Has Apple lost its polish?

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.