The Curious Case of Apple Stagnation: How Apple is aging backwards to 1995

"The Curious Case of Apple Stagnation: How Apple is aging backwards to 1995"

-By Andrew Schmidt

Editor's note: This is part two of a three part series on innovation. Click here for part 1

First off I want to thank Aaron for inviting me onboard to write for his blog. This site is about everything I believe in, education and the process of reasoning through both sides of an issue. Rational thought is the most important thing we as humans can do, and I hope this site advances that in some degree. As a Montana Democrat, I tend to agree with Aaron’s Vermont Republicanism more often than not. However, the nuances of our ideologies leave plenty to discuss and may help explain why Aaron has asked me to write for him. I hope that I can help bring another point of view to this site. Now, on with the show.

Let me start this column off by stating that I am an Apple fanboy. I have every Apple product you can think of; iPad, iPhone, iPod, iPod mini, MacBook Pro, Apple TV, I even have an Apple wireless router.  I received my first Apple computer in 1992 at the ripe age of 7 and have rarely strayed since. I love Apple, which is why their recent turn has me confused beyond belief. There has been a substantial shift in innovation for the worse since Tim Cook took over after the passing of Steve Jobs in 2011. I think that it would be lazy to just state that this is due to the passing of Jobs, so I will try to explain what exactly he meant to Apple. To really understand Jobs’ impact you have to go through some highlights of Apple’s history.

Apple’s history is well documented. Everyone knows the basics. Apple was started in Jobs’ parents garage by mostly somebody else, Steve Wozniak (a recurring trend). Jobs however knew how to market the product, and as we would see in the future, how to present it. Everybody knows this commercial, which changed the game in advertising. I can’t really overstate how big of a commercial this was at the time. It put apple on the map and changed the way people advertise completely. This was just a preview into the marketing genius of Jobs. During this time period Jobs piggybacked the work of others again by taking the ideas of the “desktop” computer interface and the mouse from Xerox (another recurring trend). These ideas were a revolution that changed the computer industry until touch screen computing came about. Jobs was then dumped by Apple in 1985 in what could be the most indefensible firing in corporate history.

Jobs didn’t return to Apple until 1996. Between those two dates Apple produced flop after flop after flop. It is important to note this time period because it gives us some precedent for Apple after 2011. Things were so bad that Apple nearly went bankrupt. Jobs even said this was because Apple failed to “innovate” during that time (more on this later). When Jobs finally did return he set the world on fire. First he started the “Think Different” campaign. How many heroes are in this one-minute clip? Has any commercial completely summed up the feeling of a company before? This was just a brilliant move by jobs to show that Apple would again be at the forefront of innovation. Apple then began its affinity for placing an “i” before words by releasing the iMac. This product made computers “cool” again by coming in an assortment of colors (a trick Apple uses far too often) and even appeared in the movie, Zoolander (there were some issues during this resurgence, the “hockey puck” mouse that came with the iMac is considered one of the worst computer products of all time).

After the launch of the iMac, Apple transformed life as we know it with the revolutionary products: iPod, iPhone, and iPad. It feels weird to write “revolutionary” alongside these products because I feel we take them for granted, but watch those three videos for some context. At the time iPod was released there were MP3 players, but they were awful. Apple made the iPod simple, clean, affordable, and above all user friendly. Do you remember the days of carrying around a CD book, a Walkman, and extra AA batteries? This was the first time you could take 1000 songs with you wherever you go. At the time iPhone was released there were other smart phones, but they were also awful such as the Palm Treo. They couldn’t hold much music, were bulky and inconvenient, and Internet on them was a pain. Apple combined an iPod, phone, and Internet communicator into one sleek and easy device; the first of its kind. At the time the iPad came out there had been tablets as far back as the 1990s, but again, they were awful. For as much as Apple haters like to say the iPad is just a giant iPhone, chew on this: the iPad has nearly eliminated the desktop interface and mouse from daily use. In 5-10 years I’m not even sure if keyboards and desktop computers will be necessary outside the office. That’s three revolutionary products in nine years, amazing when you look back at it. 

Jobs had a quote he loved to throw around, “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” which is funny because he stole that quote from Picasso. He also loved to quote Henry Ford’s famous line “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me “A faster horse.’” These two ideas epitomized Jobs. He would find a nugget of an idea that somebody else had, wholesale rip it off, and then perfect it. Then the mass public would use this new product and not even know they needed it until it was in their hands. Now most people cannot live without these devices.

Fast forward to Apple’s iPhone 5 c/s event. Tell me, what is Apple actually bringing to the table? Colored phones? Cases with holes cut out? How is this not Apple 1995 again? I see merely incremental changes. There is no revolution or magic behind the curtain anymore. Two of the technologies touted by Apple were an improved Siri and a fingerprint scanner. Both of these technologies were invented by other companies and subsequently bought and incorporated by Apple. This problem goes back even further. Since Jobs’ death in 2011, Apple has released a new MacBook, a new operating system, a smaller iPad, and a glossier computer screen. Only one of those is made up, but they all sound boring and lazy. Right before Jobs’ death he claimed that he “finally cracked” the code to revolutionize TV. That product was supposedly in development but there has been no news or progress since 2011. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple killed it. Instead Apple has been doubling down on producing an “iWatch,” an idea that sounds stupid because our generation has no need for watches. We use watches as status symbols and we keep time with our phones.

What is disconcerting is that other companies are now far more innovative, even if their technologies don’t work all the time. The Galaxy S 4 has gotten poor reviews on its new features, but at least they came up with them. This phone allows you to wave your hand above it to switch pages, answer calls, and read text messages. It also has a feature that allows the phone to read your eye movement and scroll down the page accordingly. If Jobs were alive, he would have stolen this technology and made it perfect, or in the alternative, made something completely better. However, that attitude is gone at Apple. Instead of creating something new, Apple either makes the product more colorful, smaller, or puts a different camera in it in an attempt to gain more market share. Gone is the idea that a better product should come first. This is the hallmark of a lazy company. If Apple thought their last event would fool people, they thought wrong. Click on the 1-month tab and you will see that Apple’s stock has dropped 50 points (at time of writing) since the announcement of their new phones.

The question remains, how did this happen at Apple?  After Jobs’ death there was a consensus that Apple would be fine due to the culture there. Tim Cook was seen as a consensus builder and a person that would drive home collaboration. Cook has stated that collaboration is the key to innovation. That may be true, but not at Apple. Innovation at Apple came from Jobs’ unrelenting pressure to create things that seemed impossible. It’s worth noting that the way in which Jobs did this was petulant, classless, and above all, fucking mean. But it was this constant dive that got products done. Collaboration was part of it, but thinking outside of the box came first. When Jobs died there was just one person in upper management exactly like him. He was smart, innovative, demanding, and also a prick. His name was Scott Forstall, and for being exactly like Jobs Apple fired him a year after Steve’s death. Cook defended the decision by laying the blame of Apple Maps’ failure at Forstall’s feet (fair), saying that Forstall was not a team player, took credit for other people’s work, and was a bureaucrat (all unfair). You know who was those last three things? Yep, Steve Jobs.  If in 1995 Apple had thought the way Cook does now, Jobs would have never been rehired.

Will Apple ever get its act together? That is a question I do not have an answer for. All I can show you is the history of Apple with and without Steve Jobs. My gut feeling is that Cook will be gone and Forstall will be back when it happens. What can clearly bee seen is that the revolutionary products are gone for the time being. Apple may very well be aging in reverse back to 1995 when the top hit in the U.S. was “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio. That doesn’t should half bad until you remember you would have to listen to it on your Walkman as Jobs was six years away from inventing the iPod.

Andrew Schmidt is a Lawyer and certified NFL agent living in Denver, Colorado. For a good biography, see this story on him published last month in The University of Montana newspaper. 

For Part one of this series on innovation, click here