In less than a week, on September 9, Apple will hold one of its most highly anticipated product launch events ever. The company is expected to announce not one but two new iPhones, and possibly the long-rumored iWatch.
Apart from the hype, which seems as intense as any in the company’s heavily promoted history, these launches will make or break Apple’s position as the most dominant, most innovative, and most profitable company in the mobile space. Ironically, however, the launches pose two completely different challenges for Apple.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has been promising that Apple's product pipeline is “chock full” of “incredible stuff” since at least January. January 2013, that is. He’s claimed that Apple is in a “unique position” to enter and dominate new categories—widely assumed to mean TV and wearables. He’s said that the product pipeline “has never been stronger.” Apple exec Steve Cue said Apple has "the best product pipeline I've seen in 25 years." Wow, right?
But the public hasn’t seen any of it yet. Instead, we’ve watched Apple spend billions on the still-inexplicable purchase of Beats Audio and introduce a radically changed mobile operating system. iOS7—and now iOS 8—offer lots of new features, but also a polarizing flat design that many professed to hate when it was first introduced. And there has been a well-received new programming language, Swift, as well as updated versions of the flagship iPhone 5. All well and good, but hardly game-changing on a Steve Jobs scale.
A "big" challenge in smartphones
In fact, so far Apple has whiffed on perhaps the biggest trend in mobile phones. Over the last year or two, it’s become clear that many, many people want bigger phones—much bigger phones. But Apple actively fought the preference for phablets, and is now trying to play catch up. That’s not the end of the world, as long as Apple really does catch up to the trend eventually. And September 9 seems like the company’s last, best chance to do that or risk ceding the phablet market to Samsung and the legions of other Android makers.
Can Apple save wearables?
The challenge in wearables is exactly opposite. When it comes to smartwatches, Apple isn’t fighting competitors as much as trying to show that a struggling category still has a future. So far, no one has been able to come up with a truly compelling wearable computing product. The smartwatches are all ugly and awkward. Google Glass has been a marketing disaster. If Apple can’t make the category work, and soon, wearables’ window of opportunity may pass for an extended period of time.
As usual, before a major Apple product launch, the company’s stock is soaring as fanboy investors anticipate a blockbuster. Often, the stock falls no matter what is introduced, as the reality can never meet the hyper-inflated expectations. This time, though, the stakes seem higher.
Steve Jobs has been gone for a while, and people are beginning to wonder if Apple still has its old magic. Apple doesn’t have to come up with a completely surprising new game-changing product—that’s hard to do in the age of constant leaks—but it darn well better deliver on at least some of the “amazing” things Cook has promised, or people (OK, me) are going to lose faith. And the stock will likely take a swan dive, too.