When excellence simply isn't good enough for Apple
Nearly a year ago, Apple's stock was trading at $705 a share, capping a fourfold increase over the previous three years. That peak price came only a few days after Apple introduced the iPhone 5. At the time, Apple rightly boasted that this was the best phone ever designed and manufactured. An achievement worth bragging about, given the rising competition in the smartphone space.
We all know what has happened since. Apple's stock fell as low as $385 in April. But it's since risen back to $513 in recent weeks thanks largely to three factors: An increase in the company's quarterly dividend and share repurchases, a cunning handful of tweets from Carl Icahn hinting that more investor giveaways would be forthcoming; and a growing hope that Apple would not only release new products, but ones that define and dominate new product categories.
Only one of those three stock-friendly factors had to do with what has made Apple Apple for the past three decades: designing different takes on personal computing that not only surprised, but inspired a kind of coveting that many smart consumers liked to imagine they were normally above. The other two are part of Wall Street's version of Halloween, where the trick-or-treat game is played four times a year to mollify spoiled children.
When Apple announced its “September Special Event” (a ritual enshrouded in a vague title in the same way that a present intrigues when it's wrapped in brown paper), many observers expected new iPhones (a snazzy, high-end 5S and a low-end but still stylish 5C), a formal release of iOS7 (announced at June's developer conference), and the launch of iTunes Radio.
Most believed that new products, like iTV or an answer to Samsung's timely but not must-have Gear, were unlikely. Still others, especially bullish investors, held out hope.
If Apple's Special Event delivered headlines that many expected, it also shone in many of the underlying details. Apple has been busy in the past year, and its accomplishments are many if minor - a flurry of new features and services that any technology company would be proud of: A 5c phone that translates Apple's design ethic to a low-end device (like the blue in Madrigal Electromotive's American export, color stands in for elegance); a high-end 5s phone with a 64-bit processor, two-tone flash and slow motion; a fingerprint-protected lock; and a mobile OS rich with features that will become industry standard in the coming year.
The Special Event of September 2013 was no more special that the one that preceded it a year ago. It felt like a sequel to an event that was a 2012 TED talk on how to build the best mobile device in the world. It still underwhelmed. Because there was no big surprise. There was no single innovation that tugged at the hidden covetousness inside the consumer heart. There were a lot of impressed hmm's but no breathless Wow.
The thing that made Apple Apple – the rope that kept Apple fanboys tethered to reality and not complete trolls – was that, more than any other company, Apple could always wow us. And now here it is simply making the best mobile devices, year after year, on the market. And that is weirdly not good enough anymore.
This isn't some Tim-Cook-isn't-Steve-Jobs scenario. This is Apple's a victim of its own success. The iPod, iPhone, and iPad created or galvanized markets for personal computing. In doing so, these products opened the door for skilled copycats to commoditize those very markets. Cook has responded by preserving a foothold at the high end of the markets, while producing low-end versions that offer the design flair that has always been Apple's brand.
The innovations Apple has worked on over the past year don't lift it over the bar that its stock's $705-a-share price demanded a year ago. During a half hour when it became clear Apple would offer no new category-defining device, the company's stock fell nearly 3 percent. It closed the day down 2.3 percent in a day when the Dow rose 0.9 percent.
Apple's recent decade of excellence has cornered it into a difficult place where it not only has to keep churning out best-of-industry products, but also new product categories. The kinds of products investors demand – the ones that will make consumers start jonesing for its gadgets again – may come in the next few months.
Until then, we're stuck with Apple: simply an excellent, standard-setting maker of technology.