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Why Apple Is Like a Movie Studio

Sequel time is almost up. It's time for a new franchise.


Steve Jobs has been dead for about two and a half years now, and it’s hard not to notice that the regular parade of game-changing Apple products for which he was famous seems to have disappeared with him.

Yes, Apple has announced some impressive features and design changes in the last couple of years. The iPhone has gained fingerprint recognition that actually works almost every time. The new iPad Air has been made amazingly skinny and light, while actually increasing battery life.

iPhone Touch ID

And, yes, in the 2013 holiday season, the company once again set new sales records for iPhones and iPads, even as its share of the smartphone and tablet markets declined in the face of an onslaught of mostly inferior, but faster-selling, competitors from a host of companies using Google’s free Android operating system.

But there have been no new game-changing products, the kind that establish whole new categories, or which finally get product categories right after others had attempted for years to do so. The last of these, the original iPad, was released four years ago this month.

This has naturally led to a debate about the fate of the most influential American company of the past 15 years. Some have argued that Apple’s era of greatness is over, that with CEO Tim Cook sitting in Mr. Jobs’s chair, the magic is gone, and Apple is now, at best, just an ordinary company. Others have countered that, financially, Apple is still doing quite well, and that there’s no evidence that it’s out of ideas.

But I think the most useful way of thinking about Apple is to see it as a movie studio. Studios release blockbuster franchise movies every few years, and then try to live off a series of sequels until the next big, successful franchise. We are in the early stages of one such project right now: On May 2, Columbia Pictures will release “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the first of what may be several sequels to the original 2012 film, that was itself a reboot of an earlier series.

Looked at in this way, your almost-new iPhone 5s and iPad Air are mere sequels, iterations of Apple blockbusters that rocked the world when they first appeared. The same goes for your MacBook Air, which has gone through many changes and improvements since Mr. Jobs theatrically slid it out of a manila envelope in 2008 to show how thin it was.

Just because these things are sequels doesn’t mean they’re bad, or even worse than the originals. Sometimes, as with “The Godfather Part II,” the sequel is considered by many to be even better than the original. (Of course, sometimes — as with “The Godfather Part III,” a sequel may be reviled as so bad that it’s unworthy of the series.)

And sequels can make more money — sometimes much, much more — than the originals. This certainly must have been true of Apple’s follow-on iPods, iPhones and iPads. And it’s certainly true in Hollywood. In fact, Wikipedia maintains a list of movie sequels — and even sequels to sequels — that took in more at the box office than the original film.

Still, after awhile, audience interest in sequels wanes, and competitors come up with alluring new things. Then you’d better have a whole new franchise, because you can’t live forever on sequels.

Mr. Jobs understood this well. It’s one reason why he maintained a drumbeat of game-changers over a dozen years, from the iMac to the iPad, that rocked his competitors and upended other industries, as well.

And this is why Apple, unique in many ways among tech giants, is the most like a movie studio: Steve Jobs built it that way (while simultaneously running a real movie studio, Pixar.) He created the expectation that every few years there would be a single, obvious blockbuster to be unveiled.

Steering the company through what must have been a tough transition in recent years, Cook has done just enough to keep his sequels appealing. I still believe that — when you combine hardware, software and the ecosystem — the iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air remain best-in-class.

Cook has had some dangerous moments that did him no favors. These include the awful quality of the initial Apple Maps service, still being repaired; and the more recent self-rebooting bug on iOS7 devices, fixed by a patch. High quality and reliability can never be taken lightly.

However, he has been helped lately by Apple’s main competitor, Samsung, whose latest Galaxy smartphone, while good, was pretty unexciting (and whose fingerprint recognition is awful.)

I think the doomsayers are, at the very least, premature. While I certainly can’t say for sure that Apple has a great game-changer in the pipeline, the fact that four years has passed — especially four years of management uncertainty and transition — doesn’t mean that its cupboard is bare.

It’s worth remembering that nearly six years passed between the launch of the iPod and the launch of the iPhone, which was described by Mr. Jobs at its unveiling as a touchscreen iPod with a phone and Internet communicator built in.

But sequel time is almost up. It’s time for a new franchise. And it had better be desirable, logical and elegant. Apple executives have assured me that the second half of 2014 will have impressive new products. And Mr. Cook declared nearly a year ago during an onstage interview that “We have several more game-changers in us.”

What might those be? Well, I believe we are bound to see iPhones with larger screens, and I’d guess that these will sell well. But I would still regard those as sequels.

The world’s worst-kept secret is that Apple is working some new type of television experience, well beyond its current Apple TV product (which has quietly become a real business, attracting new competition from Google and Amazon). This one could be a real franchise. But if Apple settles for something too much akin to its current TV product, it might be just a sequel.

The company also appears to be exploring becoming a major player in the mobile payments field. Done in a big way that finally makes the smartphone your wallet, that could become a franchise.

But the most exciting possibility is monitoring and managing health, using an app on Apple’s current devices and possibly a new wearable product or products. Cook has hinted strongly that the company is very interested in some sort of wristband — but only if it could be compelling and go well beyond what’s out there.

Health, sensors and wearables would fit the Apple pattern: Taking products that already exist, but aren’t very good or coherent, and turning them into something that is at the same time practical, aspirational and desirable, and that can be part of a larger platform.

Sometime in the next six to eight months, I expect we’ll see if Cook is the kind of producer who grinds out too many sequels, or the kind who brings forth an original “Godfather” or “Spider-Man.”

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