A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.
Most reports from Monday’s Apple product launch event said that the first topic of the day was Tim Cook’s comments on the still-evolving Apple-FBI case. In fact, the very first thing that Apple showed was a tongue-in-cheek video segment that celebrated 40 years of Apple in 40 seconds, all through the use of Apple “catchwords” shown briefly on the screen. The reason, of course, is because the company will be celebrating its 40th anniversary on April 1 of this year.
Though most people glossed over the video, as I started to reflect on the day’s news for Apple (and what a day it was!), it struck me that the tiny video snippet was rather apropos. Not only did it acknowledge a significant passing of time, it also quickly summarized what the company has achieved during that time. In addition, however, it suggested something else that its creators may not have intended — Apple is starting to age and mature.
Now, as someone who squarely falls into the “middle age” segment, I’m not implying that it’s a bad thing, by any stretch. It is, however, reflective of a different stage in the company’s life. Remember that this is a company whose youthful beginnings back in 1976 involved selling a board-based computer called the Apple 1 for the nifty price of $666.66, and supposedly solving some of its early financing problems through the sale of a VW bus.
As it approaches 40, Apple finds itself dealing with some middle-age-type adult problems.
As it approaches 40, however, Apple finds itself the largest company in the world measured by market capitalization, and in the challenging position of battling the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice in federal courts over the potential release of encrypted data for a terrorism-related case. If that’s not a middle-age-type adult problem to deal with, I don’t know what is.
To its credit, the company has achieved a great deal in those 40 years. As CEO Tim Cook proudly touted at yesterday’s event, there are now more than one billion Apple devices being actively used around the world. Pretty incredible, when you think about it.
But there are signs that the company’s youthful vigor is starting to fade. Look at the product announcements yesterday and you start to see what I mean. Though the iPhone SE and new 9.7-inch iPad Pro seem to be very solid products and worthwhile additions to the company’s product lines, no one is going to mistake them for major innovations. Instead, they are cautiously planned-out, specialized offerings that reflect the market’s need for more refined product segmentation. In other words, they were built out of a mature reflection and analysis of the market — exactly what you’d expect from an “adult” company.
Though the iPhone SE and new 9.7-inch iPad Pro seem to be very solid products and worthwhile additions to the company’s product lines, no one is going to mistake them for major innovations.
In fact, you could even make the argument that Apple is starting to lose some of its innovative edge as it ages. While many argue that Apple has a long history of “perfecting” other people’s ideas — such as taking the concept of an MP3 player and evolving it into the iPod — as a multi-decade observer of the company, I have very solid memories of Apple as a truly innovative business and doing many things first. It used to be companies like Microsoft or Dell that were the latecomers, trying to refine ideas that others had. Now, however, it’s starting to feel more and more like Apple is becoming a “me too” in many markets.
That’s not to say Apple doesn’t make great products — one billion active users pretty clearly testify to the point that it does. But why, for example, was it Microsoft that first introduced a revolutionary new product like HoloLens instead of Apple? I have no doubt that Apple will create some kind of interesting product in the augmented reality/virtual reality space at some point, but the longer it waits, the more it will seem like a follower instead of a technology leader.
It’s not just the products themselves that seem to be aging, either. The manner of delivering the message seems to be getting tired, as well. Yesterday’s event could have been scripted out by any even reasonably-interested Apple follower. Other than pricing, virtually every aspect of every product discussed had been reported on previously — there were essentially no surprises whatsoever. Apple did tell a compelling story about its efforts around using renewable energy and recycling its products that not everyone has heard about, but again, this seemed to reflect a more “mature” company.
It’s not just the products themselves that seem to be aging — the manner of delivering the message seems to be getting tired, as well.
This trend of Apple news pre-releases seems to be getting worse and worse. Despite the company’s efforts to rein this in, most of the announcement events over the last few years have had relatively little “new” news. In fact, it’s getting so bad, you almost have to wonder if Apple is going to be able to keep their product launches as the critical kind of news-driving events that they used to always be.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Apple has become a victim of its own success. As great as it is to now have more than one million apps specifically designed for the iPad, for example, or one billion active devices, the need for maintaining “legacy” support for those devices and ecosystems could soon become a burden instead of an asset.
Ultimately, I have no doubt that Apple will continue to build great products and services that reflect the company’s heritage of extreme user-friendliness. As the company enters “middle age,” however, it may want to ponder exactly how it can bring some freshness and vigor back into its products and the manner with which it tells its stories. Building off a string of greatest hits can work for a while, but all great artists eventually need to explore new ground if they want to evolve and improve. When they do, the best ones often create some of their greatest work.
Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst of Technalysis Research LLC, a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. Reach him @bobodtech.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.