updated 01:00 pm EDT, Wed May 22, 2013
Says company must create game-changing products more often
In a article that could have been written by Samsung's advertising department, the Sydney Morning Herald has published an article detailing claims from "social researcher" Michael McQueen, who tracks the ever-shifting tastes of the group he calls "Gen-Y" (meaning people who reached their teenage years after 2001). In it, he says that despite wide evidence to the contrary, Apple is "losing its cool" with youth.
McQueen says that Apple has already hit its peak on his "relevance curve" (which tracks a company's importance to its core market), and added that he believed the company could be "largely irrelevant" to people under 30 within five years -- unless, of course, Apple brings out another new product that finds an audience during that time. Painting the Gen-Y crowd as considerably more shallow and fickle than loyalty studies have so far indicated, McQueen claims that Apple is "past the turning point" unless it can "release another game-changing product like they did with the iPhone and iPad. It's been a long time between drinks for them."
Though his statement seemingly ignores the fact that "game-changing products" from tech companies other than Apple that up-end established industries on a similar scale are exceedingly rare, McQueen thinks that "the next 12 months" will be "absolutely critical" for Apple if it wants to maintain its status among younger buyers. "They're not as hot as they were two years ago," he said.
As proof, he points to an annual ranking of innovative companies published by Forbes magazine -- not normally known for its insight into the under-30 crowd -- that listed Apple as the 26th most innovative company, down from fifth place the year before. McQueen claims that the "rising profile" of companies like Samsung is creating a "subtle shift in what's now cool."
Though it is certainly true that the younger end of the "Generation Y" spectrum change their tastes more quickly than older demographics, there remains little evidence to support McQueen's postulations. The iPad and iPhone remain the most wished-for tech items on teens' Christmas lists, and a recent survey of high-schoolers showed declining interest in non-Apple brands of smartphones or tablets. The iPhone 5 and the nearly two-year-old iPhone 4S (and the nearly three-year-old iPhone 4) remain in the top four top-selling individual smartphone brands in the world.
While Apple certainly could lose its cache among young people if it fell seriously behind its competitors, there's again little evidence that this is going to happen. A new, restyled iPad and spec-bumped iPad mini -- along with both a new iPhone "5S" model and a possible low-cost iPhone variant -- are expected this year, as is a refreshed MacBook lineup, a new Mac Pro and potentially all-new Apple products such as the rumored branded HDTV device. Both iOS and OS X are likely to get a refresh and design overhaul this year, and other software is likely to see significant updates as well.
Still, there is a perception -- particularly on Wall Street -- that Apple has slowed its innovation cycle since the death of its visionary co-founder, Steve Jobs. Again, this view ignores the historical record for the company, but the four-year gap between the release of the first iPhone and the first iPad has created the impression that consumers should expect another revolutionary product every four years, which means that another such product is "due" over the course of the next year -- and that Apple will suffer if one does not appear on "schedule."
McQueen does point out that both Sony and BlackBerry were once kings of their own respective hills, but failed to take into account the changing needs of the emerging younger consumers and consequently fell -- and very quickly. BlackBerry had 42.6 percent of the business smartphone market in 2010; today it clings to around five percent. He says that the decay usually starts when management atrophies into groupthink, not bringing in fresh talent to shake things up and keep the company from becoming isolated from its base.
Fortunately, Apple has -- as much as is possible -- a culture of reinvention. Under Jobs, the company would routinely create new versions of products such as iPods that made the older models not just uncool but practically obsolete by looks alone. It embraced a philosophy that it would rather invent the successor to a popular product before someone else does, and Cook has vowed to foster that kind of thinking.
To a significant extent, he has already shown that its possible for Apple to innovate without Jobs. Mountain Lion has many significant new features that put it far ahead of the last couple of OS X releases; the iPhone 5 was a daring redesign that continues to sell like a brand new model seven months after release, and the iPad mini -- a sizing that Jobs famously opposed but accepted in the end -- has likely surpassed its big brother in sales.
With new versions of iOS and OS X ahead and potentially some all-new products, Apple is likely to continue its role as the leading industry innovator for a long time to come. Whether it's enough to satisfy the famously attention-challenged under-30s of today remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: succeed or fail, Apple has no intention of resting on its laurels.