Feature

Why Apple has an image problem

Long seen as the top innovator in smartphones, the company is suddenly battling the perception that it's a step behind

Tonight in the hallowed halls of New York's Radio City Music Hall, Samsung will pull the curtains off a great new phone. Yes, the Galaxy S IV will do many things your current phone can't. The device will wow. It will sparkle. But the biggest news about the Galaxy S IV's launch, as Sam Grobart notes at Bloomberg Businessweek, is that the event is news at all.

Apple realizes this. The company sees Samsung's climb to the top tier of the mobile realm as a legitimate threat to the iPhone's business. On Wednesday night, for example, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller was, as The Wall Street Journal puts it, "on the defensive," saying some not-so-nice things about Android.

"Android is often given as a free replacement for a feature phone and the experience isn't as good as an iPhone," said Schiller. "When you take an Android device out of the box, you have to sign up to nine accounts with different vendors to get the experience iOS comes with. They don't work seamlessly together."

The timing of Schiller's comments, of course, were notable. "It's clearly no coincidence that Schiller granted this interview the day before the Galaxy S IV launch in New York," says John Gruber at Daring Fireball, "and it is an unusual thing for Apple to do."

Ian Sherr and Jessica E. Lessin at The Journal addressed the apparent mudslinging a tad more bluntly: "Apple, long seen as the innovator in smartphones, has been wrestling with an image problem."

What's going on, exactly? Why is Apple suddenly being perceived as stale and needlessly petty? This is far from a complete diagnosis, but here are three potential factors contributing to Apple's image problem:

1. Google is doing all the exciting stuffYou can't talk about Apple without talking about Google. They're Magic and Bird. Biggie and Pac. Rivals keeping close tabs on one another to push each other forward. It's great — at least for us. 

And right now, Google's the one cultivating an image as a ruthless innovator. They're the ones with Glass. They're the ones giving beloved products like Reader the ax in the name of streamlining. They're the ones building glitzy Chromebooks out of the price range of most consumers.

What we're witnessing is Google doing its best Apple impersonation. And better yet: It's working.

2. Rivals have caught onNo, I don't mean that Android is now at a point at which the software can go toe-to-toe with iOS. That much is obvious at this point — it's like being asked to choose between a Benz and a Beamer. What I mean is that companies like Samsung, HTC, and even BlackBerry have realized it's pointless to showcase flagship products in the fall when iFever tends to peak.

Hence, the HTC One's debut last week. Or the Galaxy event tonight. Or even BlackBerry politely raising its hand only to be told to pipe down in late January. As Rene Ritchie at iMore points out: "Rather than competing for attention with Apple, who continues to dominate the media cycles and best-seller lists during their launch quarter, competitors are waiting until halfway in, when the iPhone is no longer fresh, and yet still not due for a refresh." 

It's a smart move. Hit 'em when they can't punch back. Of course, Apple could very well rectify this by pushing up its products' release dates. And — surprise! — there are rumors already suggesting it's going to do just that.

3. The iPhone keeps getting betterThe next iPhone will be better than the iPhone 5. Just like the iPhone 5 was better than the 4S before it. No surprises there. The problem for Apple is that getting marginally better doesn't really sell. People buy phones when: (1) They need one, or (2) something is so undeniably great they have to have it.

In other words, consumers expect to be wowed, but they no longer expect to be wowed by Apple. As iMore's Ritchie suggests, people are already anticipating the phone to be called the iPhone 5S, which, if history is any indication, will probably look a lot like the iPhone 5 with an incremental spec bump. "The 'iPhone 5S' problem is the idea that Apple has become predictable coupled with the perception that the next big thing might just come from somewhere else," says Ritchie. Indeed, that big thing might even happen tonight.

*** 

All of this isn't to spell the company's Impending Doom. Apple will be fine. The company still makes great products, which, as Tim Cook has claimed again and again, is all Apple cares about. (No one believes him, of course. He's running a business after all.) But the public's perception of Apple as a gilded, do-no-wrong innovator is no longer what it once was. And, for once, that might even be a good thing.

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