iCrisis? What iCrisis?

October 5, 2011

To, it seems, the horror of many, Apple has failed to release the iPhone 5 and instead released an updated version of the iPhone 4. Apple immediately took a hit on share price (although it did regain some later on) and Tim Cook came in for a fair bit of criticism for, effectively, not being Steve Jobs. Already discussions are starting: has Apple lost its Mojo?

First of all, let’s consider the issue of Tim Cook. He gave a lot of time to others on the stage, and if people were expecting him to give a Jobsian performance – complete with “One more thing” – they soon discovered that this wasn’t going to be the case. This is of course not really fair: Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs, and to be fair what Cook had to launch was not going to be as exciting as say the iPad or the original iPhone. Until he does, it’s not that fair to judge him on this ground.

However, Jobs would probably have got more of a response out of the same material, and here is why I think so: The Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field has an element of truth.

No, not some sort of device, or strange mental rays, but the fact that Jobs is not just a consummate professional when it comes to presentation, but also that Jobs – whether at Apple or outside – has a long and respected history of driving innovation. That record goes back to the original Apple computers – don’t forget the Apple ][ was a huge success – through the disappointment of the Lisa, through to the development of the Macintosh. Apple lost their way when he was forced out – and in the meantime, he went off and started NeXT (the underpinnings of which can be seen underneath OS X don’t forget), and invested heavily in Pixar – the company which revolutionised animation and now is at the heart of the Disney empire. His return to apple continued this path, with development of the iPod and iPhone. There have been misses, but Jobs has helmed his companies through so many hits that even if those in tech journalism aren’t always certain he’s right, they know that whatever he is talking about has to be given plenty of attention. Compared to Jobs, Cook is an unknown – certainly outside of regular Apple watchers – and doesn’t have the same sort of clout and reputation to demand attention.

Back to the iPhone 4S then, and if there is a criticism of Apple, I think it’s that they allowed rumours of an iPhone 5 to reach such a fever pitch that anything less would be seen as a disappointment. They can’t control what others speculate about, but it seems that there were not enough accurate rumours – something that a few quiet words with some influential tech bloggers might have helped with.

In fact, a bit of thought – and look at past practice – would have indicated that it was unreasonable to expect a major upgrade to the iPhone this year. For starters, as Molly Wood points out over at CNET, anyone who got the iPhone 4 last year when it launched is probably tied into a 2 year contract in any case. It would need to be something pretty incredible to make people prepared to pay the additional fees to get an early upgrade; the jump from 2g to 3G was enough, but even if the new phone was 4G there’s too little coverage for it to make a difference to many.

To be honest, Antennagate aside, there simply isn’t much wrong with the current iPhone 4 – or even the 3GS, which remains on sale as an entry level smartphone . Apple is reaching the point where it is making some products that are moving from innovative to mature, and the iPhone is one of them – the iPod is another. The task for Tim Cook is to make sure that this transition to selling mature products doesn’t reduce Apple’s lustre as a tech leader.

Android has something of an opportunity here as much as anything because it has multiple handset makers, and they are competing with each other to drive innovation and pricing. It’s more flexible. Looking to move on from the ubiquitous Blackberry Curve, but don’t want to give up the keyboard? Well, how about the HTC ChaCha? Want something with enough oomph to put some netbooks in the shade? How about a Motorola Atrix, complete with Laptop Dock? From cheap and cheerful to high end performance, Android can offer a number of options. However (and I say this as someone who is probably going the Android route for my next phone) it doesn’t do some things very well at all. One is the much-talked about issue of fragmentation: there are so many versions out there, and apps that work on some and not others, that you can hear about a great app and then not be able to run it. As for upgrading to a newer version – well, it’s not always easy. A lot depends on whether the carrier will make the upgrade available… I speak from the experience of having to upgrade a Samsung Galaxy Portal that was stuck on 1.5 as the carrier weren’t making anything newer available – I eventually did it, but only by a lot of fiddling, downloading ROMs and flashing it myself that would be beyond many if not most of those with the phone.

By comparison, Apple’s upgrades to IOS are less painful, and the curated App Store means if you see an app there, you know it will work. Android may be more flexible, but for a lot of people they’re not prepared to pay the price of that flexibility – that, unlike in the Apple ecosystem, things don’t “just work” without a bit of work.

Me? I’m just happy that they don’t seem to have killed off the iPod Classic before I get a chance to upgrade from my ageing 30GB version. It’s pretty much the only Apple device I own – and I reckon the price of an iPhone is still more than I’m prepared to pay – but I really don’t think that Apple can be criticised simply for failing to meet overhyped and unrealistic expectations. Allowing those expectations to get that high – well, that’s a different matter.