Does Apple Need a Bigger Stick - or Charm School?
You can't swing an iPad these days without hitting someone who's criticizing Apple for something. The stock is down, the product line is apparently empty, the cash hoard is too full. Maybe the company that made corporate secrecy an art form should give everyone a peek behind the Cupertino curtains. Maybe everyone should just pipe down and let Apple do what Apple does best: innovate.
03/07/13 5:00 AM PT
Apple, in so many ways, is now king of the hill. As such, behind every rock on the Web there seems to be a new charge to knock Apple down.
If a competitor isn't charging the hill, Apple seems to be the target for stone-throwing. It's not that this is unexpected; the rise and fall of companies -- and Hollywood starlets -- is commonplace. But does a meteoric rise always require a fall?
The questions on my mind these days: Once you're at the top, do you have to change? Must you act differently to stay there? And once you are there, do you have to start playing defense?
I don't know all the answers to these questions, but it's clear to me that Apple's identity -- and relationship with the world -- is in the middle of a profound and fundamental shift. Even if Apple doesn't hold the leading marketshare numbers, Apple holds the top mindshare in virtually every category.
Pay Some Mind to Mindshare
Despite not being the outright leader in everything, Apple is not an underdog.
While the Mac represents a fraction of the PC market, Apple sells more units than other manufacturers. Plus, the MacBook Air and Pro still represent the key designs other manufacturers are striving to emulate and surpass.
While the iOS is being surpassed by Android, the iPhone still holds admirable mindshare. It also captures the bulk of actual smartphone profit.
The iPad is still dominating tablet sales, and it's still clear that it represents the tablet experience and ecosystem to beat.
As near as I can tell, the Apple TV still seems to be outselling other set-top boxes. Aside from the sneak attack Xbox 360, other set-top boxes seem to become mere blips on the radar when they have a new release.
As for profit, oh boy; Apple's profits in relation to its products and revenue are simply stellar -- US$13 billion in just the last quarter, making it one of the world's most profitable companies.
Then there's Fortune, which just named Apple the world's most admired company, again, for what, the 6th year in a row?
Persistent Clamor for Change
As Android continues to gain marketshare, it seems that most industry watches believe that Apple should release an inexpensive, big-screen iPhone to compete on the low end to gain worldwide marketshare. Never mind that Apple doesn't create products just to gain marketshare. Apple only creates products that it believes improves the customer experience in some way.
Does Apple now have to create products that don't necessarily improve customer experience, but simply extend it to new customers? That plan of action doesn't really sound like Apple to me.
Yet the pressure to do so seems to be coming all the time, and every day that Apple's stock price slips, it's just more fuel on the fire.
In the past, the world's scrutiny wasn't as intense. Apple didn't have to worry about its supply chain partners leaking photos of new products. Apple could work in a carefully controlled and secretive environment. It could, when led by the oddly charming Steve Jobs, reveal new products to the world. There was deep surprise. This secretive process was -- and still is -- worth millions and millions of dollars in marketing value.
Because so many people keep talking about Apple and what it is going to do next, it doesn't have to spend nearly as much money as Samsung in advertising in order to make a healthy profit.
The marketing value of being secretive is the biggest single argument against any sort of change from Apple.
What if Apple said, "Look, we're building an Apple TV. It's freaking amazing. Do you know what's holding it up? The current television industry. They are the biggest road block in the world, and they seem to believe that forcing consumers to pay for a hundred terrible channels in order to get what they really want is a good business practice. We're trying to change that, and you know, we could use your help."
Theoretically, Apple could get defensive and let Wall Street know that it really does have awesome products nearing completion. At the same time, theoretically, Apple could go on offense and show everyone what sort of clubs it has as it stands at the top of the hill.
"Do you really want to come up here and compete? Are you sure?" Apple could say.
At the same time, Apple could throw stones. The company could call out the industries -- and individuals -- that keep Tim Cook's television experience two decades in the past. Apple could peel back layers and expose dark underbellies, and it could position itself as a champion of the light -- of progress.
If Apple just came out and said, "We've got an iWatch coming out in time for the 2013 holiday season," half the power of the naysayers who think Apple has peaked, is stagnant and can't come up with new products would be obliterated. Just one sentence is all it would take, maybe even three words: iWatch, September 2013.
What if Apple produced concept cars? What if Apple held a visionary sort of auto show and showed off interesting concepts for new products? What if it showed off its goofs, too?
It could work. It's hard to hate someone who is joyfully exuberant, has great ideas and just loves to share them.
On the other hand, would all of Apple's magic simply dissipate? Would fans stop asking questions? Stop talking? Stop hoping?
Can Apple weather the storm raging at the top of the hill by continuing to operate exactly as it did when it was climbing? If Apple doesn't change, will the vagaries of public opinion gradually wear it down?
Maybe I'm not asking the right questions at all. Maybe this is the right question:
Can Apple continue to be successful if it ignores the world, and simply focuses on creating the best possible products?
I sure as heck hope so.