The Two Sides of Apple: Brilliance and Ennui

Apple is capable of making amazing products. Often that capability results in products that start off with a bang but never seize the marketplace. Then Apple's traditional desire to relentlessly move into the future kicks in and loyal customers are left behind. This is not a bug; it's a feature.

iPhone, perhaps, in a few years. Image credit: Shutterstock

Over the years, as I've watched Apple, I've seen a two pronged attack on the market. The first is the ability of some very good engineers to conjure up some very cool software and hardware. Here are some Apple products that come to mind that started off with a healthy bang, to name a few, in no particular order.

  • iWeb
  • Xserve & clusters
  • Final Cut Pro
  • Aperture
  • iWork
  • Thunderbolt 27-inch display
  • The 2013 Mac Pro (maybe)

As time went on, these product received a varying amount of attention and development. The most notable things were that:

  1. They were technically excellent.
  2. They generated a lot of enthusiasm and expectation.
  3. Customers hoped that Apple would continue to pour serious resources into them.
  4. Smart competitors outdid Apple.
  5. The product didn't come to dominate the market.
  6. Development languished.
  7. Apple lost interest and moved on to something new.
  8. Customers groused.

The problem is that the enthusiasm for what Apple can bring to a new product creates so much enthusiasm that customers develop a corresponding dream that Apple will continue to develop the product, in a spirit of excellence, for a long time.

What Could Go Wrong?

However, along the way, something happens. Perhaps resources are diverted. Customers glom onto a competitor's product for various reasons related to how Apple develops or supports a product. A focused competitor takes up the challenge from Apple and often wins. Apple executives may decide that despite the initial enthusiasm, the product really isn't a core market for the company. 

In turn, Apple customers are occasionally left with a sour taste in their mouths because of Apple's lack of stick-to-itiveness. But Apple's feeling is that it's always better to cut losses and move on to the Next Big Thing. Perhaps the grass will be greener on the other side of the technical fence. That's the second, unfortunate, prong.

And all this happens despite Apple's notorious feeling that, most of the time, it should just say "no!" to every tantalizing idea that pops up. One dangerous reason for not saying "no!" is the prospect of more, easy growth. Another is fear that a competitor will grab a secure foothold in a lucrative market. A third is the feeling that because Apple is good at a few things, it should be good at all things.

Another Bet

In one area, Apple handled this particularly well. That was the development of the Apple Watch. The company, and by that I mean Jonathan Ive, had a particularly keen sense of how Google Glass was a very bad idea but the long-standing tradition of a wristwatch would be a very good idea.

It will be interesting to see how Apple's relentless dedication to hardware and software development plays out with the Apple Watch. Or whether it also gets left behind.

Even so, the iPhone remains Apple's true bread and butter. There's no doubt that the concept of a smartphone will be with us for another 30 years. It will evolve as it goes. Someday, the entire processing unit will be in the wristwatch or bracelet and the display will be impressed on our visual field, perhaps via the optic nerve. But the essence of the smartphone, as we know it today, will remain an essential part of our lives because of what it does for us. Its promise is endless.

That future, that focus, that fanatic attention to development doesn't happen with every Apple device or product. Figuring out where to place your bets is the big challenge of our era. Hopefully, with time, Apple (and we) will get better and better at it.