‘Apple is doomed’ narrative: another perspective

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The launch of a major Apple product – especially the iPhone, brings out a slew of negative articles around the company. The narrative is broadly as under:

Apple has stopped innovating
– The magic of Apple has vanished after the demise of Steve Jobs

There is a sound economic reason behind this: such articles are great for generating traffic. Positive news about Apple (record sales, profit) only appeals to a niche audience. News of a drop in growth rate, product glitches, design inconsistencies and such like (‘Why I gave up on iOS and switched to Android’, ‘iPhone doesn’t have the magic anymore’ and ‘Wifi issues after iOS upgrade’) attract a much wider audience and social buzz. The reason: Apple is a company many love to see falter. Apple is a polarising brand in that sense – it evokes intense affinity and dislike. While there are many reasons for the negative feeling towards the brand the common ones being the belief that they produce over-rated products and its consumers are taken in by the marketing spiel. Overall, it is seen as poor value (‘my brand can do more for less’) and of late compounded with an ‘imitator’ tag.

A lot of these opinions are based on perceptions (without actual product experience). However a lot of erstwhile Apple fans have expressed their disappointment with the brand of late. These reactions are not ‘wrong’ – they are just points of views, some based on product experience. A lot of those who comment on Apple products, especially the younger generation know of Apple from its iPhone days only i.e. 2007 onwards. They have no residual imagery or positive equity associated with the original Mac, iMac, Powerbook, MacBook or the iPod. The Apple products of those days and even the early years of the iPhone had competitive advantages which are different from today. And very importantly, the media environment was different. For example:

– The Mac, which defined Apple for a long time was a niche, super premium brand. Like all other Apple products, it had the ‘integrated software & hardware’ advantage in the wake of Microsoft’s licensed software strategy. Windows had to battle with issues like bloatware, glitches with Windows Vista and so on which strengthened the ‘just works’ claim of Apple. The Mac was also the choice of the creative community which lent the brand a cool quotient.
– With the launch of iPod, the aura was strengthened. It’s sales success, the marketing imagery (and the failure of Zune & other competition) added to the halo of the Apple brand
– Apple’s ability to extract PR value and a fan following was every other brands envied
– This trend continued during the launch early years of the iPhone. Remember the 6-month PR window between the announcement in January and launch in June for the iPhone?

Over the last decade, the following big changes have occurred:

– Competition has made huge strides in hardware & software narrowing the gap (or surpassing Apple as some would say) between them and iPhone
– Brands have invested time, money and effort to ‘outsmart’ the iPhone in terms of features and get them to market before Apple: big screen, wireless charging and OLED screen come to mind
– Social media has created fans & evangelists of other brands too in the personal tech space. Google, Android, Samsung, One Plus and Mi have ‘believers’, defenders and fan bases of their own.
– Apple has had its share of product glitches and missteps (the Maps snafu, dodgy design which have been amplified thanks to 24×7 media
– The amplification of negative opinions about Apple and positive strides made by competition has narrowed the gap between iPhone and others in terms of positive perception as compared to 2007

I am sure even the staunchest of Apple fans (like yours truly) do not believe that ’Apple can do no wrong’. The company can and has made mistakes and competing brands fare better than Apple in many aspects. However, in my view, the ‘Apple has stopped innovating and only imitates’ argument does not take into account Apple’s DNA, its strengths and equity in its entirety. Here’s why:

– Apple has never placed ‘first to market’ as priority: Samsung did their damnedest to beat Apple in launching a smart watch. But did that help Samsung in any way? On the other hand, Apple did what they did and has become the dominant brand in the category
– It is not “a” feature in isolation which makes the experience – it is the hardware-software combination and more importantly the ecosystem of connected devices. For example, cellular connectivity in the new Apple Watch evoked the ‘this has been around in my LG and Samsung watches forever’ response here. That’s missing the point. The advantage of Apple is in it connected services & devices which other watch brands don’t have in full
– For all the ‘where’s the innovation after Steve Jobs?’, the post-Jobs team Apple is not given enough credit for innovations like Touch ID, Apple Watch, Face ID, Apple Pay. All these have gone on to become mainstream products and impacting the entire industry. Fingerprint sensor and careless pay have become popular across the industry now
– Apple’s investment (in time, effort and money) behind health is commendable and not celebrated enough. They have integrated health monitoring into iOS and the Apple Watch by hiring serious professionals in medicine and hence not paid lip service
– the focus on the tech community is on Apple hardware expecting the company to launch a ‘never before seen’ gadget every once in a while 
– The baking of ARKit into iOS 11 will likely bring the benefits of Augmented Reality to millions in one go. I don’t think the Android world (and dare I say even the iOS ecosystem) has fully realised the potential of Augmented Reality. In the months to come, it will have a novelty factor developers will create a slew of measuring apps. During the early years of iOS there fart apps galore but today we have apps which impact productivity and play a central role in many ‘serious’ activities. Similarly, AR has the potential to impact many industries and our way of life positively. Such initiatives are not considered in the context of ‘imitation is not innovation’ and it is only limited to things like OLED screens and edge-to-edge screens.

Another aspect about brand Apple which is often ignored by critics is that it does not yearn for universal appeal. Apple consciously chases the segment which is willing to pay premium in exchange for an experience. In contrast, competing brands face the dilemma of being everything to everybody – chasing the super premium to economy to budget segments. In other words, those who strongly believe in ‘I can get all that an iPhone delivers at half the price’ (there is nothing wrong in that) are never going to be iPhone customers and Apple knows it. The mistake is in assuming that those who buy ‘into’ the iPhone brand (as opposed to just buying it) are idiots who are fooled by the marketing blitz. Everyone gets the value they seek in brands they love – a Mercedes owner or a luxury resort guest also believe they have got their money’s worth. ‘Value for money’ is not just about inexpensive purchases.

All said and done, Apple is in good shape in every which way – financial, product lineup, brand equity and consumer loyalty. What has changed over the last decade or so is that competition has become stronger in their own right.

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