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Done making the big stuff better? The path to Apple's mid-life crisis

IoT, VR, AI... cars? Let the other guy take the hit first

By Rik Myslewski, 1 Apr 2016

Apple at 40 Forty years ago today, Yasser Arafat was on the front page of The New York Times, the cover of Time magazine was screaming about "The Porno Plague," Johnnie Taylor sang "Girl you ought to be on T.V. on soul train" as his "Disco Lady" topped the US pop charts, and the Apple Computer Company was born.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, however, disagrees about the last part. Although he, Steve Jobs, and Ronald Wayne (who would exit on his own accord 12 days later) filed an "Apple Computer Company Partnership Agreement" in California's Santa Clara County that's clearly dated "the 1st day of April 1976," Woz told Paul McNamara of Network World in 2011 that this partnership was specific to the single naked-board Apple I computer.

According to Woz, the April 1 agreement formed a different company than the one that soon produced the near-infinitely more popular Apple II, then went on to create the Macintosh, the Newton, and a salmagundi of iDevices and iApps. "This one was a partnership," Wozniak told McNamara. "The real company was a corporation. So it's a bit murky."

Whatever. Jesus wasn't born on December 25, 0 A.D., either, but that doesn't stop a goodly chunk of the world from celebrating that date by exchanging presents, drinking immoderately, and arguing with Uncle Bill about his imaginary "War on Christmas". For years, April Fools' Day of 1976 has been universally acknowledged to be Apple's birthday, and there's nothing anyone — even co-founder Woz — can do about it. The culture has deemed the Partnership Agreement as Apple's founding document; so firmly, in fact, that the original was sold at auction in 2011 for the princely sum of $1.59m. Although that might seem excessive, Apple worship is near-religious in some quarters. Whad'ya think you could get from a dedicated Christian fanboi for a signed original of the Shroud of Turin, hmm? I rest my case.

So let's accept today as Apple's 40th birthday, and hoist a pint or three — or 40 — to the company that ungrammatically cajoled us to "Think different"; was twice led by a guy who extolled the personal computer as "a bicycle for our minds"; and which seeks to control us in its "walled garden."

It's all well and good to remember the good, the bad, and the ugly while waxing nostalgic, but let's not today engage in too much reminiscing, m'kay? The Reg has already contributed mightily to Apple archaeology and anthropology — and here are a few examples, should you be inclined to celebrate Cook & Co.'s entry into middle age by trudging down memory lane:

  • Our Apple-history "report card" — parts one, two, and three — in the run-up to the 25th birthday of the Macintosh
  • Our review of the Mac's history at 30, parts one and two, plus a good ol' El Regian dose of 30th birthday "smart-arsery."
  • Our obituary of Apple's "empire-building inspirational visionary or megalomaniacal swine," Steve Jobs, parts one and two

Since Apple's history is so well-known and well-examined, let's instead honor its birthday with a Neoplatonist rumination on the sociopolitical implications of its 1987 move to the Platinum case color in the Mac Plus from its original beige, and how that tonal shift influenced The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl's incisive analysis of Annie Leibovitz's move from sepia-toned photos in her "Women" series to the monochrome giclée prints of her more recent works, as purchased by Tim Cook on the recommendation of Craig Frederighi.

Or not. How about instead focusing on Apple's immediate future, one in which — as it turns the ripe old age of 40 — it enters middle age?

If Apple were a guy, now would be the time when it'd overspend on a clichéd red sports car. If it were a gal, it might flaunt the latest made-for-hipsters fashion accessory. Or — this is 2016, after all — vice versa.

Steve Woz with Apple II, photo by Gavin Clarke

Apple co-founder Woz: the Apple II made the name, but the company had already changed. Photo: Gavin Clarke

The point is not about sports cars or fashion accessories, of course, it's about being middle-aged and past the burst of creativity fueled by being in the prime of one's life. Remember, Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity at age 36, Van Gogh painted "The Starry Night" at age 36, and Mozart wrote all of his 626 works before he died a month shy of — you guessed it — his 36th birthday.

Apple was 22 when it introduced the floppyless, USB-equipped, company-saving iMac. The iPod came along at age 25, the iPhone at 31, and the iPad at 34. Since then? Well, at age 39 there was the Apple Watch, but despite watchOS 2 it remains more an iPhone accessory than a standalone innovation.

Corporations, however, are not people — despite what the US Supreme Court might believe.

Corporations can be continually rejuvenated by new ideas and new innovations coming from new blood. But such revitalization is not automatic. Instead, what was once a groove can deepen into a rut. After, say, the age of 40, a company can find itself entering a mid-life crisis.

Is that the position Apple finds itself in as it begins to see the prime of its life in the rear-view mirror of that red sports car? Or can Apple reinvent itself by creating or redefining "the next big thing" — or, at minimum, co-founder Jobs' successful string of "one more thing" moments?

First, the midlife crisis: is Apple showing signs of sinking into that state? How 'bout bouts of nostalgia, a sure warning sign? Every Apple press release for decades contains a statement resembling, as it now uses, "Apple revolutionized personal technology with the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984." That's certainly not forward-looking, but it's more bragging than wistful. Scratch nostalgia.

A midlife crisis often involves isolation leading to loneliness. Apple has most definitely isolated itself from the rest of the personal-technology universe with its closely held quadrumvirate of iOS, OS X, watchOS, and tvOS operating systems and its self-curated app and music marketplaces. That said, it's equally definitely still well loved, well hated, and — most importantly — well discussed. It's continually in the news and in and on squillions of pockets, purses, desks, and living rooms. It may be walled up in its garden and secretive in the extreme, but lonely? Nope.

A better midlife crisis case could be made for another warning sign: outlandish, ego-gratifying purchases. Apple's soon-to-be-completed "Spaceship" headquarters is unarguably an outlandishly expensive "Look at me!" monument to corporate assertiveness and, it could be argued, ego.

More important than any other warning sign of a middle-aged slump, however, is fatigue of the imagination. As The Reg's Kieren McCarthy wrote after Apple's no-surprises product-announcement event on March 21, "It may be true that Apple has moved from a genuinely innovative company to one that iterates its bestsellers ..."

Kieren, let me assure you that what you say is true. To be sure, there have been improvements 'n' tweaks to what are now the thirteenth iteration of the iPhone and the twelfth iteration of the iPad (not counting various wireless flavors), but the pattern is one of iteration, not innovation. That said, exactly what gadget, gizmo, or geegaw is missing from our consumerist life these days? What crying need is there for Apple to fill with something entirely new that will cure its midlife malaise and revitalize its innovative mojo?

Well, Cook & Co. do talk a lot about the opportunities to be found in digital medicine, but on the consumer side of that opportunity the required sensors are more apt to increasingly appear in smartphones rather than to become mass-market standalone products. Doubt that? Ask whoever in 2009 talked Cisco into buying Pure Digital Technologies, maker of the Flip HD-video camera, which was eaten alive by smartphones and put to sleep in two short years.

You might suggest that Apple's Next Big Thing might be found in the much-vaunted "Internet of Things." Possibly. But the "IoT" has remained merely vaunted for some years now, and this observer isn't seeing a mass rush to snap up Buck Rogers thermostats or iPhone-operated front-door locks.

Besides, as the iPod (not the first MP3 player) and the iPhone (not the first smartphone) amply proved, Apple is a firm believer in the old saying, "The pioneers get the arrows; the settlers get the land." If and/or when the IoT takes off, Apple will join in, but don't expect Tim Cook to invite marketing honcho Phil Schiller onstage to shill any such gadgetry any time soon.

And then there are all those rumblings about an Apple-branded car, whether self-driving or not (despite the lousy profit margins of the auto industry).

Tim Cook, photo by JStone via Shutterstock

Cook's company is keeping schtum on IoT, VR, cars and AI. Photo, JStone via Shutterstock

It's nearly certain that Apple's automotive "Project Titan" is an ongoing reality, but recent reports say it's stumbling — and even if it eventually does come to fruition, don't expect to drive an iCar until Apple is well into middle age.

So what mass-market opportunity could soon move Cook & Co. beyond iteration-not-innovation? Not the much rumored big-screen television. You think automotive profit margins are lousy? Try TVs. Maybe a foray into the nascent and nauseating world of virtual reality? Hmm ... cf. pioneers/settlers, above.

The truth is that there is currently no clear, easily marketable, crying need in mass-market consumer electronics. As Apple enters middle age, the industry as a whole is in an innovation hiatus. To be sure, the IoT, VR, AI, V2V, and V2I alphabet soup is tastily bubbling away, but it will be some time until Apple can turn any of these emerging technologies into a money-making juggernaut on a scale anywhere near the glory days of the iPhone.

It's enough to send a company spiraling into a midlife crisis. ®

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