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Is Steve Jobs leading Apple towards irrelevance…again?

May 21, 2010 · 11 comments

Newsweek’s Daniel Lyons wrote today about why he’s giving up his iPhone and switching to Google’s latest Android device. I’ve watched Jobs explain for weeks why everyone has do things his way—not use flash, follow his rules for development, let him censor apps. I’m not convinced he’s wrong—just that Apple will suffer in the marketplace for his decisions. Again.

Remember—they fired Steve Jobs once

(Update: Okay, after losing a power struggle with the board of directors in 1985, he resigned). He made products that everyone loved but over time, few bought. Could that be happening again?

Apple started selling personal computers in the 1980s. They’re still selling them today. They get rave reviews. They were innovative then, they’re innovative now. So why does Apple have only a tiny market share in personal computers today?

Will Apple again be the innovator that fails to capture market share long-term?

We may find the answer by watching history repeat itself as Apple proceeds to shoot itself in the foot again with the iPhone and iPad. Are control and profit more important to Steve Jobs than seeing more people use the products he leads Apple in creating?

That Google’s phone OS now has a larger market share than Apple’s is not definitive. Even seeing Apple’s products—at Jobs’s insistence—NOT have features people want only brings back (bad) memories. But seeing Apple not interoperate with technologies and developers is like Deja Vu all over again.

And after all the feature announcements that the new market leader—that’s Google, by the way—made about their device yesterday, it looks like Jobs is leading Apple right back to being marginalized. In an industry that his innovation practically created—touchscreen internet smartphones. But I think articles like CNN’s “Has the iPhone lost its cool?” are missing the point. Apple’s products are always self-limiting. That’s how Jobs keeps them matching his brilliant, innovative—and market-limited—vision.

Steve Jobs is probably the greatest consumer technology innovator of all time.

But to make things happen, he has to do things “his way.” And that means we get his innovations … along with his Achille’s heel. Like a lot of people great at making things happen, he doesn’t work and play well with others. He’s a little selfish. A major control freak. And he needs to be all those things to drive Apple as ruthlessly as he has to innovate so successfully.

Computer technology would be a far, far poorer place without Steve Jobs. He’s a national treasure. Too bad it looks like he’s leading Apple back down its same well-trodden road from amazing innovation to near invisibility in the marketplace.

Updates:

  1. Defender saying “Apple not evil”… changes his mind. He’s got a point.
  2. A nice set of dueling posts: PCWorld: 7 Ways Google’s phone Tops Apple’s iPhone and Seven ways PC World is wrong about the iPhone-Android matchup
  3. Of course, comparing Google to Apple means I should have discussed Google too. See: Google’s Android: A rate of innovation never before seen in history
  4. Steve Jobs Says In An Email: “Not A Chance” Google Is Leapfrogging Us
  5. I find it inspiring how the iPad is helping artists, and see this as sign of good things to come 🙂

1 Roger Thornton Brown May 23, 2010 at 4:21 am

Apple have consistently scored early success by making simplified versions of existing technology. Although I have seen claims that the iPod, iPhone and iPad are all first-of-a-kind products whereas the truth is that MP3 players, smartphones and tablet computers were all in existence long before Apple turned their attention to them.

Apple’s early success lies in making these devices easy to use, by keeping the feature specification limited and packaging them in a slick manner; something they learned to do with the iMac and, even earlier, with the Macintosh.

Yet their early success is what leads to later failure as competitors steal a march by offering more features and more compatibility. Microsoft’s success with Windows was due ina large part to their policy of partnering with everyone, thus making sure that Windows was ubiquitous. I predict the same thing will happen with the smartphone market.

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2 admin May 22, 2010 at 9:43 pm

@Roger Thornton Brown

Great points. Steve Jobs clearly says “Reliability, features, early release date: choose two,” and and gives up features for early release date while keeping reliability. Similarly, he holds onto reliability while giving up a little in third-party app innovation.

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3 Roger Thornton Brown May 22, 2010 at 4:38 pm

This is the IT equivalent of a storm in a tea cup. The blog that CNN quotes claims that “Globally, the iPhone retains its lead, however: Apple commands 46 percent of the market, versus Android’s 25 percent.”. I have no idea where these figures come from but the facts are that Nokia commands 44% of the Smartphone market, Blackberry 19%, the iPhone 15% and the Android 10%. Source Gartner, Q1 Share of 2010 smartphone shipments by operating system.

It is an interesting observation in Andrew Lomardi’s comment that the problem lies with AT&T, not the OS. The simply fact here is that the US has just discovered smartphones and 3G networks and are racing to catch up. In this maelstrom they assume that it is all about iPhone and Android whereas the truth is both these are simple technology compared to the phones and networks that have been available and operating in Japan, Korea and Europe for some time. The USA likes to think it is the producer of the interweb when the reality is they are just late consumers.

Ten years ago I wrote a piece for a search engine company that advised them to place their services on mobile platforms as information was most useful to consumers and advertisers where they are, not where their computer was.

The upshot of that was a lot of work advising celcos in the UK on how to land 3G licences. The problem came after they had secured the licences and had no money left to develop the services to deliver over those networks and build the networks. The real problem was that the celcos could not countenance the idea of relinquishing their ownership of the consumer, as they had been used to exclusivity in this area.

Now the same thing is happening with handsets. Nokia, RIM, Apple and Google are all attempting to own the customer exclusively. Market forces show us this is an untenable aspiration that will always be in flux. However, I recall an interesting conversation I had with Microsoft back in the days when it looked as though Apple and Microsoft were locked in a battle amongst equals for domination of the PC market. Responding to my observation that Apple applications and OS was better written and nowhere near as buggy as Microsoft’s their answer was that they didn’t care about such problems, their focus was on giving consumers the features they wanted, leaving the bug fixing for later, effectively making their consumers their beta testers.

This is the real battle that is being fought now and which will determine who will own the largest share of the lucrative mobile market.

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4 admin May 22, 2010 at 3:30 pm

@MacSmiley

Absolutely agree about the marketplace being different. The factor that is the same is Jobs…and that he has competition.

@Stephen Lol! I use a Mac myself in a different location. Frustrating how much more it freezes compared to my PC. Of course, I do the maintenance on my PC, and the Apple store does the maintenance on the Mac. My freedom in how I support my computer is working pretty well for me.

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5 MacSmiley May 22, 2010 at 2:50 pm

The smartphone market today is not analogous to the PC market in the 90’s when sticking with IBM and IBM-compatible machines ruled corporate IT decisions that had decades long investment implications, and when people bought the same PC/OS they had at work.

Today’s consumers have different priorities, they are nimble decision-makers, and they vote with their $$.

Let’s see where they go.

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6 Stephen May 22, 2010 at 2:42 pm

The irrelevance of this article is REALLY the point (I’m typing this on my Mac, you loser…)

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7 admin May 22, 2010 at 1:35 pm

@Andrew Lombardi –

My point is that we have a genius who is very close to providing benefits to mainstream computer users, but never quite manages to. It doesn’t take away from what he HAS achieved one iota. It’s just too bad. (And I give Xerox PARC credit for the windows and mouse ideas, not Jobs.)

The iPhone has definitely been iterative, and all signs are the iPad will be too. It’s more the “walled garden” that eventually self-limited Macs. Of course, going way back, Jef Raskin, Mac project leader, left in 1981 due to Steve’s dilution of the idea of making a “computer for everyone.”

Seeing Flash partially failing in a demo and saying it “might not” work elsewhere doesn’t mean it won’t work. You give Apple the benefit of being iterative, why not Google? Looks like they’re going to try to make it work as best they can. And a number of writers have found the iPad seriously lacking as a browsing device because of the missing Flash. It may not be about a specific list of Hulu-type sites as much as the ubiquitousness of Flash that makes the user experience poor.

Abstraction-based API’s that allow you to write to multiple platforms are time savers. But more importantly, they open the platform to much greater innovation. Yes, they can create bad experiences. It IS a catch-22. I think on balance, Jobs made the right decision. But it’s a collection of these kinds of decisions that marginalize the product from the mainstream. I don’t think he really cares if it is a mainstream product, and I think that’s okay, and more importantly is very smart business.

It’s just too bad he hasn’t yet found a way to realize the dream of “a computer for everyone.” He’s the genius that could do it. And criticizing that as a goal not worth writing about is valid too. It’s just my perspective 🙂

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8 Andrew Lombardi May 22, 2010 at 10:30 am

Interesting article, I definitely hear a lot of the points being made in your article and in the Daniel Lyons article from yesterday. Let’s take each of the gripes in turn:

1. No Flash – Who cares? The demo of Flash on Android doesn’t work for more than a few minutes without crashing, and the more interesting apps like Hulu don’t work and might not be able to work due to licensing issues anyway. And can you list out any Flash-based sites that you’re going to miss that isn’t “an app”?

2. Developer interoperability – This is a red herring. Apple has been burned before and wants to retain control of the platform and features they provide in their devices. Sure these abstraction-based API’s that allow you to write to multiple platforms are time savers, but mostly you end up with half-baked implementations that must conform to the lowest common denominator. Apple’s promise has always been that they’ll provide the best hardware, best OS, and best software possible — this is a question of quality.

Google gives you the open and free path, which I *love*. But ask anyone about the apps in the store and you get a different story. Worrying about the right version, if it will crash on your device because the handset maker included a much modified version of Android? This is the promise that Windows has provided, and who can honestly say they’ve completely enjoyed every aspect of using a PC with Windows on it.

Apple’s products aren’t self limiting, they’re iterative. Sure Google “announced” tons of things at their I/O conference, but what’s the use of having tons of features if only half of them are useful, or even work.

My biggest gripe after having iPhone’s for 3 years — is AT&T. They’ve definitely got the money to make their network better, but it hasn’t happened.

I’d venture to say that the biggest difference between now and the 80’s when Apple lost out to Microsoft, is the size of the market. Apple has dominated the hearts and minds of folks who want a “smart” device. And Apple is the market leader in machines that are over $1000. I’d guess that if all goes according to Apple’s grand vision, the iPad will push that market leader number down to the $500+.

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9 Colin Campbell May 22, 2010 at 5:33 am

Get your facts straight. Steve Jobs left Apple. He was not fired. The Mac was wildly succesful until windows 95 was introduced. That’s when Apple stopes innovating. I dint think Apple has stop innovating, and I suspect the best is yet to come.

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10 vinod May 22, 2010 at 4:46 am

Steve Jobs would make a great dictator.

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11 Duncan May 22, 2010 at 4:25 am

A simple example: no arrow keys on the ipad. Steve Jobs apparently made this decision to force websites to be redesigned or apps built that mean this isn’t an issue.

Well Steve – most brands don’t have the resource or budget for that, and whilst they may lose users as a result, some consuemrs may instead label the lack of arrow keys “stupid” “annoying” or plain “arrogant” and move to Windows/Chrome/other OS on a different tablet.

I’m saying that an I’m an iPad owner who is happy with his device – 95% of the time. Not 100%, Steve.

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