The Apple double standard

Pundits expect the world from Apple, but curiously not from any other company.

If you go back to the mid 2000's, pundits were sure that Apple's best days were behind them. After all, they reasoned, how can they follow up the incredible success of the iPod?

Flash forward to the late 2000's, and those same pundits were quick to point out that Apple was toast. Sure, the iPod and iPhone were both runaway hits, and sure, Steve Jobs did an admirable job turning around a company that was once on the brink of bankruptcy, but what was next? Again, the consensus was clear - Apple's best days were a thing of the past.

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Before the iPad was unveiled, a slew of analysts and self-professed experts were quick to argue that Apple was losing ground. Netbooks were the wave of the future and Apple, they reasoned, may have tapped out their well of innovation.

Hell, even after the iPad was released, the initial reaction was rather tepid. But, as we all know, Apple sold one million iPads in less than half the time it took for Apple to sell 1 million first-gen iPhones. This past October, Apple announced that it had sold over 100 million iPads in just 2.5 years and that 94% of Fortune 500 companies were using Apple's tablet in an official capacity.

But of course, Apple's characterization as nothing more than a fad lingers on.

The point here is that no matter what Apple does, critics are quick to chime in and assert that Apple's brilliance has come to a halt. Somehow, the forces at work behind the secretive walls at 1 Infinite Loop, the forces that conjured up game-changing products like the iMac and the iPhone, are now nothing more than confused has-been's trying in vain to catch up to innovators like Google, and, if you believe morons like Rob Enderle, RIM.

Never mind the fact that the iPod turned the entire music industry on its head. Never mind the fact that most successful notebooks today resemble designs first popularized by Apple. Never mind the fact that the blueprint of the modern day smartphone remains the original iPhone. Never mind the fact that competitors are scrambling wildly to copy the success and design of the iPad.

Forget all of these things, because when it comes to Apple, the "what have you done for me lately?" mentality reigns supreme. This in spite of the fact that Apple upgraded its entire product line in 2012: completely revamped iPods, the hyper-successful launch of the iPhone 5, new Macs, and of course the iPad Mini. That's an extremely agressive upgrade cycle for a company, that if you read the headlines, has seemingly forgotten what innovation even is.

For some bizarre reason, Apple is always being chastised for not introducing the "next big thing" at every event, as if innovative and disruptive products are simply formed out of thin air and should be delivered on a timely schedule, like opening day of Major League Baseball.

A recent article by Dan Pallota of HBR really drives the point home.

The critics that are screaming right now are intellectually lazy. They're throwing temper tantrums instead of looking at the big picture. Like two-year-olds, they don't really know what they want. And they're not happy when they get it, anyway. Apple could unveil a new car and they'd say Apple's days are over because it's just bet its future on an industry it knows nothing about. Not unlike, say, Apple's entrance into the mobile phone industry. I bet that if Apple did unveil a time machine, they'd claim it wasn't fast enough.

Pallota astutely points out that Jobs was at Apple for 4 years before the iPod was introduced. And an astounding 5+ years elapsed between the arrival of the iPod and the release of the iPhone.

The point here is that Apple hasn't magically regressed into the Apple of the 1990s simply because Steve Jobs is no longer here. In fact, Apple under the reign of Steve Jobs was itself fraught with flops and missteps - MobileMe, Ping, the G4 Cube are just a few examples.

Yet for some reason, Apple is not only never allowed to fail, its successes are quickly glossed over while competing products like the Microsoft Surface are lauded as products of the future.

Here's the typical thought process for how pundits and analysts typically cover Apple:

Scenario A: Because Apple has no economical iPhone model for emerging markets, it's inevitably going to lose a lot of marketshare to Android. Apple is toast.

or

Scenario B: Apple is releasing a more economical iPhone? It's margins are going to take a hit. Apple really needs to innovate or else it's going to become the new Microsoft. Apple is clearly desperate.

Apple is damned if it does and is damned if it doesn't.

Curiously, cold hard data doesn't really matter with Apple. Double-digit growth, skyrocketing revenue and profits, these all mean nothing to Wall St. But give the folks on Wall Street a rumor from an anonymous source regarding fewer food deliveries to an iPhone manufacturing plant and everyone goes crazy.

The same can't be said for other tech behemoths.

During the third quarter of 2012, for example, Amazon posted revenue of $13.18 billion and a net loss of $274 million. Nevertheless, shares of Amazon did not plumment and are currently trading at what is close to an all-time high. And, on the other hand, we have Apple, a company so profitable that if making money hand-over-fist were a crime, it would be sent to death row. And yet shares of Apple, in case you haven't been paying attention this week, are trading at 52-week-low levels. Not only have investors latched onto the WSJ story regarding Apple's reduction in iPhone 5 display orders, but now analysts are coming out of the woodwork singing the same old tune about how Apple's innovation is tapped out. And yet, Apple next week may very well announce its most profitable quarter in company history, or at the very least, come very close to it.

What's more, companies like Samsung are praised for being more Apple-like while Apple itself is lambasted for sticking to the same formula that got it to where it is today. Investors and analysts tout Samsung sales figures and profits without fail, but disregard those same metrics when looking at Apple, instead focusing on less-tangible issues such as future product innovation and whether or not Tim Cook can fill Steve Jobs' shoes.

If Coke delivers monster earnings, will anyone be taking a step back and ask about future innovations in the soft drink industry?

John Gruber nails it when he asks why other tech companies like Samsung aren't held to the same standard?

Why just Apple? Why does no one argue that Samsung “needs” to unveil a major new disruption? What harm would Apple suffer if they spent the next five years refining and growing the products already in their stable? They’re already the most profitable technology company in the world, and their three major platforms — iPhone, iPad, and Mac — are all growing. They don’t need to change a damn thing.

As Gruber explains, it sure would be great if Apple delivered amazing innovations on a consistent basis. After all, who wouldn't want a new and revolutionary HDTV from Apple next year? Maybe Apple will deliver it and maybe it won't. But the sky isn't falling, and Apple didn't get to where it is today by following the latest fads and trends.

The market's expectations with regard to Apple have never been fair and perhaps it never will be. And through it all, Apple has steadily become one of the most profitable companies on the planet. At the same time, many companies tremble at the idea of Apple entering a new product category. Because more often than not when Apple releases a new product, it's a runaway hit. But innovative products like the iPhone don't come along every year, or even every four years - that's why such products are so special when they are released.

Innovation has nothing to do with R&D dollars, and it isn't solely a function of super smart people working together on a common goal. Sometimes innovation takes time. Sometimes a perfect storm of events and market conditions needs to manifest before the aforementioned super smart people working in unison can pounce and release something truly great.

Perhaps the next great innovation will come from Apple. Or maybe not. Perhaps the next big thing will come from Google or some small startup that no one has ever heard of. That's all conjecture, and indeed, the unknown is what makes following all of these tech developments so exciting.

But here's what we do know.

Apple's latest new products - the iPad Mini and the iPhone 5 - are reportedly being snatched up faster than Apple can make them. Consequently, to declare that Apple is yesterday's news is absolutely foolish. And pundits who pound their fists and demand that Apple should have released an innovative and revolutionary new product last month completely miss the point - and the fact that no other company in tech is held to the same standard is the Apple double standard at work.

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