Innovate, or die on the vine: the decline of Apple?

The aphorism “nothing lasts forever” may seem naive when talking about the seemingly ubiquitous reach and influence of the companies Google, Apple, Facebook or Amazon, increasingly lumped together into the monolith GAFA. But empires have been known to rise and fall. Viral epidemics have been seen to burn up and eventually burn out. And so too, rationally, at least one of these giants will decline. For better or for worse, I’d put my money on Apple (or, rather, not put money on it) going down first.

The main differentiating factor from GOOG, AMZN and FB is that Apple is primarily a product-based company: one whose relevance and worth comes from consumer demand. It’s indisputable that Apple products have revolutionized the device market and society’s interaction with technology (most notably with the release of the iPhone in 2007), but the challenge in today’s consumer market is to continually innovate with the next better, game-changing product. Apple’s innovation has markedly not made the same world-shaking moves since its “visionary” founder Steve Jobs passed away in 2011. Frequent re-releases of the iPhone and MacBook, marketed as upgrades, have included changes that aren’t so much innovative as unnecessary and inconvenient (the removal of seemingly every port, on every product, for example).  On the latest, the iPhoneX “is” its OLED screen– which is, in Apple’s own words, “similar to Samsung phones.” 

With a thousand-dollar price tag, and an OLED screen not just similar but actually manufactured by Samsung, is the iPhone’s OS enough to keep users engaged and loyal to the iPhone? Analysts believe that iPhoneX sales have been slower than expected since its release Fall 2017.  True, Apple’s stock recovered after a dip in December and now is almost as high as it’s ever beenbut if the company continues on its trajectory of improvements for improvement’s sake, consumers will lose faith in the product, especially if there are many other less expensive and equally innovative devices coming out of Asia, Europe or Google. 

It’s no surprise that most commercial tech products are designed and built with a measure of planned obsolescence in mind: the competitive landscape means that companies’ priority is to sell more products more often, not one great product that will last decades. However, when legislative bodies start to push back against product flaws designed for financial gain, Apple’s credibility and consumer trust will again falter. Planned obsolescence can not be a sustainable business model. Shrinking mineral resources will mean that constantly “upgraded” models will increase beyond reasonable consumer prices; the consumer will seek the products they believe will give them the best mileage for their money, and the last few years of iPhone and MacBook models have shown Apple to have an unsatisfactory track record on this front. 

With the competition in tech products fierce, it makes sense that Apple has been putting its energy into other avenues, notably research and development for self-driving cars. However, critics suspect that investments into an Apple smartcar have been scaled back to focusing on the smart automation, the technology under the hood– a subtle but not insignificant signal that Apple may not be the innovation driver it once was. 

Altogether, as long as Apple relies on consumer trust and interest as its revenue stream while continuing its current trajectory, it will not sustain its place among the tech quadrumvirate. There is too much strong competition and growing consumer dissatisfaction to assume that Apple will always stay on top.

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