The sad end of the Apple era

With Apple's influence waning, we may come to miss the company that Jobs built

One thing was conspicuously missing at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, the annual convention in which tech companies peddle their newest wares. While there were smart fridges, virtual reality headsets, and 4K TVs galore, what was absent was even more interesting: the looming sense that everyone was scrambling to catch up to Apple.

For years Apple has set the tone and tenor of the conversation in tech. The iPhone was so wildly successful that everyone from car manufactures to makers of cheap trinkets did their best to ape or react to the device, and for a while Apple was on the lips of everyone remotely connected to technology. But at this year's CES, perhaps the most significant change was the shift to voice control like Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant, while augmented reality, connected TVs, and the smart home weren't far behind. Suddenly, Apple seems to be casting a much smaller shadow.

And if Apple cannot right itself, other companies will step in to fill the void.

Right now, that means the tech world will begin to be led by Google and Amazon, companies whose philosophies are markedly different from Apple's. For all its flaws, Apple's defining mission has been to make good stuff, while Amazon and Google are more circuitous in their pursuit of profit, preferring to sell peripheral products that strengthen a core goal of retail or advertising.

With Apple's influence waning, we may find ourselves in a strange position, lamenting the decline of a multi-billion dollar corporation because what replaces it will be worse.

But it isn't just Apple's influence that is slipping. The company has seen its most ardent, loyal fans starting to grumble about everything from the missing headphone jack in the iPhone 7, to a lackluster laptop and desktop line up that has left its vocal power users feeling abandoned. In part, this is due to Apple's inattention. With the iPhone dominating Apple's earning charts, everything else from the Mac to peripherals like its AirPort Wi-Fi product have either failed to keep up with users' needs, or appear to simply be forgotten.

There is also a sense that while Apple's products always excelled because of the marriage of design and function, now the former has come to overshadow the latter, resulting in thin laptops that require an absurd array of dongles or wireless headphones that easily slip out. Meanwhile, Siri lags its voice assistant competitors while stalwart Apple users say its software has dropped in quality.

As cliché as it's become to say, there's still an argument to be made that this is in part about the shift from famed CEO Steve Jobs to current one Tim Cook. Jobs was notoriously fastidious about details and not shipping products until they were the best, and Apple's looser current approach, though not without its benefits, is starting to hurt them.

More broadly, though, the changes stem from the fact that Apple's organizational structure is designed to excel at making a few key hardware products, but not to succeed in a world that requires services like iCloud and Siri to take center stage.

Even more importantly, Apple's technology is just no longer dominant. In voice, excitement and hype has shifted from Siri to Amazon's Alexa assistant, which lets you interact with it solely with your voice to listen to music or order from Amazon. Meanwhile Microsoft, of all companies, is seen as innovating faster and more interestingly than Apple in terms of creating new categories.

To be clear, in the last quarter Apple earned $9 billion in income, more than most companies earn in revenue in a year, and the results of the holiday period are likely to be even higher. Apple is still sitting on mounds of cash, and is well positioned to keep raking in money. But it's not its financial health that is in question; it is its ability to set the direction of the tech world.

In one sense, some stumbles by the massively profitable company are to be welcomed. After all, Apple's success comes with downsides. Just recently, Apple removed The New York Times from the app store in China after a request from the government, cutting off access to the news source for anyone in the country, a move that is significant because Apple devices are a kind of chokepoint for the distribution of media.

But Apple's influence has also often been surprisingly positive.

The entire design revolution toward more user-friendly products like smart TVs, thermostats, or kitchen appliances has been spurred by products like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. The Apple ethos is that technology is much better when it's easy to use. While other companies have done well to try and keep up — Google's Android, for example, is finally both usable and attractive — none of them have instigated broad changes in far flung industries, in large part because their design vision is nowhere near as focused. No car company is thinking "we want our vehicles to be more like shopping on Amazon." Rather, Apple always focused on making its products central, unlike Google and Amazon, who use tech products to funnel both money and attention back into their main focuses — for Amazon, its retail operations, and for Google, its search engine. If Apple continues its decline, its replacements would do little to further actual design and technical excellence.

An important side-effect of Apple's focus on user experience has been an emphasis on the principles of user privacy and a resistance to intrusive advertising. Apple took the principled stand against giving government a back door to its iPhones, while it also let users block ads, mostly because they were becoming cumbersome and clunky. Because Apple staked its brand on the idea that using its tech should feel good, it had the knock-on effect of making privacy important.

Of course, one shouldn't overstate the case.

Apple does not act out of altruism, and its stances on ideas like design, advertising, and privacy arise out of the same profit motive that causes it to have enormous profit margins and occasionally dubious business practices.

And it is certainly possible that Apple's top-down, almost authoritarian style is just less appealing in 2017. Steve Jobs' mantra that "customers don't know what they want until we show them" carries a slightly more menacing tone today. Perhaps people now want a more open approach, or simply just desire something different.

It's also important to remember that Apple is also entirely to blame for its recent fall, as its design decisions — which it has called courageous — might be better described as arrogant.

Nonetheless, if Apple continues its slide into making sleek, expensive hardware that doesn't meet its customers' needs, while letting its competitors leapfrog it in virtual assistants and other fields, its significance will fade.

If that happens, we may end up missing them more than we expect.


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