losing its cool?

By John C. Abell, Special to CNN
updated 12:19 PM EST, Tue February 19, 2013
An employee of a mobile phone shop in Seoul, South Korea, holds up the Apple iPhone and a competitor, the Samsung Galaxy.
An employee of a mobile phone shop in Seoul, South Korea, holds up the Apple iPhone and a competitor, the Samsung Galaxy.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Abell: Reactions to iPhone 5 and iPad Mini were, for new Apple products, lukewarm
  • Abell: Apple a prisoner of its reputation; we expect new products in quick succession
  • Android-run products are threatening the once-invincible Apple iPhone, he says
  • Abell: Apple's being ganged up on, but it will stay strong for at least 10 more years

Editor's note: John C. Abell is the tech columnist and reviewer for Reuters, and a former Wired editor. Follow him on Twitter: @johncabell

(CNN) -- Apple is getting pushed around a lot these days. Digerati reaction to the iPhone 5 was "meh," response to the iPad Mini was akin to "it's about time" and we are all more excited about unicorn-like products such as an iWatch and iTV than the things you can buy right now.

Apple's strength is its Achilles' heel: We expect it to reinvent on schedule and when, in our infinite wisdom, we believe it is not, we treat it like the kid who no longer belongs in our clique.

John Abell
John Abell

Some of this is to be expected when a company with as incredible a recent track record as Apple's seems to be resting more on its laurels than finding new battles to win. Since the quixotic introduction of the iMac in 1998 -- reinvigorating the desktop computer well into the age of portables -- Apple has been on a tear:

• The iPod (2001)

• The iTunes Store, allowing the purchase of single music tracks (2003)

• The Apple retail store (2004)

• The iPhone (2007)

• The iPad (2010)

And you can add to list that Steve Jobs' revitalization of the animated feature film through his acquisition of Pixar.

Samsung takes a bite out of Apple
Locals dominate China smartphone market
Apple CEO remains confident with company

That's a lot of imagination in a very short time. Apple hasn't just dominated the story for a decade: It has written the story of the past decade. That is a lot to live up to. Most companies can't. It's particularly brutal for tech (as opposed to, say, shampoo) companies, which at best can usually hope to set the pace for only about generation until they settle into a comfortable middle class.

Call it the Microsoft Curve. Microsoft dominated through the red-hot '90s, the height of the PC era. It isn't going anywhere. It still prints money by selling MS-Office and Windows licenses. But look at a five-year stock price chart, and you'll see it has gone exactly nowhere. The only people dancing for joy about owning a Windows computer seem to be in those Surface Pro TV ads.

At the bottom of the pile there is the sad tale of Palm -- the hottest tech company on the planet for far too brief a time. Palm Pilots were once everywhere. But the company stumbled by failing to recognize quickly enough that, in the age of the Internet, no one wanted a portable device that couldn't get online.

How Samsung is out-innovating Apple

Another hard luck case is Research in Motion -- now BlackBerry. That company did get the portable device memo, but it spectacularly misjudged the smartphone revolution sparked by Apple.

Now Apple is this unfamiliar territory: Successful on paper, products seen everywhere, Macbooks and iPhone placed in seemingly every TV show and movie and yet ... the cool factor is cooling off.

There is a big difference between atmospherics and actuality, of course. But nobody wants to be thought of as a has-been in the making.

The lesson of tech history is that smart companies crash when they believe what they have already done is all they need to do: that doubling-down and trash-talking the competition is what it takes.

Exhibit A? Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer himself, whose initial public reaction to the iPhone was that business customers wouldn't want it "because it doesn't have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good e-mail machine."

This would be a good time to mention that increasingly large numbers of these "business customers" now want an iPhone at work, challenging Microsoft at what has been its enterprise stronghold.

Apple's search for its next billion-dollar product

Success is never assured, but it can only be extended only two ways: If you corner the market, impossible in the uberdisruptive tech space, or if you are unabashedly willing to question everything, all the time.

Facebook began life as the world's most exclusive private social network -- only Harvard students need apply. But it became a public company worth $68 billion because it decided instead to become the world's least exclusive private network.

Even Palm's trajectory might have been different if it had inverted its thinking in time: Imagine a Palm Pilot not as a personal information manager with connectivity, but a connected device with PIM applications, and you have described exactly what the smartphone is today.

There is no reason to think Apple won't thrive financially for years to come, just like Microsoft. But its continued reputation as the chief arbiter of cool is being challenged. Apple may still have the best-selling smartphone in the world, but the many others powered by rival Google's Android operating system -- and especially those made by Samsung -- far exceed the iPhone.

For years, tech writers reviewed each new smartphone on a simple grading scale: Is this the iPhone killer? None has been, but collectively the point has been made:

No phone has killed the iPhone, but plenty of them co-exist just fine, thank you very much.

We expect the unexpected from Apple, and the company does nothing to tamp down these expectations. So when it doesn't dazzle us, ennui begins to creep in. Apple is also burdened by what I called at the time the meaningless milestone of having become the biggest company ever. Where do you go from there? You are either still the biggest, or slipping. Consolidating your lead is fine and all, but it isn't sexy.

My own prediction of Apple's prospects is that needs to worry about becoming a mid-packer only after the CEO Tim Cook and designer Jony Ive -- the other tow members of the triumvirate headed by Steve Jobs -- are no longer with the company.

Until then, perhaps a decade from now, you bet against Apple at your own peril.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of John Abell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT