On Apple Punditry And Why Seemingly Bright People Get Apple So Very Wrong

Added on by Daniel Kuney.

From Matt Richtel and Brian X. Chen in the NYTimes:

Michael A. Cusumano, a professor in the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., said he thought Apple no longer had the juice to create the world-beating product it needs. Professor Cusumano, who is working on a book about innovation, visited Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., last fall and has talked to a half-dozen current and former employees about the company culture. He concluded that Apple without Mr. Jobs lacks a visionary to synthesize disparate ideas into a magical whole.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to come up with the next big thing,” he added. “They’ve lost their heart and soul.”

Some pundits seem to just not get Apple.  Every year when Apple releases a new iPhone I tend to read and hear the same criticism, “Yeah, but they just made it better.”

So Apple took the revolutionary device they created seven years ago that changed the way twenty percent of the planet gets through the day* and merely made it even more useful and necessary but somehow that’s not good enough?

*Yes, Apple did that.  Remember T9?  Remember tapping numeric keys three times to spell out words on your flip phone?  Remember trying to read the NYTimes on your Treo or Blackberry and using your stylus to scroll to the right to finish reading a sentence?  You probably don’t remember that.  That’s because of the iPhone.  And even if you don’t use an iPhone today, the principles of what mobile computing should be in the early twenty first century can all be traced back to this device that Apple created.

And yet for some pundits Apple can only succeed or, worse, only has a heart and soul, if they can produce innovative devices like this every year.  And for every year Apple doesn’t completely upend the world they are one step closer to becoming the next Kodak.  

Let’s reflect for a moment that the iPhone is now the most popular consumer camera in the world.  Or that the text on an iPhone is now nearly as sharp as print or that we can now unlock our iPhones with a tap of a finger.  These are just a few of the innovations Apple has brought to the iPhone since 2007.  No, Apple didn’t invent digital cameras, high resolution displays or finger reading technology.  But remember, they also didn’t invent the smartphone.  

Sometimes innovation is more than just a shiny new object.  Innovation can be seeing the potential in ideas that aren’t yet fully formed and morphing them into products that are so compelling we can’t imagine daily life without them.  

Sometimes innovation is also knowing how to edit, say no or wait until the moment is right.  Samsung introduced the Samsung Gear, their smart watch, last year.  And while pundits are proclaiming the death of Apple until they release their own smart watch, I haven’t seen a single Gear in the wild.  Show of hands, did you even know Samsung was already making a smart watch?

Apple will release magical new devices.  But there are only so many magical new devices the world needs at a time.  To hold Apple to the foolish standard of releasing life altering technology every two years that the world cannot “predict, fathom or yet describe” seems to be a fundamental misread of what Apple does best and just why they are now the world’s most valuable brand.

For a company that prizes secrecy, Apple is surprisingly not afraid to reveal their secret sauce.  Last year, before their 2013 WWDC developer’s conference, Apple released a short video (linked here) that sums up so much about what makes them unique.  You should watch the video but I’ll give you a preview: “there are a thousand no’s for every yes.”

Cusumano is just the latest in a long list of bright people with fancy degrees who spend most of their time misunderstanding Apple’s success as a byproduct of the revolutionary devices they release once or twice a decade.  

But Cusumano is just on my mind because Matt Richtel and Brian X. Chen oddly seem to think he’s the guy to quote in their Sunday Business profile of Tim Cook and the reaction to Apple’s recent developer conference.  Richtel and Chen seem skeptical that Tim Cook can produce innovative products as quickly as Steve Jobs, concluding that, “It’s an impossible comparison.  But it’s the one that Mr. Cook is being held to, at least until he makes enough magic of his own.”

If you want to read someone who, I think, truly understands the heart and soul of Apple, you may want to consider John Gruber, who seems to get Apple in a way few other technology writers do.  On Friday, Gruber wrote his own analysis of this year’s developer conference.  Instead of contemplating a grim future for Apple without Jobs, or the lack of products that Apple has released so far this year, he seems genuinely excited about where Apple is now and how their software and products will continue to evolve, writing:

Tim Cook has stated publicly that new products are in the pipeline, and he seems confident regarding them (as do other Apple executives). We can’t judge them yet, but consider this: Recall again that in 2007 Apple was forced to admit publicly that they had to pull engineering, design, and QA resources from the Mac in order to ship the iPhone. This year, new products are coming and but iOS and Mac development not only did not halt or slow, it sped up. In recent years, the company grew from being bad at walking and chewing gum to being OK at it, and most of us thought, “Finally”. But that wasn’t the end of the progression. Apple has proceeded from being OK at walking and chewing gum to being good at it. Thus the collective reaction to last week’s keynote: “Whoa.”

Punditry isn’t a bad thing.  For those of us looking to better understand the world around us well informed sources can provide needed context, history and explanation.  And it’s in the nature of punditry that these sources will disagree with one another.  Bigger government or smaller?  Boots on the ground or diplomacy?  Apple has lost its heart and soul or Apple has never been better positioned to delight and amaze us?

As consumers of punditry, it’s probably not a bad idea to understand where all sides are coming from.  But if I had to bet on Apple’s future I’d look past the guys who think Apple’s heart and soul has gone missing and listen instead to the ones who seem to be really psyched about what’s in store for Apple.  

“Even now, all possible feelings do not yet exist, there are still those that lie beyond our capacity and our imagination. From time to time, when a piece of music no one has ever written or a painting no one has ever painted, or something else impossible to predict, fathom or yet describe takes place, a new feeling enters the world. And then, for the millionth time in the history of feeling, the heart surges and absorbs the impact.” - Nicole Krauss, The History of Love