It’s been 16 years since Apple told the world to “think different,” to take note of the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, and the “round pegs in the square holes.” The advertisement-turned-business-philosophy began as an indictment against IBM, became a rallying cry for creatives and Apple pundits, and now, almost two decades later, it still describes Apple today.
Despite everything that has changed since the ad aired during the 1997 Super Bowl, Apple continues to think different. It continues to defy the predictions, whims, and desires of investors and pundits alike. What’s more, Apple hasn’t introduced a new product category since the original iPad — iPad mini notwithstanding — and doesn’t intend to until this Fall or next year, according to Apple CEO Tim Cook.
Then again, maybe it doesn’t need to. Perhaps Apple is focused on building something that’s better than what it already sells instead of simply being different for the sake of novelty. The company has time, despite consumers’ and pundits impatience for a jolt of the new. That’s because the iPad continues to grow and become an increasingly important product for the company, both as a consumer icon and as a source of revenues, and Apple continues to sell a whole lot of other hardware at high margins.
This stubbornness isn’t always for the best. Apple continues to stand by iTunes, its maddening digital marketplace, despite constant rumors that it is about to debut a streaming music service and increased competition from companies like Rdio and Spotify. Compared to those novel services and the increasingly popular sentiment that it’s better to rent media instead of buying it, iTunes is a technological crone screeching against change.
Yet despite iTunes’ scars and frustrations, analyst Horace Dediu estimates that digital media — music, video, books, apps, and software — represent more than $2 billion in operating income each year. Apple’s commitment to iTunes and digital services has yielded an ever-increasing return on investment, becoming more than an incentive to purchase the company’s hardware.
It has effectively ceded the battle over smartphone marketshare to Android (and specifically Samsung) and simply must introduce a cheap, low-end version of the iPhone to better compete in emerging markets. Consumers have started to favor other brands — again, Samsung — over Apple.
Then again, Apple makes more money in the smartphone market than any other company, including Samsung. Instead of introducing a cheaper version of its flagship smartphone, the company has repurposed old devices, such as the iPhone 4, and deemed them good enough for emerging markets. Even if some consumers prefer other brands, Apple’s devices are still viewed as luxury items and status symbols.
Apple is, in effect, a round peg that so many commentators and investors are trying to shove into a square hole. A troublemaker. A rebel. A misfit. A company that, despite everything that’s changed, continues to think different. It’s just that, unlike its message in ’97, Apple’s version of “different” is, perhaps rightly, characterized by stubbornness and savvy business rather than creativity and a plea for consumers to rail against the status quo.
That isn’t to say that Apple refuses to change. Cook is noticeably different from his predecessor, the late Steve Jobs, and has, in some ways, led Apple to become a more ordinary public company. He apologized to consumers for the Apple Maps debacle; he has decided to give some of Apple’s massive hoard (or some money it’s borrowed) back to shareholders, instead of simply re-investing it in new products; and he has worked to change the labor conditions in which the company’s products are produced.
But maybe it’s better to consider those actions as emblematic of Apple’s stubbornness to building a solid business that will persist no matter who is leading the helm, and to, once again, thinking different. Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs, and his “think different” has less to do with crushing IBM and more to do with preserving Apple. Cook can’t rail against the status quo because that’s what he, and Apple, are.