Can Apple still be a maverick?


INNOVATION FATIGUE: The iPhone 5 is greeted with a collective sigh that the tech giant is no longer making 'exciting' products

OVER the last five years, ever since the launch of the original iPhone, Apple has been the one to watch. Years of unparalleled innovation has led to fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter of unprecedented profits and as a consequence, they are currently the most valuable company in the world.

Apple is also the unfortunate victim of its own success. For before every major announcement, before every product launch, the Internet runs riot with anticipation, with excitement, and with expectation. We are constantly waiting for "just one more thing".

We keep looking forward to the next big thing. The tragedy of such high expectations, however, is that nothing can ever hope to meet them. The unfortunate result of such hopefulness is that everyone will inevitably end up disappointed.

Last week, Apple announced their next generation iPhone -- the much anticipated and predictably christened iPhone 5. The phone -- 18 per cent thinner, 20 per cent lighter, twice as fast, and featuring a whole slew of new software features -- was an improvement in almost every way over the iPhone 4S. It sounded like a good phone -- possibly even a great phone -- but what it wasn't, was an exciting phone. It was evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and that wasn't the kind of thing we have come to expect from Apple.

We were expecting the second coming. We were expecting something to change the way we make phone calls forever. Because that is just what Apple has done to us. It is what they want us to believe. And so, instead of the usual hype and fanfare, the iPhone 5 was met with an unusual sense of trepidation.

Technology writers and bloggers let out a collective sigh. There was an overwhelming sense of anxiety. They could not come to terms with that being all it is.

What was most interesting about all the commentary surrounding the iPhone 5 was the outrage concerning one of two major changes to its hardware. The first, was that Apple had adopted a new SIM card standard called the nano SIM. The second, and more controversial change, was their decision to introduce a new dock connector -- abandoning the design they've been using for the last nine years, thereby forcing the industry to adopt a new standard.

Now in the past, back when Apple was nothing more than a struggling has-been, this new dock connector wouldn't have been anything worth writing home about.

Technology companies are, after all, constantly playing around with their devices and new methods of connectivity were just a natural consequence of their constant fiddling. (Just take a look at Sony's cornucopia of products over the last decade for an illustrative example.)

Today, however, this change was suddenly an "absolute travesty". It was simply "unacceptable". Why? Because Apple is now a mass market provider. With hundreds of millions of people using iPads and iPhones, any such change to their hardware would result in forced obsolescence.

Consumers would now have to spend their money purchasing convertors. Hotels would be forced to upgrade their iPhone compatible alarm clocks.

Third-party accessory manufacturers (of which there is an entire industry) would now have to redesign an entire range of products.

Now "legacy" is a bad word when it comes to technology. It denotes age and obsolescence, it represents a struggle to remain relevant in the the face of growing incompatibility. Progress demands sacrifice. It requires making some tough decisions.

The history of the technology industry is replete with organisations and corporations that have paid the price for their inability to move forward. IBM and Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Dell, the pioneers and pacemakers of their industry, eventually stagnated and fell into decline.

Invention became a thing of the past. Innovation was sluggish. And it wasn't long before the new upstarts began to make their mark and take over.

Now this failure to invent and innovate wasn't due to complacency. It wasn't because the people at IBM and HP and Microsoft suddenly lacked new ideas. Not at all. It was instead rooted in an inability to pull the trigger, in an unwillingness to rock the boat. And therein lies the irony. For it was their unparalleled success that ultimately lead to their undoing.

By being market leaders, these companies were simply unable to make the drastic moves demanded by invention and innovation. They would not, they could not, afford to alienate their consumer base.

Apple's ability to still make these changes in the name of progress is admirable. But more and more, there is a concern that they too run the risk of such stagnation.

For the question on everyone's mind is this: by cornering the market the way they have, by becoming as pervasive as Microsoft, and with all the money they are making, how long can Apple afford to continue playing the maverick?

The new iPod Touch is displayed during an Apple special event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on September 12, 2012 in San Francisco. Apple must constantly reinvent its products to remain the most valuable company in the world. AFP pic

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