Apple’s Innovation Problem


The MacBook Pro is a disappointing effort from design and engineering teams from whom we expect so much. Four years in the making Apple, yet MacBook got very lightly tweaked and gained a questionable embedded screen where the function keys used to be. And the latter not even on all models.

I wonder how much the collective disappointment is a result of high expectations set by Apple, the hubris which accompanies each new product, never mind how mundane, and the advances made by other brands in bringing innovations to market ahead of Apple?

The Surface Pro, Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre x360 are three such products.

The problem for Apple seems to be that it has got too big and too tied up in its own bottom line to really shift the game on. It can’t afford to take risks with a new iPhone, because a slip up would be fatal on a device that powers two-thirds of the company’s finances. Imagine if the Note 7 disaster had actually been the iPhone 7 disaster. What would have happened to Apple if it were forced to cease the sales of its biggest money maker?

Apple most recent innovative product has been the iPad, but even that has gone from being a leader to being a follower. Sales are falling even whilst Apple is positioning the iPad Pro as its entry-level computer. Mac sales are falling too. With less than ten million iPads and less than four million Macs sold in the last quarter you would think Apple’s best strategy would be to go big and bet the farm on something completely out of left field.

Instead we get the same old, same old. Slight thinner, slightly lighter, an improved processor here, a tweaked screen there. Fundementally the products stay the same. The MBA 11 which died last week was indistinguishable from my own 2011 model. I suspect it might be a little more snappy but otherwise there’s no reason to upgrade. Which is why I replaced it with the HP Spectre x360 earlier this year.

Its not as if Apple can rely on product failures to drive sales. Even though it has done everything possible to make its MacBook as unserviceable as possible, the reliability of the things means that a five year old lifecycle is the minimum expectation. Apple can’t even design failure into the machines, for two reasons: the longevity of its machines is a key selling point and also the strong resale values are an enabler for those who do upgrade.

Whilst other manufacturers seem to be designing and engineering without fear, Apple has turned into the establishment, unable to easily bend or flex to the markets needs and wants. That means no touchscreens, a double down on its commitment to thin and light whatever the resulting compromises and a shareholder pleasing pricing structure that’s a return to the 1980s when Apple was all about the high end only.

Gone is the strong and simple product ranges that Steve Jobs mandated. In come 101 dongle varieties to connect different devices from Apple together and a desperate need to drive services revenue to keep the stock market happy. Hence the stories today about a imminent price cut on Apple Music.

So long as the iPhone continues to bankroll the rest of the company Apple can treat the rest of its product range as a playground for ideas and innovations. That it doesn’t is disappointing, even if it’s somewhat understandable. 

Whatever happens Apple isn’t going to face major problems. The people at the helm might find themselves held to account if shareholder value is percieved to be at risk though.