Injuries like the ones Apple's currently suffering from aren't guaranteed to be fatal, but as the saying goes, the first step is to admit you have a problem.
In my experience observing the tech and other industries over the decades, it's extremely rare for a company to keep a winning streak going for any significant span of time. Either (or both) of the following inevitably occurs:
- The company rests on its laurels, innovation in its existing product line slows as the focus shifts from ongoing R&D investments to increasing profits, and more nimble and hungry competitors eventually catch up and surpass it.
- The company deludes itself into thinking that its current success will automatically be replicated in other, newer product lines that diverge significantly from its existing expertise. Heavy R&D investments (time, headcount, equipment, and other expenses) produce subpar revenue and profit returns.
Apple, I'd argue, currently exemplifies both of these worst-case scenarios. Looking back at my coverage of the company's September 2017 intro event, for example, you'll note that I pointed out the underwhelming product line progression that's marked the three-year transition from the iPhone 6 to the iPhone 8. Same goes for the Apple TV; the "hockey puck" form factor first appeared in September 2010 and, seven years later, has received only modest enhancements.
The iPhone X family
On the other hand, there's the iPhone X, admittedly a more significant upgrade to its smartphone predecessors, but whose feature set enhancement focus doesn't (IMHO) justify its price tag "enhancement." Although Apple has a notable share of the overall wearable market, the overall product category continues to significantly underperform expectations, with consumers ironically instead spending their near-term money on smart speakers ... a category where Apple's first-generation product is woefully late to market, having missed the all-important Christmas shopping cycle.
What about software? The situation's no better here. iOS, Apple's operating system variant for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, has experienced several notable bugs recently. Type "1+2+3" into the calculator app included with the initial iteration of iOS 11, and you probably won't get "6" as a result, due to graphics animation-induced sensing latencies. Then there was the auto-correct bug (reportedly the result of invalid deep learning model training) that wouldn't let users type the letter "i" (and was followed by another bug that auto-transformed "it" to "I.T."). And then there was the date bug that caused devices to enter an unrecoverable crash loop on December 2. And the update that broke HomeKit Remote Sharing ...
Mac OS X (whoops ... sorry ... macOS) for computers is doing no better. In late November, researchers discovered that it was possible (thankfully not remotely, as far as I know) to gain full root access to a machine running latest macOS 10.13 "High Sierra" without needing to enter a password. Reflective of the severity of the issue, Apple rushed out a patch a day later ... but broke network sharing in the process. And the patch only permanently fixed the root access bug if a user had already upgraded to macOS 10.13.1; if the patch was installed on initial macOS 10.13, and the operating system was later updated to macOS 10.13.1, the bug resurfaced.
Apple's myriad issues have had a personal impact, as well. For my wife-and-my wedding anniversary, I bought her a Retina MacBook Pro as an upgrade to her mid-2010 non-Retina model. But I didn't get her a brand new unit, or even a recent-edition factory refurb. Instead, I bought her a mid-2014 model third-party refurb, complete with an extended warranty. Because I was cheap? Nope; I paid just about as much (if not more) as I could have for a newer model. It's because:
- They dispense with not only the long-beloved MagSafe power connector but also long-standardized interface ports (Thunderbolt, HDMI, Ethernet, USB3, etc) for one-to-several USB-C connectors, thereby in the process giving Apple a convenient excuse to also sell you lots of hubs and dongles to recreate those long-standardized, still-necessary ports.
- Instead of delivering true innovations, their "advancements" took the form of kludgy and rarely adopted (by Apple's app teams, far from independent developers) features such as the Touch Bar.
And for Christmas, what did I get my wife? She'd been a loyal multi-generation iPhone user since early 2013, when I weaned her off a Blackberry, but the upgrade to iOS 11 on her iPhone 6 pushed her over the edge. Not only was it buggy, as I've already discussed, but it more generally slowed her smartphone to a crawl (and no, I don't think that telling someone to do a full backup, wipe and restore is an acceptable answer). So, following in my Google Pixel footsteps, she's now the proud owner of a brand new, fully loaded Pixel XL (I passed on the Pixel 2 XL due to her ongoing fondness for an analog headphone jack). And she loves it.
She's lost access to her iMessage archive (although a couple of third-party apps claim to together be able to restore it), but her calendar and contacts have always been Google-housed, so they came over intact. And by first installing the Google Photos app on the iPhone, I was able to upload her photos to the cloud, where they subsequently came right back down to her new phone. With that all said, I admittedly bought her a brand new iPad for her birthday earlier this year, as an upgrade to her archaic iPad 3, so it'll probably be a while before she also follows in my Nexus 7 FHD footsteps ... but that's OK.
Injuries like the ones Apple's currently suffering from aren't guaranteed to be fatal. Look, for example, at how Microsoft has reinvented and thereby resurrected itself in recent years. But as the saying goes, the first step is to admit you have a problem. Bringing Jony Ive back to manage the design team may be a good sign, although I'm admittedly skeptical ... keep in mind that the lousy latest-generation MacBook Pro (not to mention the equally underwhelming latest-generation Mac Pro) were both developed under his watch. What other ideas do you have for Apple's management to help them right the ship ... assuming you agree with me that it's currently listing at all? Sound off in the comments!
—Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company's online newsletter.
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