When the exceptional becomes commonplace, Apple is in deep trouble

I, like many other tech fanboys, was glued to my computer screen early this month during Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference keynote. What new products or software would be revealed? Would the rumored iWatch be shown? Was Apple going to (finally) update the MacPro? What would the new version of the iPhone operating system going to look like? And so on.

Many things were announced (no iWatch, though), with the biggest being the new operating system for the iPhone and iPad, iOS7. It’s a near-complete redesign of the “presentation layer” of the operating system, and features several new functions intended on improving the experience. I’ve been using the iOS 7 beta for two weeks now and it’s… OK. It’s slick, minimalistic and new enough to engage users… but it’s not groundbreaking. It’s an incremental improvement, not an exceptional one.

Adding insult to injury, Apple’s recent “Designed by Apple in California” has turned off many viewers, because (in my opinion) the ads make Apple look like a pretentious company that is better than any other one in the world… and you should be grateful whenever they “deem” a new product should exist.

Pundits has been beating up Apple a lot over the past few months, criticizing the lack of innovation over the past year and many say it’s best days are behind them. Could this be true? Or is the problem bigger, something Apple itself helped to create? Here’s some of my thoughts on where Apple is and why Apple could be in deep trouble.

The baseline has shifted

When Apple came out with the iPhone six years ago, it was groundbreaking. It was a brand new way of looking at the smartphone, and within two years every company in the world were releasing devices that looked a lot like the iPhone. Google created its own operating system for touch-screen smartphones and started licensing it to any company who wanted it. Microsoft created a new paradigm for their smartphones, a more object-oriented model in contract to the app-centric model of the iPhone and Google phones. And so on. A similar cycle of product releases occurred with the release of the iPad, and you now see tablet computers being sold by everyone, everywhere.

One of the key principles I look at as a product or software designer is something called the Kano model. This is a model used in product development where features are evaluated based on customer perception. Where the features exceptional, and perceived as “delighters”? Were they part of the “baseline” that customers expected from the product? Or were they detractors, aspects that provoked a negative response? The challenge with applying this model is understanding that the baseline is always shifting… over time we grow accustomed to the “delighters”, and those cutting-edge features becomes the new normal.

What was exceptional became commonplace. Hence, the problem with Apple. iOS7 is good, but not great. It keeps Apple “in the game”, but it doesn’t move the needle in the same way that the original iPhone did. To paraphrase a line from Shakespeare: the fault lies not in Apple but in ourselves. We have gotten so used to the new baseline, the one that Apple helped to create, that we aren’t “wowed” by incremental improvements. We expect more, because we have gotten used to so much.

Microsoft and the long game

For years Microsoft worked on cool concepts that never got out of the lab, and when products were released… They often failed to impress or making much of an impact. Only with the XBox has Microsoft made a significant cultural impact, bringing an impressive console to living rooms around the world. When it comes to public perception, Microsoft was always a distant second to Apple when it comes to innovation… and I’m sure that perception frustrated many Microsoft employees.

Let’s flashback in time a few years… 1995, to be precise. Robert X. Cringley wrote and produced a documentary about computers called Triumph of the Nerds. I recently rewatched it, and was struck by how completely on top of the industry Microsoft was, and how very much “on the ropes” Apple was. Microsoft had, effectively, won in a knock-out and was clearly in charge. Apple had fired its co-founder Steve Jobs and was floundering.

I very frequently quote a saying that is attributed to Mark Twain, and it is this: History don’t repeat, but it sure does rhyme. Once, as we saw in Triumph of the Nerds, Apple was the underdog in a fight to prove it was still relevant. To do that, they brought back Steve Jobs and started a cycle of innovation and product design that changed the world. Right now, Microsoft is a similar underdog when it comes to perceptions… and they like Apple before them, doesn’t like it. Apple needs to watch out, because Microsoft doesn’t like being second in anything… and they are working very hard to win again.

And when it comes to innovation, it’s about deeds not words. What upcoming operating system will have built-in drivers and supports for the latest cutting edge technology, 3D printing? Not OS X. Its Windows 8.1.

What type of cutting-edge technology is Apple adding to the next OS X? The ability to add tags to files. Umm… yeah.

Not saying that Microsoft will eventually “take the Innovation crown” away from Apple, but I will say this. Microsoft looks very motivated to try new things (and sometimes some of those ideas won’t work – see the recent XBox One kerfuffle). Apple, being on top, looks to be playing defense… and that’s not a good place to be when you have aggressive competitors nipping at your heels.

The solution: be bold

So, how does Apple respond to the critics? How do they create a new baseline and produce a product that changes the world once more? The key, in my opinion, is to be bold. To pursue true innovation, not change for sake of it. Why isn’t Apple making a consumer 3D printer? Why isn’t Apple pushing the boundaries when it comes to personal payments?

Now, I have the same amount of knowledge of Apple’s product roadmap as you do… which is to say, none. They may be cooking up some remarkable technology and products that will blow our minds… or they may not. We’ll see. And obviously, if I’m aware of stuff like the Kano model, the folks at Apple are certainly on top of it as well. The key is what they are going to do about it. Will Apple rest on its laurels and be beaten by Google and Microsoft? Will they once again pull an amazing invention out that wows everyone? Who knows.

All I know is this: The competition benefits all of us, because it drives innovation and experimentation. It makes the good even better, while lowering the cost of ownership. Whatever the future brings – and whatever logos adorn the gadgets of choice – we will have some really cool things that will make our lives better and richer than they were before.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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