At 40 Apple needs to revive its start-up spirit

Considering that Apple does not seem to be creating blue-sky products, is the famed pipeline of new ideas running out of steam?


Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

New Delhi: Belying its age (it just hit the big 40), its market capitalization ($750 billion, the highest in the world), its brand recognition (the world’s best brand, according to Interbrand rankings) and its one billion active users, Apple Inc. continues to be a work in progress, the quintessential start-up that refuses to play its age, even when it is engaged in historic policy war with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

I still remember staring at the Apple logo on a Macintosh that belonged to my uncle who was visiting us from Washington DC. To me, that slightly-bitten Apple was reminiscent of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. However, today, the logo symbolizes a vision of a world in which college dropouts and upstarts have whimsical ideas and dreams and turn them into reality.

The Cupertino-based tech company has achieved a great deal over these 40 long years. Since the time it was started in 1976 by two college dropouts—both Steves, Jobs and Wozniak—who met in a garage to build a computer that revolutionized the world. Over the past four decades, Apple has gone from a struggling upstart challenging IBM and Microsoft to being a dominant platform vendor. A company that has taken the world by storm with its innovative offerings from its sleek iPhones, iPads to iPod MP3 player, the magnificent Mac computers to the birth of the OS X software, Apple is now a household name, its products omnipresent in homes and hands all over the world.

However, as Apple approaches middle age, is the company’s youthful verve and vigour fading? Considering that it does not seem to be creating blue-sky products, but merely refining its existing products, is the famed pipeline of new ideas running out of steam?

Today, Apple sells iPads in at least five sizes and three colours, six variants of the iPhones in at least three sizes and four colours, its sleek Mac laptops in myriad screen sizes again available in multiple colours. In addition, it has started selling Apple Watches and bands made out of five different materials, in two sizes.

It would then be only fair to say that now Apple’s innovations are just extensions of the same products in every size and shape you can think of. Consider Apple’s newest products: the iPhone SE and the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro. Again they are not innovations, only specialized offerings that reflect the market’s need for more refined product segmentation. In other words, they were built out of the company’s mature reflection and analysis of the market—exactly what you’d expect from someone in middle age!

Where’s the next big thing from Apple?

So how can Apple up the ante and move upwards and onwards? Many of tech’s big companies are now jockeying to become masters of artificial intelligence. According to company reports, Amazon Microsoft and Google added machine learning capabilities to their cloud software platforms last year and are all set to use machine learning software to help customers spot patterns and make predictions in vast amounts of data. Apple has not made deep inroads here, at the risk of being called a technological laggard rather than the leader?

Virtual reality (VR) is another arena that remains largely Apple-free. Facebook bought Oculus VR, Samsung, HTC, Microsoft, and others are developing VR or augmented reality (AR) headsets and even Google, which already launched a budget cardboard offering, is reported to be going big on VR. Apple does not seem to have made major inroads here. The Financial Times believes that while Apple is joining a growing focus on VR and AR, but it’s also unclear whether Apple plans to release a full-blown VR headset, or a device that’ll require an iPhone to enable mobile VR, or if the device will be more of an AR device akin to Microsoft’s Hololens.

Has Apple then lost its sheen at 40? Is it because for most of its life, Apple has had its identity closely tied to its founder Steve Jobs. The mercurial Jobs was no doubt the driving force that turned Apple into a mean technological machine. Under the leadership of Jobs, Apple focused heavily on new product development, releasing groundbreaking devices such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad. In contrast, current CEO Tim Cook has focused largely on updating existing products to make them more efficient and powerful. Maybe Apple needs another Jobs to give it the push that will help it create the next seismic shift in technology.

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