Apple – Genuinely Happy 40th Birthday or Looming Mid-life Crisis?

The ripe old age of 40 is often a time to reflect on your success in life, either looking ahead to more of the same or beginning to worry that the next forty years might be a road downhill. So is Apple set to hold on to its position as the world’s most profitable public company, or is it about to enter its own mid-life crisis, facing stagnant mediocrity, grey hair and the label “has-been”?

There have been many significant milestones in Apple’s biography so far. A company that has inspired a[ clutch of books  and movies, Apple began life on April 1st, 1976, when college drop-out Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak wanted to make computers small enough for people to have them in their homes or offices. It’s a legend-style tale of inventions in a garage, and the birth of the Apple I“the first computer with a typewriter-like keyboard and the ability to connect to a regular TV”. Wozniak simply wanted to show what he could create with few resources, but Jobs recognised its importance and set them both on a path that would lead to a fortieth birthday bigger than a head of state’s. In Apple’s 39th year, the company’s quarterly profits “broke the global quarterly profit record for any public company.”

From radical to incremental innovation

A story of ups and downs, early Apple was all about radical innovation. The first computers have strongly influenced the world we live in – from corporations to living rooms and bedrooms. It’s a journey from fixed to mobile, from large to small, from typing to wearing. The Apple II comes along in 1977, the Macintosh in 1984, its first tablet, The Newton is a disaster in 1993, though it was an example of that original spirit of radical thinking and a willingness to risk failure. The story continues in 2001 as the IPod defines music listening for a generation. 2007 is another big year, as the first IPhone is launched, possibly Apple’s last real foray into radical innovation.

Getting more cautious in middle age

Some writers have suggested that Apple has basically stopped innovating, which is a bit of a harsh, overstated viewpoint. It certainly has focused more in incremental releases of its products, year on year and on creating an ecosystem for its operating system and apps that it tightly controls – a strong point for user security and a real annoyance to customers feeling chained to the corporation’s strategy and wishes. Known as “vendor lock-in“, customers find themselves largely caged within the Apple world. This is fine if you are a die-hard Apple convert, and infuriating if you want the freedom to choose your digital experiences. Some might say that forty-year-old Apple has become an insecure, control-obsessed middle-ager. Others might say its simple keeping us all safe. Certainly there are risks to the open source Android operating system and its App Store that are less in the more closed Apple ecosystem. That said, the rise of Android suggests these are risks many customers are prepared and want the right to take.

It has also most certainly not been the first to market in some key new areas. The Apple Watch was not a first, and we are still waiting for something from Apple in the virtual reality field. It seems the about-to-be forty-something is getting slower and more cautious as it gets older.

Apple has brought beautifully designed, innovative products to the market. Its fan-customers love them, defend them on many forums and will be sending e-birthday cards in their millions. And Apple keeps on innovating. It brings out a new product, sometimes twice in a year, and yet that innovation is now staged, carefully managed, releases are cautious. Innovation has gone carefully incremental and that may be a nail in its coffin if a genuine game changer, currently perhaps tinkering and inventing in a garage somewhere comes along unexpectedly.

The Apple Mid-life crisis begins?

As it turns four decades old, I recommend a smile and a frown. Programmers love Apple and dread Microsoft, it is both loved and hated. And that love-hate relationship stretches a long way back. Most of us don’t like but have become resigned to being locked in by a corporation that upholds freedom and privacy on the one hand, and tightly controls us on the other.

As the forty candles are lit around the physical and virtual world, Apple may decide its first forty years are confirmation it needs only to tinker around the edges of its next forty. Or it may accept the warning signs of a looming mid-life crisis where it loses it mojo, fails to change its game, and enters its declining years. The clues might just be lying back in that garage, now lost to history.

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