The Great Apple Lull
Is excitement around Apple winding down? Or winding up?
An infant could not have drawn it better: This is Apple’s last decade in one line. (No, it’s not the snake from The Little Prince eating a genetically modified elephant.)
Technically, it’s a smoothed graph of Apple’s year-over-year revenue growth from September, 2003, through September, 2013. But the reason I left out all identifying symbols and values is that this is supposed to represent something less tangible — excitement about Apple. This feeling, while rising and falling as the iPod, Mac, iPhone, and iPad generated a lot of interest — not to mention sales and profits — seems to have lately settled into a slump.
It’s not that Apple isn’t making great products anymore: You’d be a fool to argue that the iPhone 5S, retina iPad mini, iPad Air, and various Macs aren’t the best computers that any company — not just Apple — has ever made. Step back more than a couple of product generations, and the newest models are amazing improvements.
And it’s not that Apple has stopped innovating. One particularly impressive feat — which will never get the appreciation it deserves — is that in half a decade, Apple has scaled from a company that can reliably design, produce, sell, and support 75 million gadgets in a year to one that can move that many in three months. (The first time Apple sold 9 million iPhones in a quarter was three years ago — September, 2010. This year, it shipped 9 million iPhones in a single weekend.) This despite increasing competence and competition from Google, Samsung, Amazon, and Microsoft.
But where Apple has disappointed recently is in novelty, or surprise. Perhaps this is unfair, but it’s real. Apple became the company that delivered “new”. People got used to hearing about new stuff all the time — iPod nanos, iPhones, MacBook Airs, iPads — and now it seems like it’s been a while. The more people got, the more they wanted. And then you have to work even faster.
What really happened? Steve Jobs spoiled us with two mind-altering substances in quick succession — the iPhone and iPad. Meanwhile, the majority of people who have ever owned Apple products likely bought their first (and second…) during this period. So all of a sudden, a bunch of people who didn’t really pay attention to Apple before — people who never had to boot up a Performa with Extensions off, or upgrade RAM in a Power Mac 8500 — are now expecting some crazy new toy to appear every few years, whether it’s realistic or not.
And here we are, the end of 2013, and it’s been a while since Apple really surprised. You may reasonably wonder: Why is that Apple television taking so long? Where’s my iWatch? Is Tim Cook asleep at the wheel? Has Apple lost its magic? What’s going on here? This is how you start to get even Apple’s biggest supporters wondering about ho-hum product presentations feeling “off”.
So that’s the big question right now. Is all of this a windup to a new galaxy-changing Apple device or two over the next few years? Will that boom-boom succession ever happen again? Will two new Apple devices in a row ever sell so many units so quickly? Or was that an unrealistic coincidence? Is Apple’s ability to invent slowing with its sales growth?
Once again, on tonight’s earnings call, Apple CEO Tim Cook talked up the company’s interest in new product categories — “specifically if you look at the skills that Apple has from hardware, software and services and at incredible app ecosystems”. Cook, of course, offered no timeline, and Apple tends to play the long game. An optimist might say that Apple’s most recent move — launching the retina iPad mini so close to the holidays, instead of waiting until next year — suggests the company is speeding up its overall product-release cadence. A pessimist might say that Apple has fallen behind, and that it should have launched this Friday.
I’d say give it another year. Tim Cook has now been chumming the water for a while, and if Apple was just going to keep rolling out iterative updates to the iPhone and iPad until we all fell asleep, it’d be a waste to keep bringing up the whole “new categories” line. It’s not like he just showed up when Steve Jobs retired. Tim has been around this whole time, and doesn’t seem like the bullshit-artist type.
If it becomes mid-2015, and Apple hasn’t shipped anything new, then it might be time to wonder what’s up. But for now, enjoy your new iPad, relax, and get excited. I risk sounding like a naïve Cubs fan here, but: If it’s “new” you’re after, my guess is that next year will be more interesting.
Also at TechCrunch: Apple’s Rebound Quarter In Charts