Did Apple blow it, big time?

Apple screwed up badly with their latest phone introduction. And let’s be completely-clear about exactly what they screwed up. It wasn’t the phone. The iPhone4S is a darned fine phone, with substantial upgrades over those that came before. Apple got the phone right. So what went wrong?

Mismanaged expectations. Apple’s cult of secrecy requires, no, demands that, no matter how wild the rumors, the actual product blows people away. That didn’t happen this time; we were led to believe that an iPhone5 would be released, a phone so vastly improved and revolutionary that polls said some ridiculous percentage of cellphone users would upgrade to it. In fact, the rumors became increasingly outlandish as we got closer to launch, the opposite of what would normally happen (the final straw being a deal with Sprint that would have them being the sole carrier of the imaginary iPhone5  for an indeterminate amount of time).

Apple normally relishes free publicity and has brazenly used it to its advantage. But couldn’t they have tried to keep a lid on the more absurd stuff? Couldn’t Apple have “leaked” out some accurate information here & there, or admitted that a particular rumor was indeed accurate (but of course vowed to discover the source of the rumor and make them face the extreme wrath of a corporation scorned)?

What was the thinking inside Apple as the rumor mill created expectations of grotesque proportions? Did Apple really think it could benefit from such exaggerations? Or was the truth (regarding the final product) known to so few Apple employees that, in fact, their own people were caught off-guard in the end?

The real irony is that the new phone is pretty darned cool and in nearly every way worthy of being called an iPhone5. It’s faster, apparently has better reception (new antenna management), longer battery life and huge improvements to the camera, such that some will, in fact, see the new iPhone as being capable of replacing inexpensive point & shoots. And the new Siri voice-control app is very cool.

So why not just call it an iPhone5? How much disappointment over the product comes simply from keeping the same name as its predecessor? The only reason I can see for calling it a variant of the current product is that it looks like the current product. In fact, you wonder what Apple was thinking, putting new & better guts into the same case as the older unit. The phone is different-enough, internally, but doesn’t look different-enough for people to see that hey, you’ve got the new phone! Or for users to rationalize that it’s cool for others to see that they’ve got the cool new phone. Can you imagine a company like Coach (that sells higher-end women’s handbags) coming out with an “improved” version of a purse that, externally, looked exactly like one people had before? It could have better internal dividers, it could weigh less, it could even be more-comfortable to carry, but it wouldn’t look new.

It makes me wonder if, in fact, the original plan was for a cheaper version of the iPhone4 which would actually benefit from association with its fancier, pricier, earlier namesake. And in addition, an iPhone5 that might have had the exact same features as the 4s announced today, but in an updated case. Something went seriously wrong though; maybe Apple’s concept of a fancy new case couldn’t be built in time, yet the company was under pressure to get something out quickly (resulting in iPhone5 guts put into an iPhone4 case).

The iPhone4s has the makings of a great phone and is a significant improvement over what came before. How Apple managed to screw things up might become the next New Coke/Classic Coke debacle, something studied in marketing classes for years to come. Except for one thing. Apple is in a far more precarious position with their faithful, because many will assume this is proof that Steve Jobs can’t be replaced, and knowing that he isn’t coming back, the company’s next steps aren’t likely to be taken as seriously as before. To prove Apple could prosper in the post-Jobs era, they had to hit this one out of the park. They had the makings of at least an in-the-park home run with the product itself. But the marketing and packaging showed Apple hitting into a double play.

Thankfully there were no outs when Apple came to the plate, but as far as worldwide unstoppable consumer dominance is concerned, it feels like it’s the bottom of the 9th and Apple’s down to their last out. The “Apple can do no wrong” feeling among its fanbase is gone.

8 thoughts on “Did Apple blow it, big time?

  1. Hi Mike,

    I agree with your observations for the most part, but I think the conclusions here are too dire. Apple will do well with the new phone (which is a winner in many ways, as you point out) . It really isn’t the post-Jobs era yet and momentum will continue. The next-gen iPhone will indeed have to be a sensation to meet another round of swelling expectations.

    Of course, time will tell.



  2. d’oh! it’s not apple’s responsibility to keep up with the bullshit from the rumour-mongers. the ones who got it wrong were the idiots claiming it’d be a new iphone5 with a stunned looking tapered case. why that becomes apple’s fault is really curious.

    by analogy, does that mean obama is at fault because all the progressive idiots thought he was the new fdr when in fact he was just the slightly less inept second-coming of george w?

    anyone who puts credence on the rumour mongers is a fool. apple is run by professionals, not idiot bloggers ….

  3. Apple never hyped a iphone 5, the phones have followed the same order 3 3g 3gs 4, who would think it would just jump to a 5. I am considering a new iphone, based on the camera alone. I always use that on my bike rides. Plus with the new camera speed, i can snap the photo of a license plate of a camera in less then a second, could make a big difference. Iphone was already the most popular selling phone and now they made it better. People will continue to buy. With Job’s passing the new iphone has new meaning iphone (4S)teve…………

    1. Justin: You’re absolutely correct, Apple never said anything about what their next iPhone would be like, and, as you pointed out, they did have both a 3G and a 3GS (don’t think they had a plain old 3 did they?). But for the latest version the longer product cycle may have worked to increase expectations and fuel rumors of a product beyond what Apple could deliver. As those rumors became positively outrageous (the best example being the Sprint exclusive I had mentioned in my piece, which was picked up by no less than the Wall Street Journal), Apple had to consider whether it was business as usual (“usual” in this case being their past history of delivering product that actually lived up to the rumors) or try to tone things down a bit by factually discrediting some of the rumors. Apple could have said “Why are people so infatuated with the #5? We’re satisfied that we’ve laid the groundwork for a series of phones based upon the iPhone4, the most-successful cell phone in the world. ” OK, that’s pretty klunky; I’m sure Apple could had said it a whole lot better.

      Will I buy an iPhone4s? You bet. Even if my iPhone4 hadn’t been pick-pocketed in France this past July, I would have gone for the new phone if only for the camera alone. The faster performance will be nice as well, although I really didn’t have issues with the iPhone4 in that area. I think it’s a darned fine product, and, for me, I can’t think of anything that disappoints me, aside from a desire for a slightly-larger screen. –Mike–

  4. The 2 year product upgrade cycle from contract terms isn’t near the end, so this isn’t the time for a brand new product. Too many iPhone 4 users aren’t ready to upgrade, and neither are the buyers of the finally good Android phones. Instead Apple has more networks and more lower priced options which greatly expands their market.

    How do bike companies deal with this, where almost all changes are internal? This years Madone looks almost the same as the last and drastic changes are thing like the head tube getting thicker? Maybe it helps that the time between bikes is larger so the small yearly changes add up.

    1. Brian: The “good Android phones” are precisely the reason Apple has to consider a 2 year product cycle excessive. And you’re right, the iPhone4 was/is a great phone; for most, there really isn’t a compelling reason to upgrade. Yet Apple did come out with a new phone, and that new phone is a substantial improvement in many areas over the prior phone. Improved enough that it would have had no issue whatsoever being called an iPhone5 if it had come in a different case. Twice as fast in normal tasts, 7x faster for graphics (and game playing is becoming a big thing on mobile phones), potentially improved reception with the new antenna switching scheme (if Apple has a solid patent on that and it actually works, that could be a really big usability plus… who knew, making improvement to the phone part of a phone?)… I can’t wait to get mine. Seriously.

      Bike companies are held hostage by Shimano. They are not in control of their own destiny; they have to work around Shimano’s product cycles. Nobody can afford to be late to the game with the latest DuraAce or Ultegra group. Trek operates on a three year product cycle for high-end frames, which is reasonable. Their hand was forced in 2009 with the UCI’s ruling on aero seat posts, cutting short the product cycle of the first of the “new” Madones (those with seatmasts instead of seatposts). 2010, 2011 & 2012 6-series framesets are nearly-identical, the only changes being to the fork column (making it more tolerant of ham-fisted customers & mechanics) and graphics. Oh, and the introduction in 2011 of the “SSL” version, weighing in at 2 ounces less than the standard 6. I would call that a far less significant upgrade than the iPhone4 to iPhone4s. –Mike–

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