There was a lot of hype surrounding the much anticipated iPhone 5 launch,and if you’re like me, the constant onslaught of articles ranging from rumors to complaints has been exhaustive to read. It’s hard to debate that Apple may be the best buzz generating superpower in the tech business.
Even as herds of newspapers begin to coin phrases like “adaptergate,” Apple reported a record-setting 5 million handset sales in the first weekend of pre-orders. This surpasses the previous record breaking iPhone 4S launch by roughly 3 million handset units and represents a number that the popular Samsung Galaxy S III handset took 2 months to hit.
Numbers aside, for any analyst who follows tech trends, it doesn’t take too many side-by-side comparison charts to see that Apple’s self proclaimed “next revolutionary Smartphone” is merely a catch up to current competitors in the market. This represents a concerning trend in Apple products that gives me caution when evaluating the strength of Apple’s hold on the future of technology innovation.
An Apple Logo Doesn’t Necessarily Make Existing Hardware Better
4G LTE has been widely available on most new Android smart phones for over a year now along with other features such as bigger screens and smaller port adapters (transition to mini-USB standard).
Hardware claims are becoming increasingly difficult for smart phone manufacturers to differentiate themselves on. Devices can only be so big, light and fast to be truly differentiated. With multiple SKUs and shorter product life cycles, even when a new hardware technology is introduced, it’s often not long before everyone else has caught up.
Apple’s claims of “ultra fast Wi-Fi and 4G LTE” are completely reliant on the carriers and routers in which the phone communicates with, something that is easily matched by the competition.
Then there’s the new charging adapter, spun cleverly by Apple as something revolutionary. It is really just another continued focus on making more money on a proprietary connector that has the same functionality as the multi-platform standard, mini-USB, which is much cheaper and more widely used among other handsets and accessories such as Bluetooth headsets.
Finally there is the argument of thinness and weight that has always been a cornerstone of Apple’s design marketing. Obviously improvements to this shouldn’t be looked at as a negative, but when was the last time you made a comment to someone about how your leg hurts from carrying around your heavy phone all day? Probably not since your mobile phone also required a shoulder strap briefcase to make calls.
Software is the Key to Differentiation and Apple is Heading in the Wrong Direction
Given it’s so hard to differentiate in the hardware space, this adds extra pressure on software development teams to create a user interface and content line-up that can really help tip the scale for consumers to chose one side over the other.
Apple for the first time seems to be breaking their “no beta testing” rule. The first iterations of iMessage and Siri did not function as advertised and still have yet to be perfected even with several subsequent software revisions. To add one more feature to the fire, Apple decided with iOS6 to drop the popular Google Maps app in favor of an entirely new navigation platform that was created in collaboration with Tom Tom. This was marketed as a new revolution in how people will use maps on their phone. However, public reaction to the new Maps app has been overwhelmingly negative and several bugs and errors have surfaced since its release.
As a company known for pioneering technology innovations, you should never have an image like the one below describe how great your new maps app is…note that mass transit has been left out of the Apple Maps app.
To truly innovate and differentiate you must blow an existing idea out of the water to make it a selling point. Apple continues to hit and miss with even the most rudimentary smart phone functions like messaging and now maps and navigation. Their early presumptions to release features that should have been fixed before releasing to a mass audience is a scary reflection of what Research in Motion (RIMM), the makers of BlackBerry smart phones exhibited during their rise to power, and we all know how that story has progressed.
A Look to the Future
Tech companies are pushing towards a management philosophy to empower employees to think more like their customers. Big firms like Microsoft are gifting free Win 8 surface tablets and phones to employees. Yahoo! is letting employees pick from one of several new smart phones on the market including the new iPhone 5, Samsung Galaxy SIII, and the Nokia Lumina 920. Even Mark Zuckerberg has demanded employees use Android phones to troubleshoot and improve the Facebook app to make the experience better for customers. The focus of all of these companies is to improve the user interface to better differentiate.
Meanwhile, Apple has stood its ground on the tough mentality of “this is our product, use it and stop complaining!” Sure they’ve made a great device with the iPhone 5 and pre-order sales have been very strong, but the honeymoon period of innovation for Apple is starting to fade. Comments like “you’re holding it wrong” in regards to people complaining about antenna problems on the iPhone 4 will become less and less acceptable in a marketplace that is becoming increasingly saturated with devices. Tech brands like Samsung, Apple, Nokia and HTC will have to spend more and go beyond consumer expectations in order to gain minuscule increases in market share as the smart phone market matures.
I expect Apple will be in for a rude awakening if they continue on their current path of putting too much emphasis on their brand clout while letting innovations that once made the company great, fall by the wayside.
– Brian Baecker