Apple: the U2 of the tech world

Apple used to lead the market; now it desperately follows it.

It’s official: I’m bored with Apple. Last week, the world’s most valuable company managed to delight its loyal fanbase and, at the same time, leave many others (me included) nonplussed with the launch of its new digital smartwatch and a pair of slightly bigger phones. The brand everyone else liked to copy is now becoming a market follower, no longer the market leader it once was.

Some hardened Apple fans will argue that it is ridiculous to say Apple is in decline. In real terms, Apple is sitting on a staggering $164.5 billion in cash reserves, which is more than the UK itself is sitting on. But being fantastic at hoarding so much cash raises an obvious question: why has Apple become so slow at producing new ideas, let alone anything groundbreaking?

The Apple Watch is its first new product since it launched the iPad over four years ago. Disappointingly, it appears remarkably similar to many smartwatches already on the market. Microsoft launched its first smartwatch product, SPOT, way back in 2003, albeit to a less than enthusiastic response.

With personal health to the fore these days, people increasingly want to track and monitor their physical activity. This has helped to push the smartwatch idea in a different, wearable-technologies direction. So in 2008, a crowd-funded Kickstarter project created a smartwatch called Pebble that prompted widespread interest. Today, as a quick browse of Amazon.com will tell you, there are 28 different brands selling 87 different kinds of digital smartwatches, with many of them doubling up as personal-health trackers. Sony and Samsung are market leaders, with old-timers (excuse the pun) like Casio and Timex also trying to get in on the act.

Each smartwatch, with its own good and bad points, is often crammed with myriad features that are somewhat difficult fully to appreciate on a tiny interface. Many are gimmicky, too, and Apple is no exception here. The Apple Watch lets you draw minuscule sketches on it, for example, or pass on a gimmicky ‘heart’ to your friend or loved one. It is all very sweet, yet Apple, as some have observed, has gone against its late leader Steve Jobs’ Zen-like design rule of stripping out all but the most essential of features.

Even the Apple Watch’s behind-the-science technology is unremarkable. Its much heralded ApplePay (also available on the new iPhone 6 models launched last week, too), which lets users pay for goods without using a wallet, is not unique to Apple. Otherwise known as Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, it has been available on competitor phones for some time.

But what is more intriguing about the Apple Watch is that Apple has not matched Microsoft’s original idea of having a stand-alone digital watch that doesn’t need to be digitally tethered to the wearer’s smartphone. Indeed, without a plugged-in phone, all of today’s smartwatches are pretty useless. Of course, Apple supporters would argue that the watch is the latest extension of its business model that connects and shares photos, music and now health data between every Apple device. 

But it is arguable how many of today’s tech-savvy consumers have actually bought into Apple’s closed-off, Apple-only walled garden. If the latest figures are anything to go by, Apple’s share of global smartphone sales has dropped in the past few years, from 15 per cent to 11 per cent, proving perhaps that most consumers are more than happy to put up with a messier way of managing their communications – at least for the time being.

If you look at Apple’s latest product from a broader perspective, it is all about market consolidation: Apple had no choice but to bring out a wearable technology device. It is lagging behind in last place in the nascent wearables market. With its iPods, iPhones and earlier iMacs, Apple redefined markets. Back then, Apple was expert at the waiting game: bringing out products at exactly the right moment and managing to capture the cultural zeitgeist. Today, however, under the cautious leadership of CEO Tim Cook, successor to the late Jobs, Apple has morphed into a cautious business.

Even worse, seemingly unbeknownst to those in Apple’s inner sanctum, the world has moved on. Apple’s shtick of well-designed products made sense at a time when the smartphone market was dominated by badly designed, hard-to-use products. Apple brought delight and life to a fledgling market. But today, our expectations are more likely to be changed by other companies such as Google (everyone’s new favourite evil company), which, while some believe can do no good, is actually responsible for some very interesting things - including in areas way beyond its core market and industry. That is good not just for Google’s customers, but for everyone else, too. Whether you love or hate Google, in comparison to Apple it is openly pushing ahead with some very interesting ideas. Take some of the latest ideas to emerge from its infamous x-labs – its not-so-secretive research-and-development laboratory – such as Google glasses, driverless cars, balloon-launched wifi networks for countries with bad internet access, and so on.

There is an even more important distinction between Google and Apple: Google makes mistakes, sometimes very big ones, in a very public manner. Which is a good thing, because whether we like it or not, failure is part and parcel of innovation. By contrast, Apple is the epitome of the secret squirrel organisation, aloof, perfecting what it believes to be the ultimate idea so as to wow us with wonder and delight. So we never get to see its rough sketches. Instead, we get its reasoned but cautious ideas, which are now more likely to miss the mark than to wow us. 

As such, Apple’s design-led sensibility fits with a worldview that no longer truly values innovation – disruptive or otherwise – and instead prefers a safer world where we get to buy stuff that we already own, even if Apple’s additions are a little bit better. But thankfully we do live in a world with rough edges, with messy problems, which should serve as fertile ground for those among us who are prepared to take a few risks and use our imaginations to change things. We deserve ideas that will enthral us, not bore us. We deserve things that we never knew could exist, or indeed that we even wanted.

At the end of the Apple Watch’s product launch last week, Apple CEO Tim Cook introduced U2 to play out with their new single. Afterwards, as if to show how out of touch Apple has become, Cook announced that every single iTunes account will automatically get U2’s new album for free, as a gimmicky giveaway. It was a miscalculation that backfired. Following complaints from irate iTunes users who hated the idea of having a bunch of ageing Irish rockers invade their libraries, Apple has quickly backtracked and released a tool for anyone wanting to remove the offending music forever.

It was a fitting metaphor for Apple’s changing fortunes. Trying to second guess what we liked used to be Apple’s metier. It always managed to get it right by giving us something we never knew we wanted. But using a tedious, ageing rock band like U2 to promote the Apple Watch shows how Apple is struggling to make music for a new audience.

Martyn Perks is a design consultant, and a writer and speaker on design, IT and business. Visit his website here. He will be speaking at the debates The robots are coming: friends or foes? and The gamification of society: time to grow up? at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at the Barbican in London on 18-19 October. Get tickets here.

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