Smart watches, bad market position and desperate acquisitions spell bad news for the former tech frontrunner
Being cool is a bit like being powerful, or being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you’re definitely not. Apple have had to start telling people they’re cool. In fact, Apple CEO Tim Cook has resorted to anaemic pronouncements like “the same culture and largely the same people that brought you the iPhone and the iPad are still there” in an interview with New York Times last year. It seems like conclusive proof that Apple have lost their touch.
When people tell you you’re not cool, you have two options. You can try and fight fire with fire, and explain to your naysayers that the thing you are doing is actually really cool and they just don’t understand. This is how brawls about the rules of Dungeons and Dragons start. It’s not a terribly convincing approach, and it appears to be the one Apple have adopted. Heavy investment in biotechnology software and hiring spree in health hardware engineers have fuelled speculation about some sort of smartwatch, with Cook mysteriously proclaiming at the Apple Developer’s Conference last year that “the wrist is the future”. The wrist is not the future. A third of Samsung’s smart watches are being returned, and the whole thing smacks a bit of The Jetsons – the future has arrived, but 20 years late, and probably not as groovy as you thought.
Their titles, next to Chief Strategy Officers and Synergy Directors, will simply be ‘Dre’ and ‘Jimmy’.
Apple’s whole concept of cool seems a bit twisted these days. They have acquired Beats Headphones in some sort of valiant attempt to be down with the youth, and Dr Dre and Jimmy Lovine will join Apple’s board, where their titles, next to Chief Strategy Officers and Synergy Directors, will simply be ‘Dre’ and ‘Jimmy’. Apple used to be able to rely on the innate appeal of their products and never did the faff of promoting a hip corporate culture. Acquiring Beats seems a bit like an emergency blood transfusion of cool.
Apple need that cool badly. In a concentrated bout of self-sabotage, Apple have now set about a deliberate campaign of making their users look stupid. Using Siri in public involves demonstrating that you have no friends and derive a genuine sense of satisfaction from talking to your electronics. Celebrity ads like this one don’t help.
More seriously, Apple still insist on pricing themselves for a premium, tech-savvy market, which they just don’t belong to any more. In terms of pure performance numbers, they don’t make the best orginal products and don’t conform to people’s expectations of being able to personalise and tinker with their technology. Now, a raft of open source software and DIY hardware updates are pretty standard practise for the kinds of digitally-savvy people Apple used to represent. To access any part of the internal workings of a Mac to change the graphics or RAM configurations requires investing a screwdriver that Apple won’t sell you. They have relegated themselves as a supplier to those with more money than sense. They have the same problem with smartphones. Even the best iPhone is skewered by competition from Samsung and HTC. But hey, it comes in gold.
Apple’s former tastemaker status is falling apart in its shops too. When Steve Jobs couldn’t find a retailer to lay out projects in the elegant, minimalist way he had envisaged, he set out to revolutionise retail and, with the help of sales exec Ron Jonson, The Apple Store was born. Sophisticated product displays, helpful, non-commissioned sales associates, and the Genius Bar that could fix every problem short of peace in the Middle East. Even the architecture was beautiful, either in prime existing buildings, like their Grand Central Station and Paris Opera branches or in beautifully commissioned new spaces. At some point in 2012, nearly everyone in the affluent developed world who wanted some Apple products had them, and people started getting fired all over the place. For a while, Apple’s retail divisions were run by ex-heads of Dixons and Tesco, which don’t have quite the same brand cache. Now, it’s run by ex-Burberry CEO Angela Arhendts who certainly made Burberry a lot less boring and a lot more successful in the years she was in charge, but also did it by establishing Burberry as a more premium brand, which is exactly what Apple doesn’t need.
Apple have priced themselves out of places people want new, powerful computers – China, India, Latin America
The problem, really, is that 2014 tech doesn’t want to be ruled by tastemakers. Let’s be honest, conservative good taste is boring. Apple products never used to be in good taste, they were exciting and modern and different. They represented sinking a big chunk of money into exciting new uses for technology and building new content with no regard for convention at all. Now Apple fall down a horrible crack. Their cutting edge design aesthetic hasn’t changed in years, so consumers of luxury products aren’t interested, and they don’t appeal to mass market consumers. Apple have actually priced themselves out of most places people want new, powerful computers – places like China, India and Latin America. Apple have been slow to admit that their old strategy isn’t good enough anymore. Something needs to change, and it hasn’t. For all that the iPhone 5c was ‘more affordable’, it’s still near the top of any smartphone pricelist, even if it is made of plastic. All of the promised new pieces of exciting new hardware haven’t materialised, and everyone’s lost patience. Apple could easily be cool again. But it’ll take more than a smartwatch.
Main image: Peter Werkman