The iPhone 5 was revealed by Apple this week. The reaction around the world has been mixed with words like “underwhelming”, “unimpressive” and “predictable” emblazoned amongst headlines with the occasional “evolutionary” if they were feeling kind. Myself I felt a bit underwhelmed but still impressed by the technological feat of engineering required - but then no more amazed by Apple for creating that technology than I also am by Samsung for creating the Galaxy SIII hardware.
There appears to be a contingent of people around the world that believe that Steve Jobs and Apples secrecy were the primary reasons for the success of Apple. People that were won over by his showmanship, the so-called ‘reality distortion field’ and the surprise revelations at Apple events became ‘iSheep’ that would simply buy anything that Apple put its name on. As a thought experiment, put Steve Jobs as the CEO of another company, let’s say HTC, but keep the same products just with a different CEO and different product presentations. Same enthusiasm, same reality distortion field: would sales improve? I’m not convinced that they would. If enough people bought HTCs products under Steve Jobs, eventually the word would spread that the devices did not perform as well as they’d hoped. Inevitably the quality of the product would decide its own fate. The concept of a free market: let the market decide would still hold.
There is no doubt that Steve Jobs brought momentum to product launches. But all momentum will be lost unless the product is actually good. An Apple without Steve then, it just as likely to succeed as one without - in the long term.
Then what of secrecy? The age-old problem of matching product features by competitors will never go away in a free market. Hence any time Apple can gain over the competition is critical. That said, regarding the iPhone - is secrecy still relevant? In many respects, Android and competitors hardware exceeded the iPhone a year or two ago in terms of raw power, size and weight: not to mention cost. If we rewind to pre-iPhone, there were many players in the market that believed Apple was making a Phone, but none had any idea what it would look like and how it would work (or if it would work out for Apple for that matter). Apple surprised them all, and Palm, RIM, Google, Microsoft, Nokia (the list goes on) all changed direction shortly after this occurred. The market is rebalancing. The innovations became more incremental. The secrecy has become, for this product at least, less important.
The end result is that there is no more ‘big surprise’ from Apple regarding the iPhone. No “One More Thing…” as Steve Jobs introduced many new products including the Macbook Air and (iTV) Apple TV. Whilst the iPhone was not technically an OMT moment, the point is rather that it came out of left field (as they say in American baseball). That surprise is what mattered more to Apple. With the iPhone 5 there was no surprise: the entire product had been leaked prior to the event. Was it beautiful? Yes. Was it faster, lighter, thinner? Yes, yes and yes. What is a surprise? No.
Why the disappointment? Because we have all become hooked on “One More Thing.” The desire for Apple to pull something truly amazing out of the hat that no-one saw coming. Or if they did see it coming, they had no idea what it would look like, or how it would work.
The only product Apple is currently rumoured to be working on in this category is the true Apple Television (as opposed to a separate box that connects to a TV). When will it be the next big thing? When it does, or Apple’s next big thing truly arrives the focus will shift again - away from the iPhone and iPad. The iPhone has already become a mature product - like the iPod before it. It has broken all of the significant new ground that it can break. It is incremental improvement from here - like the iPod before it. Apple started the revolution, but is now just another player (a big and key one certainly).
None of this means that Apple is on the ropes or that Apple is ready for a fall or a slide. Apple will continue to make great products.
Apples biggest problem is the bar it has set for itself. Consumers have come to expect the next OMT. The next breakthrough. The continued success of Apple rests on their new devices. If they fail to deliver then the faith may be lost. In effect the only thing that can cause Apple to fail now, is for it to disappoint the market by not delivering the next One More Thing. The market has become hooked on it, like a drug and like a drug addict if the next hit isn’t provided in enough time withdrawal will begin. The iPhone 5 introduction was not the beginning of the withdrawal, but it is not far away. They need a One More Thing moment and they need it soon.