Has Apple lost its polish?

Has Apple lost its polish?

Summary: Flawed features, shattered secrecy and atypical apologies: meet the Apple of 2012 and beyond.


The Apple we've come to know over the last 15 years occupies a mid-century modern house, full of straight lines and white space and bereft of trinkets. When it eats, it immediately sweeps up after itself. (Not that it would spill crumbs in the first place.) It's unclear where it stores the broom.

But the Apple of more recent vintage, under Tim Cook, has been a much sloppier affair. It's a bit casual, a bit wrinkled, a bit less deliberate. The company's famed cold-shouldered execution, reminiscent of U.S. government agents in the late 1950s -- all business, tremendous power, furtive and deadly -- has loosened. The flattop haircut has grown out into a mop-like affair. The sleeves have been rolled; the necktie has been left askew. And, impossibly, emotion has come into play.

Apple has always been a company of people, just like any other, but this is the image it has projected onto the world for more than a decade. It kept rivals on its toes by keeping its cards close. It, famously, did not apologize for missteps.

I expected much of this to continue under chief executive Tim Cook, whose reserved demeanor and experience (as supply chain chief, effectively) suggested a methodical, exacting nature. But the complete opposite has happened. The Apple of 2012 apologizes for rolling out products not yet ready for public consumption, and it fails to keep its activities covert. We are no longer surprised by Apple, merely satisfied. (Not that that's a bad place to be.)

I'm loathe to attribute this to the absence of former CEO Steve Jobs because I feel it's a lazy trope in the tech press, but it's clear that the company has lost a step. The iPad mini is just around the corner because we know it is. The iPhone 5 was, too. Ho hum.

(The irony of all this? On a personal level, it was Jobs that was the hippie personified. Cook was the business school grad who designed a 25-year life plan for himself.)

Is it enough to know a competitor's tricks to beat him? Can you outswim Michael Phelps if you know his techniques, his tools, his tendencies? Most would say no, but knowing is half the battle. That's where we find Apple today -- the company is ahead because of much hard work over decades, but we now know its strategy. Not because it told us, but because it metaphorically disposed of those classified documents in a public dumpster. Hey, man, don't worry about it, it insisted, Pink Floyd wafting from the laboratory inside. Be cool.

It's not easy being a dominant technology company in the modern, global age; keeping hundreds of supply chain partners quiet is about as easy as doing the same with a room full of kindergartners ahead of lunch. And you can say the same about apologies: though Cook meant well by his comments about the Maps fiasco, it did more harm to the brand in the long term than it did good in the short term. (Having used this service since it was made public, I have yet to find anything to be truly outraged about. Passbook is another story, however.) Part of the company's formula for success has been its ability to astonish us. I haven't felt this way since Siri was first announced.

An accessible Apple is a more pleasant Apple but a more tedious one -- I've already wrote as much here at ZDNet. One month after the iPhone 5 non-surprise, we have an apology and another. There's nothing unprofitable about predictability; true. But for Apple, precision and privacy have proved much more promising.

Topic: Apple

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • The Company Has A Bigger Legal Budget Than Its R&D Budget

    Apple should stop litigating, and get back to innovating. It's been so preoccupied with lawsuits, it has forgotten about satisfying the needs of its customers. Android has always been a serious competitor, but Apple at one time could (unlike Microsoft) offer a decent alternative. Not any more.
    • What's the point of innovating

      if anyone can just come along and copy it. Also, look up false dichotomy. Apple can do both.
      • Re: What's the point of innovating

        Ideas are a dime a dozen. Any fool can have an idea, and a lot of them do. What counts is not the idea (invention), but the execution (innovation).

        As Thomas Edison once said, anything worth doing is 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. They can copy your inspiration, but that doesn’t help them copy your perspiration.
        • Actually...

          Edison said "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
          • Actually...

            Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% capital investors
        • Why does Motorola (google) and Samsung due then?

          They are trying to sue for basic concepts like using "wireless communication technologies to manage various messages and content" using basic kid drawings of how any system would generically handle content underneath.
          Before you start the false "they did it first" rationalizations remember Motorola trying to shake apple down last year for additional excessive royalties for using chips that already had royalties built into the parts purchases.
          Apple offers a fine alternative to android in my opinion.
          I don't agree with any of these companies frivolous lawsuites, but pretending Apple is any worse is false and misleading.
          Singling out Apple for their relatively few lawsuites is like the big FoxConn holier than though attitude people protested about while most android devices were made by the same company or competitors with their own Chinese labor issues.
          So if google was trying to shake apple down for 2.5% of net sales price, regardless of manufacturer costs or profit margin, and sues for things as generic as using wireless technology with messaging features, why are people ignoring that and focusing just on Apple?
          • Without the technology inside its a minimalists paperweight.

            Suing for a rectangle with round corners doesn't speak to he fact that every piece of technology inside that rounded corner rectangle is someone elses, whether its Asia or Britain.
        • well said

          other than apple products are crap... they cannot be as perfect as us..!!
    • Comparethe number of Apple lawsuits...

      Look at Samsung, Motorola (google) and even why Microsoft has done through the years to keep their desktop monopoly.
      The Apple logo lawsuit seems silly but you see Samsung and Motorolo suing for various things, including things like the concept of switching to music...
      Apple hardly stands alone in lawsuits, although google's mostly stem from their rampant disrespect for privacy and deceiving people about what they collect...
    • Apple won't innovate

      There's no money in it. It's a risk.

      After all, an innovation is doing something new and unexpected. But really, that's not an innovation at all, not yet. First, that new and risky thing has to be successful. Only then is it judged an innovation. If that new and risky thing fails, you make the Worst-Of list for the year, and maybe become a punchline.

      Apple has nothing to gain by taking a risk. They're on top, they're selling the most of any single model of pretty much anything they make. They're making them for less than the next guy, and selling them for more. What would even be the point of an innovation, at least in an existing line of Apple products? They're just going to keep adding comfortable and conservative updates. It's not as if existing Apple customers are looking at Androids or Windows devices, eh?

      The leaks -- most of those have to be intentional. The same things occurred when Jobs was in charge, though maybe Apple was a little better at leaking just tidbits, rather than the whole thing. But seriously, this is part of Apple's marketing formula.

      Apple has a new product launch planned. Some months before that, you hear rumors of what's coming -- but if it's iPhone or iPad, you pretty much know when to expect it anyway. About a month before, some concrete information surfaces -- sketchy photos, maybe a few pieces, not the whole thing just yet. And that gets the whole tech press talking about Apple. Then there's the official confirmation of the new product annoucement, and more talk. Then there's the debut day... the product is introduced. Can't buy one yet, but you can in 3-7 days... online. That'll sell out, by the way, since Apple only has a relatively small number available. Next week, it's lines at the store... also very carefully orchestrated for maxmium effect by Apple. And you know, if you're a fan, you have to show up that day, or you won't get your new toy for a month. Ok, maybe just a week. Apple's getting about two months worth of press out of one product introduction.

      Compare that with a Samsung announcement. They announce the new device, you might have known its coming, but didn't get details. There are millions in stock in stores, no worries about getting one. They're online and in stores they same day. The device comes, it goes, it's got a few days of serious press, then it's on to the next one.

      This is what Apple's always done, pretty much. It's rough on customers, but the press eats it up, and look, we're still talking about Apple. It works. And it works, even when you understand that it's happening.
      • Apple not innovating?

        They pretty much supercharged the smartphone market and set the standard many tried to follow with Android.
        I'm not going to argue absurd assertions like "they don't innovate" because you should look at history and know better.
        Gnome got its first GUI control panel years ago by copying Apple's, if you look closely.
        They do play it safe. I neither want nor need the security risks of NFC. Rounded rectangle's was Samsung's false excuse. They didn't sue for "any rounded rectangles", but for Samsung's blatant attempt to copy their look, as Samsung's emails proved even after they deleted most of them...
        • Apple does not innovate anything!

          FYI: Apple inc. didnt innovate any bloody thing. They using, stealing and combining existed technologies (created in labs by scientists), and enveloping them into a nice, modern (by the CEO oppinon, I guess) shape.

          - Macos is an bsd and opensource system (unlike MS who developing and improving its own OS many years), but people buy it, hm, strange huh? To buy opensource.
          - All items made by samsung, assebled in china
          - Photoshop belongs to Adobe
          - Office (word, excel) belongs to MS
          - Music content and movies belongs to authors

          Keep thinking you are supporting something important.

          I wish apple end its being as soon as possible, it is cancer in IT
          • Samsung & China??? Not quite...

            Samsung actually produces many things in the US, including processors right here in Texas, the city of Austin to be precise.
            George Leon
        • copy "their look"? and innovation.

          Okay first things first, what is exactly Apples "look"? they're very proud of their simple look, which is a rectangle with rounded corners. What other options is there? A circle, an octagon maybe? How about a cube? I mean come on! Now I can see if they copied everything including the lock button on top and round home button. Samsung even did an unconventional color, blue, for their s3 device. What about Soft keys? Where is that on your iPhone? Or how about a speaker on the back? Those are pretty prominent features. Very distinctive I'd say.
          And as far as lawsuits,that is always going to happen. Look at windows phone, they went totally off normality by using live tiles, and now look at them, somebody somewhere apparently owned them, and are pressing charges. Competition in the market space is supposed to make products cheaper and overall better, not just make business for lawyers.
      • The buzz is from customer interest

        I have no idea why people are less interested in Samsung's "next offering", but there it is.
        Apple follows a pretty clear schedule, and a lot of people want to know what's next.
        Why there isn't the same interest in Samsung is hardly a reason to bash Apple.
        It doesn't change my point that Motorola (google) and Samsung have had just as frivolous if not more so lawsuites and some supposedly bash Apple as worse while ignoring Samsung and Google doing the same thing.
        • My bad

          Responded wrong place in part. No edit. Arg.
          I agree though a lot with you.
    • I agree... Apple has to stop litigating.... Apple has to feel sorry about

      the other products no being apple... and therefore not perfect and mediocre... we, apple, are a superior raze..!!
  • Times change

    "I feel it's a lazy trope in the tech press, but it's clear that the company has lost a step"

    Not sure how you criticise others and then write such a lazy article. So here's an alternative view.

    Secrecy The purpose of secrecy was always to get the free PR of a big launch. That has been disappearing for a long time. There is now a while sector of the industry dedicated to finding out what products or on their way. Even Zdnet has doubled or perhaps quadrupled the number of column inches on what's happening at Apple. They now get the free PR form the speculation in the build up to the launch

    Produce Quality. Well if we forget the problems with the large imacs the antenna issue with the iphone and many other mess ups the story might hold water. The truth is any company makes mistakes. With the maps I have no idea how anyone could have let that slip through the net. Maybe it was more important to send a message to google than wait.

    Nothing exciting. If any company can produce one product with is exciting its doing well maybe like most products it needs to go through a number of small jumps before their ready for the next leap -one thing is for sure the competition has little to offer than a few new hardware features.

    What Apple seems to be doing is consolidating the position they always claimed they wanted to control a sector of the premium end of the market.

    How you can argue Apple has lost its gloss when still on a massive growth cycle seems a little odd. Things are not going to be so rosy for Microsoft with windows 8 which also offers little which is radically new and the compelling reasons for using MS in the office have been much diluted.
    • Don't confuse sales with momentum.

      (First off: if you're going to call this "lazy," at least say WHY. Otherwise, your criticism is a bit...lazy?)

      Don't confuse Apple's sales with momentum. (Consider: RIM sold a lot of BlackBerrys for many years and lots of profit before it realized it didn't have a next act. Ditto Nokia.) What I'm trying to do here is contrast Apple then and now: the company was very disciplined then; it's apparently less so now. Since its discipline was part of its success, I find that worth noting.
      • No, RIM sold a lot of

        Blackberrys until Apple came along and changed the industry. Feel free to point out the player out there that has the potential to do the same. Hint: mentioning any company that suffers feature checklist-itis immediately disqualifies you.