For better or worse, we begin 2018 in the wake of some historically significant political shifts. Across the U.S., Europe and beyond, establishment thinking and received wisdom failed to predict the electoral upheavals of 2016. In this piece, we explore some upheavals in the tech world that might also come sooner rather than later, manifesting a similar reaction against products and corporations that are increasingly perceived as both too powerful and too self-serving.
1. Apple will enter a full-blown identity crisis
Some might have thought that the corporate drama of Apple Computer would have ended after the Steve Jobs era – but the controversies that have come to characterize Tim Cook’s tenure have turned out to be just as enthralling.
The company Cook inherited in 2011 was very different from the one that Jobs found when he rejoined Apple in 1997. Jobs was brought in because the company had declined into near-irrelevance by the mid-90s; in contrast, Cook took over one of the largest and most successful companies in the world, boasting a highly desirable range of products and one of the most loyal customer bases around.
So, why this prediction — that 2018 is going to herald an identity crisis for Apple?
Well, things have been brewing for a while. First, there are the dumb design decisions that have characterised Cook’s tenure. Don’t get us wrong – Apple have always had a sideline in eccentric, overpriced, and failed products. Remember the 20th Anniversary Mac? Yeah, I thought not. One of the reasons I can’t forget it is that I think of it every time they show that episode of The Simpsons where Homer designs a car.
The 20th Anniversary Mac vs Homer Simpson’s car design
The doomed “hockey puck” – cute, but useless
Even in the Jobs era, there were some product design howlers, including the notoriously unusable “hockey puck” Apple Mouse that was released in 1998. Then, of course, there were the first-generation plastic MacBooks that first discoloured and then (literally) fell to pieces, earning themselves the nickname of “Crackbooks” in the process.
The top-case fiasco became a familiar sight for owners of the 2006 MacBook.
Dumb decisions in the Cook era have included a mouse that you have to turn upside-down to charge, and a battery pack for your iPhone that looks like a parody product, as well as making your phone look pregnant.
The official Apple Smart Battery Case for iPhone 6. Hmmm.
The 2015 Apple Magic Mouse 2. More hmmm.
Until recently, it was possible to take these eccentricities in good humor, largely because they were not that important. But things have been getting more serious in the past year.
For a start, Apple has embraced its market position and begun to systematically position its products as exclusive, premium alternatives to its run-of-the-mill competitors. This has included significant price hikes for its flagship products. A top-of-the-range MacBook Pro will set you back well over $4,000 with a 2TB hard drive, and the iPhone X begins at $999.
As a strategy, this might have been fine, had it not coincided with a series of increasingly embarrassing product design blunders. The 2016 and 2017 MacBook Pro have widely-reported problems with creaking or cracking screen hinges, and failing keyboards. Add to that some bizarre design decisions – such as adding a largely useless Touch Bar and a comically oversized trackpad – and you start to wonder what is going on.
The late 2016 MacBook Pro – beautiful but botched
The most widely remarked-upon oddity of the iPhone X is the “notch”, though I doubt that’s going to be an enduring objection to the product; it may indeed prove to be a very useful piece of branding at a time when other “all-screen” smartphones are pretty much indistinguishable from one another.
More likely to hit the iPhone X’s reputation are emerging security problems with FaceID, which, combined with the product’s exceptionally high price, may go some way to explaining the reportedly slow sales of the handset and its rumoured discontinuation.
The iPhone X from 2017
In short, Apple has set itself up as being better than the rest, but has got into a bad habit of releasing products – both hardware and software – that can’t really support that claim, especially given that the quality of PC and Android products have increased markedly over the past 5 years.
In just the past few weeks, this mismatch between the company’s positioning, and what it is tending to deliver, was painfully evident in the disastrous flaws that MacOS High Sierra shipped with. One bug even allowed anyone to log in to any Mac as an administrator without a password, which led Apple to issue an emergency fix and a grovelling apology. Such a basic error would be inexcusable in a bargain-basement product; that it happened in a major release of MacOS is astonishing from a company that has set itself up as a paragon of virtue in its industry.
Which leads us to our prediction. It’s within Apple’s power to turn things around this year, but it’s going to be difficult. Some of these issues are probably evidence of failing processes within the company – for example, inadequate pre-release quality control and software testing – while the loss of genuinely “pro” features in the MacBook Pro in favor of expensive adapters and gimmicks like the Touch Bar show a lack of connection with user needs.
In 2018, if Apple wants to preserve its prime industry position and justify its price tags, it needs to return to real user-centered product design and re-focus on truly exceptional product execution. What’s more likely to happen, we fear, is that we will see another couple of botched product releases and embarrassing security problems, precipitating an identity crisis and maybe even some high-level departures from the company following 4 years of flat-lining revenue growth.