Saturday, 6 October 2012

First Signs of Apple Crumbling

Over the past few years we have seen Apple take a huge bite out of the mobile and portable entertainment market (not to mention their dominance of the tablet space with the iPad). Apple has amassed a growing number of adoring fans, as well as billions in profit. With each new quarter, and each product launch (amid much hype and media coverage) it seemed as if the Apple train was speeding up and gaining a momentum that would be impossible to stop.

Now, for the first time in recent memory, there are some preliminary signs that Apple's fantasy ride is slowing down. As with any rise, there must be a leveling-off, and then a fall. I am not suggesting that Apple is falling apart, just that it is going to need to face reality again. Apple may be a victim of its own success and marketing hype engine. At every launch, Apple fans have come to expect miraculous new features. Given the fast rate that Apple has released new products, and the slower pace of true mind-blowing technological innovation, it was innevitable that Apple would hit a wall. Couple that with increasing expectations from users, and it is easy to predict that Apple's past performance would be unsustainable.

The most critical reports are not from Apple competitors, but Apple fanboys themselves. "The Apple Byte" show on CNet, usually enamoured by anything Apple related, recently pointed out some of the major misses with the new iPhone and other disappointments with iOS 6. Still, a few healthy criticisms doesn't put a dent into Apple's userbase fanaticism, but does bring Apple back down to reality... a reality of a highly competitive and inter-connected sector that is ready to eat Apple at any opportunity, and users that have an opportunity every few years to switch to another phone ecosystem or upgrade to a new tablet.

There are other signs, however, that not all is perfect. The late Steve Jobs was a well-respected figure-head for Apple who brought an almost cult-like following to the company. The new leadership is still profiting on his legacy, but it will eventually run out. They will have to begin relying on their own ideas.

The iPhone 5 was the best product launch ever in terms of numbers sold. However, it is not without flaws. All devices have issues. Complaints about the new Lightning connector backwards compatability problems, iOS 6 Apple Maps, slow WiFi connections, slow data on some carriers, brightness-level not working, and other problems populated the Apple fan-site forums after launch.

The furthest-reaching but minor problem, however, happens to be a quality control issue resulting in scratches and chips found on brand new unboxed iPhones coming straight from the factory. This has resulted in increasing pressure on Foxconn employees which apparently resulted in a strike and some violence on the assembly line in China. Although Foxconn denies the strike occurred (presumably to avoid giving any other employees an idea or to deny any bad press) it did make headlines.

The big story here is not the few minor cosmetic imperfections from the factory or a scratch-prone case, but that the Chinese factory strike brought attention once again to issues of worker treatment and it adds another negative newstory to a number of others already circulating about the latest product from Apple. This is a reality check for Apple that despite their amazing past accomplishments, impressions can quickly turn.

There is no doubt that the iPhone is a great device and Apple will continue to do well in the foreseeable future with release of the iPad mini, the Apple TV and other devices. There is still plenty of room for innovation using today's technologies... Some of which have already found their way into competitor's phones. People will want to continue to use their iOS apps and live happily in the iTunes universe, guaranteeing upgrade paths for Apple for a long time yet, even if each successive iPhone release is less and less interesting.

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