Apple Moves to Middle Age

Most reports from yesterday’s Apple product launch event said that the first topic of the day was Tim Cook’s comments on the still-evolving Apple-FBI case. In fact, the very first thing that Apple showed was a tongue-in-cheek video segment that celebrated 40 years of Apple in 40 seconds, all through the use of Apple “catchwords” shown briefly on the screen. The reason, of course, is because the company will be celebrating its 40th anniversary on April 1 of this year.

Though most people glossed over the video, as I started to reflect on the day’s news for Apple (and what a day it was!), it struck me that the tiny video snippet was rather a propos. Not only did it acknowledge a significant chronological passing of time, it also quickly summarized what the company has achieved during that time. In addition, however, it suggested something else that its creators may not have intended—Apple is starting to age and mature.

Now, as someone who squarely falls into the “middle age” segment, I’m not implying that it’s a bad thing, by any stretch. It’s definitely not. It is, however, reflective of a different stage in the company’s life. Remember that this is a company whose youthful beginnings back in 1976 involved selling a board-based computer called the Apple 1 for the nifty price of $666.66 and supposedly solving some of its early financing problems through the sale of a VW bus.

As it approaches 40, however, Apple finds itself the largest company in the world measured by market capitalization, and in the challenging position of battling the FBI and US Department of Justice in federal courts over the potential release of encrypted data for a terrorism-related case. If that’s not a middle-age type adult problem to deal with, I don’t know what is.

To their credit, the company has achieved a great deal in those 40 years. As CEO Tim Cook proudly touted at yesterday’s event, there are now over 1 billion Apple devices being actively used around the world. Pretty incredible when you think about it.

But there are signs that the company’s youthful vigor is starting to fade. Look at the product announcements yesterday and you start to see what I mean. Though the iPhone SE and new 9.7” iPad Pro seem to be very solid products and worthwhile additions to the company’s product lines, no one is going to confuse them for major innovations. Instead, they are cautiously planned out, specialized offerings that reflect the market’s need for more refined product segmentation. In other words, they were built out of a mature reflection and analysis of the market—exactly what you’d expect from an “adult” company.[pullquote]Though the iPhone SE and new 9.7” iPad Pro seem to be very solid products and worthwhile additions to the company’s product lines, no one is going to confuse them for major innovations.”[/pullquote]

In fact, you could even make the argument that Apple is starting to lose some of its innovative edge as it ages. While many argue that Apple has a long history of “perfecting” other people’s ideas—such as taking the concept of an MP3 player and evolving it into the iPod—as a multi-decade observer of the company, I have very solid memories of Apple as a truly innovative business and doing many things first. It used to be companies like Microsoft or Dell who were the late-comers and tried to refine ideas that others had. Now, however, it’s starting to feel more and more like Apple is becoming a me too in many markets.

That’s not to say Apple doesn’t make great products—1 billion active users pretty clearly testify to the point that they do. But why is it, for example, that it was Microsoft who first introduced a revolutionary new product like HoloLens instead of Apple? I have no doubt that Apple will create some kind of interesting product in the augmented reality/virtual reality space at some point, but the longer they wait, the more they will seem like followers instead of technology leaders.

It’s not just the products themselves that seem to be aging either. The manner of delivering the message seems to be getting tired as well. Yesterday’s event could have been scripted out by any even reasonably-interested Apple follower. Other than pricing, virtually every aspect of every product discussed had been reported on previously—there were essentially no surprises whatsoever. Apple did tell a compelling story about its efforts around using renewable energy and recycling its products that not everyone has heard about, but again, this seemed to reflect a more “mature” company.

This trend of Apple news pre-releases seems to be getting worse and worse. Despite the company’s efforts to reign this in, most of the announcement events over the last few years have had relatively little “new” news. In fact, it’s getting so bad, you almost have to wonder if Apple is going to be able to keep their product launches as the critical kind of news-driving events that they used to always be.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Apple has become a victim of their own success. As great as it is to now have over 1 million apps specifically designed for the iPad, for example, or 1 billion active devices, the need for maintaining “legacy” support for those devices and ecosystems could soon become a burden instead of an asset.

Ultimately, I have no doubt that Apple will continue to build great products and services that reflect the company’s heritage of extreme user-friendliness. As the company enters “middle age,” however, it may want to ponder exactly how it can bring some freshness and vigor back into its products and the manner with which it tells its stories. Building off a string of greatest hits can work for a while, but all great artists eventually need to explore new ground if they want to evolve and improve. When they do, the best ones often create some of their greatest work.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

764 thoughts on “Apple Moves to Middle Age”

  1. At one point, though, does one become guilty of expecting innovation to be glitzy? I’m still not a fan of the iPad Pro, but from what I’ve seen of Pencil, the lack of lag compared to other tablet solutions (including the Surface Pro) is pretty amazing. One might argue that this was inevitable not innovative, but no one else has done that much so apparently there was some threshold that was difficult to cross.

    IOW, do you not see other innovations that are less consumer facing?

    Joe

    1. I think Apple long-term play is in health care, which can sustain the volume and margins they want, and would explain their very public and very strict stance on privacy and trust. That’s a slow-moving market though, and probably collaborative, which isn’t Apple forte.

      In the phone market, nothing really innovative has emerged over the last 3 years: NFC payments, pen, multiwindows, touchID, desktop docking and force touch were all available by 2012. Getting those right after the innovators fumble their way to the first version has value but it’s mostly about moving price points, Apple just showed that, and we’re getting the first “usable” Android at $75 ( https://www.gogi.in/infocus-bingo-10-review.html , very bad camera, rest “good enough”)

      1. I think Apple should execute on a mission: “Take your digital life everywhere”. I think they are still moving in that direction, but slower then one might expect.

    2. The pencil was the only reason I got the iPad Pro. The Surface Pen is good, the Pencil a bit better. This was my first iPad.

  2. “as a multi-decade observer of the company, I have very solid memories of
    Apple as a truly innovative business and doing many things first. It
    used to be companies like Microsoft or Dell who were the late-comers and
    tried to refine ideas that others had. Now, however, it’s starting to
    feel more and more like Apple is becoming a me too in many markets.”

    Your memory must be very faulty, then. Apple has always been one to wait for a product segment to emerge and then, after it’s been well-trodden by others, come out with their own much more polished, more user-friendly, and more aesthetic version. There’ve really only been a tiny handful of truly groundbreaking products from apple in the sense that you are kvetching about (the Mac, the Iphone, and that’s about it).

    “The manner of delivering the message seems to be getting tired as well.
    Yesterday’s event could have been scripted out by any even
    reasonably-interested Apple follower. Other than pricing, virtually
    every aspect of every product discussed had been reported on
    previously—there were essentially no surprises whatsoever.”

    Now you’re just being silly. Apple is the most watched company in the world. They have to manufacture millions of whatever it is they’re planning on selling in advance of a product launch, which means ramping up component production months in advance. Inevitably when their every move is put under a microscope, there will be many, many parts leaks. The only way they can ever have a product launch that is not thoroughly leaked well ahead of time is by pre-announcing it months ahead of its release, as they did with the watch and the original iphone. And on the other end, the more famous and intensivelyt watched the company becomes, the greater the temptation for some of their employees to speak anonymously to the press. It’s a miracle that Apple is able to keep so many aspects of their products a secret ahead of time, given the conditions they have to work under.

    1. That’s not totally true. The original Apple PCs and personal laser printers were ground breaking. Apple also was the fertile ground for the core of MS Office and computer aided (Pagemaker and Quark) publishing. Woz’s audio chip in the early Macs was also groundbreaking. So Apple hasn’t ALWYAS been one to wait. But that is the point, though. These are testaments to Apple’s history, not bastions for today or even recent history. Yet.

      But as I intimate, there are less consumer facing, less glitzy innovations I think that fly under the radar, such as their ARM chips and how tightly they integrate their software with hardware, for instance.

      As for the information leaks, I wonder if it is more deliberate (for whatever reason I cannot fathom) or are employees less fearful of Cook than they were of Jobs.

      Joe

      1. Aside from the prehistory of computing, when it was very hard to avoid being groundbreaking in one way or another (IBM managed it, though, with the PC, which was mostly a clone of CP/M machines), Apple has mostly been content to let other companies do the experimenting, then they come in and create their version once the early risky and potentially embarrassing experimentation phase is over.

        Desktop publishing wasn’t an Apple invention, they just hopped on the bandwagon of Aldus and so on who created DTP software for the early Macs.

        Agreed that in the realm of under the hood innovations, in the mobile ecosystem, Apple is definitely trailblazing with their A series chips. On the desktop, they’ve hitched their star to Intel, so they’re much more hampered in that arena.

    2. “There’ve really only been a tiny handful of truly groundbreaking products from apple in the sense that you are kvetching about (the Mac, the Iphone, and that’s about it).”

      I would even add the iPod to that list.

  3. Steve Jobs is gone and Tim Cook is 55. Then again, we don’t know what surprises Apple may be working on.

  4. Apple seems to be moving the pencil down ticket as fast as it can. Thats what I took from the mature apple view yesterday. it’ll be on the iPhone next then the watch. then the laptop. it will be there for us over-mature ones that don’t see that well.

  5. “But there are signs that the company’s youthful vigor is starting to fade. Look at the product announcements yesterday and you start to see what I mean.”

    It’s unwise to judge the direction of any company by looking at a single, off-season product announcement. I could cite dozens of Apple announcements during Jobs’ tenure that were less exciting, less promising.

    1. Correct. For example, consider how many iPod announcements barely moved the needle. And yet just lurking around the corner was iPhone and iPad (and even then, many people published their long list of issues with those).

      Also, did any Mac or Mac OS X announcements reveal youthful vigor? Yet over time, it evolved from the Powerbook/iBook all the way to today’s MacBook.

    2. Agree. I would even speculate that this new products introduction mid-cycle was done more to pacify stock analysts worried about a declining stock price than sticking to their product strategy guns, although in reality it was probably both, and also reiterate on Apple’s readiness to milk its cash cow.

  6. Apple reached middle age in 1986. They are now on their 2nd or 3rd life, depending upon how you count events.

  7. The life expectancy of multinational Fortune 500 companies is 40-50 years. Hence if you just look at age, Apple is not middle-aged. It’s an 80-year old grandpa.

    Just pointing out that it’s probably not very sensible to judge a company by age alone.

    https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/01/what-is-the-life-expectancy-of-your-company

    The more interesting implication of a 40-50 year life-expectancy (which is probably much shorter for tech companies), is that less than half of the “young” and hip companies that you see now, like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Amazon, Snapchat, Salesforce etc. will make it till Apple’s age. They will go the way of Atari, Commodore, IBM, etc.