Skip to main content

Is Apple losing its cool?

By John C. Abell, Special to CNN
February 19, 2013 -- Updated 1719 GMT (0119 HKT)
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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT