Has Apple has lost its core?

Apple used to do amazing, surprising, innovative, intrinsically cool things. They used to design with guts and risk and style. For now anyway, that time is over. Apple hasn’t introduced anything truly inspiring in over a decade. Oh sure, you could say the iPhone was cool, but it wasn’t the first smartphone, and the design leaves much to be desired. I have an old $40 candybar phone that sports essentially the same form factor, but it’s built more durably. (Since when is constructing a hard to hold device out of glass a good idea?)

OS X, when it was introduced, was hailed (by someone) as a stunning achievement in operating systems, yet it’s always been buggy, unwieldy, and has gotten more and more lethargic with every new cat version. And now, Windows 8 seems to have rendered OS X obsolete.

The MacBook Air seems to have been essentially a copy of IBM’s Thinkpad X series notebook, though the Air is infinitely harder to keep a grip on and not even a fraction as durable.

Then there is Apple’s latest snafu, the iPod Touch 5, which requires the device to be tied to an Apple ID, a login system that fails more often than it succeeds. When it fails, users cannot login to download or update apps and music. Say an app requires an update. Too bad. If you can’t login for whatever reason (Apple’s servers crashing, for instance), you can’t update the app. In some cases, that means you can’t use it. I have one of these. I was told it could be used as a camera and video camera, which would be awesome if I could keep a hold of it. Unlike the iPhone, the iPod Touch 5 was designed with round edges, which means the thing is incredibly difficult to hold unless you have moist child-sized hands. It’s going back.

Then there’s the iPad. Oh my. Clients asked me incredulously how I could not own one. I haven’t been able to figure out what is its use. Everything it can do, I can do faster or better with an iPod or a MacBook. I asked an Apple employee one day what an iPad could do that an iPod or MacBook can’t do. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know — that’s why I don’t own one.” I remember Steve Jobs saying Apple would never make a tablet. And then they did. Hmm.

Microsoft used to be famous for copying Apple. They copied every OS innovation Apple has ever done it seems (when I tell Windows users how annoying the Dock is, they ask if I’m talking about the task bar), and they even blatantly copied the Apple retail store design. Well, that time is over too. Microsoft has taken the lead.

It’s time for Apple to copy Microsoft, and they had better hurry because the Microsoft Surface is about to render both the iPad and MacBook Air totally obsolete. It has ports, can run a large display, weighs less than two pounds, is half an inch thin, sports a totally silent keyboard, and has an intuitive OS in Windows 8 that features the simplicity of an iOS and the running capability of a full operating system. Oh, and it won’t slip out of your hands and break upon hitting the ground. (In fact, Microsoft drove a car over it, and it still worked fine, a little display of armadillo-ism they copied from Lenovo.)

On first Surface try, it appears that Microsoft has outdone Apple in just about every way possible. A quick look at Windows Phone appears to reveal a similar outdoing of the iPhone. For the first time since babyhood (well, 20 years old anyway), I am thoroughly lacking Apple tech lust. Instead, I know my next machine will be a Surface.

Apple will rise again. First, they need to figure out that they’re lost. (Historically, Apple tends to be oblivious… think the ‘Cube’.)

At present, it appears they have little idea of the notion that they may be lost. Their stores are staffed by and large by nice, inexperienced kids who would sell you their mother or Steve Jobs’ coffin if it was profitable. And it’s hard to argue with Apple’s sales figures, in spite of the fact that iPhone 5 sales are lower than they’d like. But something just isn’t right when Apple’s hardware and OS designs suck. And if you really listen to their seasoned employees, you can hear the doubts.

Apple’s tech support has gone from good to downright atrocious. They’ve become known in recent years for losing track of repairs, missing dates, incorrect hard drive swaps, poor communication, slow repairs, and first tier phone support who don’t communicate effectively and know next to nothing about their products. (Perhaps Apple copied Microsoft tech support of old.) To be fair, if you manage to speak with a senior Apple tech, they really know their stuff and can be very helpful, but getting to them is next to impossible.

Customer Relations — where you are sent when you are unhappy with Apple — used to offer product swaps or iPods to make people happy. Now they offer good follow-up and apologies, and little else. Buy one of their products that failed to live up to its advertised claims? Meh, not Apple’s problem.

No one can blame Apple for being lost. After all, they lost their inspiration, driving force and guiding light just over a year ago. And while Steve Jobs [R.I.P.] battled cancer, Apple let mediocrity seep in. They’ve become boring. Every product looks the same, all glass and aluminum, fragile and easy to drop. If an Apple product should slip from your grasp, it’s toast. Not a good reputation for the most expensive computers, music players and phones to embody.

Have they already designed the products as far as they can go? I doubt it. Apple will make it back to great design, and hopefully soon. Perhaps they just need to acquire some new seeds. Maybe they already have them, and they just need to sink below the surface (oh wait, they’ve already done that).

Getting beat by a competitor is good for a champion. Maybe it will be good for Apple.

Kelly Hobkirk - teaching marketers how to harness strategy, goals, reality, and purpose to connect and do better work.


Kelly Hobkirk has been helping companies succeed in creative ways for nearly 25 years. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, and books by Rockport and Rotovision. Get exclusive articles when you sign up for his monthly newsletter.

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