There were stories today that Apple slashed Retina iPad screen orders from Sharp. There was little context or analysis, and little attempt to tell the reader what it may and may not mean, simply citing one or two anonymous sources. It follows a similar story from the Wall Street Journal last week about iPhone 5 screen orders being cut, suffering from similarly poor context and analysis, citing similar sources.
There hasn't been a single Apple keynote yet this year. Tim Cook, Phil Schiller, Craig Federghi, Eddy Cue and Jony Ive haven't taken a single step onto a single stage, or shown off one atom of new hardware or one bit of new software or services. Yet Apple has taken a huge hit on the market and in mind share, areas that, until very recently, they dominated.
If you wanted to plan an assault on Apple, you couldn't do a much better job.
You take a company at the height of their powers and value, manufacturing the largest amount of the best hardware ever released, and you write articles calling it boring and claiming it lacks innovation. You make them the headline in a series of articles in a major newspaper, casting them as the big bad in everything from Chinese factories to local retail outlets. You use them to jumpstart your own manufacturing processes, you clone their product lines, and then you run adds making fun of the people who buy their products, painting them as brainwashed and bamboozled, as hopelessly uncool and cluelessly unhip. You dump product at cost or just above it, commoditizing and undermining the hardware that makes them money. You frighten their shareholders with rumors of low demand, and spread false expectation that new products and new products alone, endless, impossible streams of them, are the only way to ensure the company's very survival.
You attack their brand perception and market valuation at every level, and in ways very difficult for a highly focused, highly secretive public company to respond.
Yet, whether you believe it's by coordinated intention, consequential destiny, or simply a confluence of events, none of this is new. Traders talked about attacking the stock as far back as the iPhone's Macworld launch. BlackBerry, Microsoft, and Palm all tried attacking the iPhone's usability and feature sets. And dumb click-bait articles were dished out and devoured long before Apple even shipped their products.
But Apple was the underdog then, the rebel, the disruptor, the shiny new thing, and none of it mattered very much. No longer. Now they're the establishment, the mainstream, the status quo, the iteration, and cliched as it sounds, there's only one way left to go.
Daring Fireball's John Gruber has pointed out several times that this is something that has plagued Apple from the beginning. It's a cycle based on much older perceptions. That Apple is inherently flawed, and any success it has is a fluke. That Apple has bright, brief moments of Apple II and Mac and iPod, built up each time only to come tumbling back down again. Now it's the iPhone and iPads turn.
Yes, Apple has new leadership. It's Tim Cook now, and not Steve Jobs at the helm. Yes, Google and Samsung, once close partners, are now fierce competition. Yes, Apple has new competition, competition that use to be close partners. It's the services expertise of Google and manufacturing muscle of Samsung, and no longer the software of Microsoft or the devices of BlackBerry and Nokia. Yes, when BlackBerry 10 launches in a few weeks, iOS will be the oldest major operating system in mobile, and not the newest. And yes, Apple's stock, once absurdly low, currently getting kicked in the gut, has made them among the most highly valued -- and targeted -- in the world.
But it's impossible to point to anything delivered by Apple in the 2012 and say it's substantively different than what was delivered by them two years ago or four years ago when they were riding high in minds and markets, or different on average than what's being delivered by their competition today.
It's perception. It's psychology. It's how the unbeatable fighter, once scratched, is suddenly seen as beatable. It's how the only cool product option, once questioned, is suddenly just one among many options.
This, as much as software and services is the challenge Apple faces this year -- that the invincible and infallible titan that could do no wrong, has now lost that luster, and has become quite vincible. That where once bullets bounced off their chest, and they leapt whole markets in a single bound, now their enemies have found their kryptonite.
It's why we're being inundated with blogger ennui and pundit apathy. It's why we're being subjected to endless opinion pieces saying Apple needs a TV, or a watch, or an espresso maker, and bigger, cheaper, more colorful versions of all of it, and faster.
But here's the thing -- Apple has been here before. They've been to the very bottom, and they came back. Apple knows they're beatable -- that everyone is beatable -- and they know how to fight their way back. It's part of them now. It's why they make less expensive products rather than cheap ones, and why, up-cycle or down-, they'll stay profitable and stay in the fight. They'll keep making the best products they can, which may cost them in trends but keep them in business.
That experience, that understanding, is what makes Apple so interesting to watch not only month to month, but year to year and cycle to cycle.
Crazy stories will continue. Competition will increase. Click-bait will thrive. Pressure will only increase. And Apple will have to address it, on stage, on shelves, and online.
And it's what's going to make 2013 so interesting.
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