Losing its cool: Apple no longer has the aura of exceptional

Apple boss Tim Cook took over from the late Steve Jobs in August 2011. Credit: ABACA

Ahead of the brand's expected profit drop announcement, technology writer Tom Chatfield says Apple risks losing pace with the marketplaces it once defined. His views do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.

It may sound strange to feel sorry for what was, until recently, the world’s most valuable company.

Yet Apple – which tonight is expected to post its most disappointing financial results in years – is in an unenviable position.

No matter how many other companies would give almost anything for Apple’s “problems”, it will be judged by the remarkable standards of the second Steve Jobs era: the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad.

They are names that defined lifestyle aspirations as much as technology for a generation – and that make anything less than genre-defining innovation (and market-defying profits) seem second best.

One key to Apple’s successes is that it has never been the very first company to make something.

Rather, it has an astonishing history of remaking concepts other people have already created – from the mouse and graphical interfaces to touchscreen phones and tablet computers – in a way that manages to maximise the key experience or opportunity.

This makes for revolutions in product philosophy, and applications of industrial design that have earned Apple the status of a fashion label as much as a tech company. But it also makes the evolution of a product extremely tricky once it's out there.

This difficulty is most obvious in the brutal smartphone marketplace. Competition today is so intense – and everything so packed with quality features – that there is no longer an aura of the exceptional around Apple.

They make great phones, but so do a lot of other people, and often for less money with more features (held side-by-side, Apple’s iPhone 5 looks modest and small-screened compared to the latest Samsung Galaxy). Once you've had your revolution, evolution is a free-for-all, and the player who took the great leap forward is not necessarily equipped to stay identified with the cutting edge.

We can see this creep in tablets, too, with the competition’s steady updates eating into the iPad’s lead. It’s an Achilles heel for iconic design in a field like gadgets, where novelty and cool are closely entwined; and it also creates an unusual vulnerability to bad press and user experiences glitches (witness the delightedly cruel reporting of Apple Maps’ difficulties).

As for the future, frenzies of speculation around hypothetical devices like the wearable iWatch suggest that expectations remain sky high.

But there’s a troubling friction between cultish adoration of Apple as a brand, and more mundane realities like financial results. Something has got to give – and I suspect it’s going to be the cult.

Apple has certainly come up with a daunting brand of cool to maintain, based not only on looks but on feel, function and commercial success. This last one is especially significant in the tech marketplace. Ultimately, cool gadgets mean successful gadgets.

And if the need is for success of a kind that can be set alongside the successes under Jobs – the sequence of astonishing "i"s, from iPod to iPad – reversion to the mean alone suggests this will be a staggeringly tough trick to pull off.

Some might say that the company could be better off without the burden of great expectations, leaving it free to innovate and fail and try again.

I find it difficult to imagine this case being made internally; but there is a lot to be said for the ability to cut out 99% of the media noise that fills the internet, and focus on the 1% of ideas that matter.

We're going to see a huge amount of hyperbole around whatever big thing Apple does next - and knives are already being sharpened if it's less than another revolution.

This, then, is the great question: does the monomaniacal kind of focus that Steve Jobs embodied still exist within the company, or is the world’s noise and gloom throwing it off course?

Fanboys may not want to hear it but, unless Apple is prepared to gamble on the next generation of product innovation, it’s hard to see it keeping pace with those marketplaces it once defined.

  • Tom Chatfield (@TomChatfield) is a British author and commentator. His most recent book is Netymology: A linguistic celebration of the digital world