Has Apple become boring in its middle age? [Friday Night Fights]

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Well... are you?!
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Apple is 40 years old today. In that time, the Cupertino company has delivered some incredible products and services, and revolutionized smartphones, tablets, and music players. But is it boring now?

Friday-Night-Fights-bug-2Some say Apple’s innovation has stalled in recent years, and it has become too predictable. The surprises we used to see during its big keynotes no longer show up, and despite its secrecy, you can almost predict its product roadmap for the next year.

Are those claims harsh? Is Apple really past its best, or will it deliver groundbreaking new products again that can shake up the consumer technology industry?

Join us in this week’s Friday Night Fight between Cult of Android and Cult of Mac as we fight over Apple at 40.

Killian-FNFKillian Bell — Writer, Cult of Android: Now that we’ve had almost two weeks to digest Apple’s iPhone SE keynote, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed by it. I know the iPhone SE will sell well in certain markets, and having used the new iPad Pro for a few days for my review, I’m more impressed than I thought I would be. But geez, isn’t Apple boring now?

There were no new Macs at the event. It’s been a year since the company announced Apple Watch and all we got for it were a few new bands. And there were no surprises whatsoever. There probably won’t be any at WWDC, either — or at the big September event that all Apple fans look forward to for a year.

We know we’ll see another new iPhone, a refreshed iPad Pro, and perhaps some updated to the Mac lineup. We may also see an Apple Watch 2. But that’s it. Just a bunch of improvements to existing products, none of which are likely to be revolutionary or groundbreaking.

I don’t know about you, but this isn’t the Apple I grew up following. I still look forward to big iPhone upgrades and updates to OS X and iOS. But I’m just not excited by Apple like I used to be. We almost always know what’s coming, and there’s never a “one more thing” that blows us away.

Don’t you agree?

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke Dormehl — Writer, Cult of Mac: You chose a great occasion to do this, didn’t you Killian? With Apple celebrating its fortieth birthday I’ve been spending the past few days working on a post about the 40 most memorable events in Apple history — and reminiscing about all the great things it’s brought us along the way.

You know what the problem is? We’re spoiled. Of course Apple was an exciting company to cover ten years ago when it was still clawing its way back from oblivion to claim its position on top of the tech world. Those were exciting times for Apple and it’s hard to get that same feeling you did back when it felt like the rest of the world was starting to wake up to this amazing company you’d always known about.

However, it’s a massive error to think the company’s settled into some kind of boring middle-aged spread right now. Under the operations wizardry of Tim Cook and Jeff Williams, we get multiple new iPhones, iPads and Macs each year — with their own new versions of operating systems, which receive a major overhaul every twelve months. We get new gadgets in the form of the Apple Watch and fourth-gen Apple TV, and promising new initiatives like Apple Music. We get gorgeous new Apple Stores opening around the world, and the company moving into new markets — and managing to do it pretty darn well. iPhone numbers may be peaking, but it’s selling in astonishing quantities, while the Mac continues to defy the rest of the PC industry and actually grow. Oh yeah, and on top of that there are reports about Apple working on an electric car project and possibly a virtual reality initiative.

Apple Car might be coming, but will it be special?
Apple Car might be coming, but will it be special?
Image: Aristomenis Tsirbas/Freelancer

Apple couldn’t do this under Steve Jobs. Let’s not forget that he once had delay Mac OS X Leopard by five months because the iPhone project had gobbled up all of Apple’s resources internally. This simply doesn’t happen anymore.

There’s also the cottage industry that is Apple-watching these days. Don’t get me wrong: I love my job here, but there’s definitely a part of me that would love to ignore all the rumors and leaks about upcoming products and watch a keynote with no expectations. Frankly, given how many people are reporting on Apple’s every move, it’s a miracle that it lets any surprises slip through — which it nonetheless manages to at every event.

Last week’s keynote wasn’t enormously exciting — and particularly not if you went out and bought the new iPad Pro and iPhone 6s six months ago. But there was still a whole lot to enjoy about it.

I can’t see a single other company out there that’s doing a better job than Apple, to be honest. Can you?

Killian-FNFKillian: I see some of your points, but there are lots of consumer tech companies who are doing exactly the same things now. Apple used to “Think Different,” but for every product you just mentioned, there’s a competitor — and in lots of cases, those competitors are better. That wasn’t the case five years ago.

The iPhone is being embarrassed by new smartphones from rivals like Samsung, which deliver better displays, better cameras, and a long list of features Apple won’t adopt (like wireless charging and water-resistance). There are countless Android Wear watches and other wearables that do everything Apple Watch does.

Sure, the iPad’s great if you want a tablet that’s just a tablet. But lots of people want tablets that can replace their laptops now, and there are far better solutions out there like the Microsoft Surface. Maybe Apple TV will be something special in years to come, but it isn’t right now. And as for Apple Music, I love it, but I’d be just as happy with Spotify.

Galaxy S7 is better than iPhone 6s. Period.
Galaxy S7 is better than iPhone 6s. Period.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

So, to answer your question, yes, I can see other companies — like Samsung and Microsoft — that are doing a better job that Apple in many areas.

The big change, for me, is that Apple seems to have become a follower now, rather than a leader. Apple Watch came in response to Android Wear and other smartwatches from Pebble and Samsung. The rumored virtual reality headset has already been done by Samsung, HTC, Sony, Facebook, Google… and who knows how many others. And will Apple Car be any better than a Tesla or the electric cars now offered by the likes of BMW?

I don’t think Apple’s lost it; I still have great admiration for the company and will continue to buy some of its products. I also think that it will revolutionize new product categories in the future, just like it did with iPhone and iPod and iPad.

I just think other companies are doing more exciting things right now.

cartoonluke_360.pngLuke: There’s no doubt that a lot of other companies have stepped up their game thanks to the example Apple set — and that can only be a good thing for customers. We’re seeing more focus on industrial design thanks to the work of Jony Ive and others, while the likes of Samsung are willing to throw gimmicks at the wall (often based on ideas Apple is rumored to be researching) in order to come to market first.

I think you’re getting your Apple history wrong if you suggest Apple was ever the first company to do a lot of the things that made it great, however. It didn’t make the first graphical user interface, the first mouse, the first MP3 player, the first app store, the first smartphone, the first tablet, or the first smartwatch. But it did fundamentally change — and arguably perfect — each of these product categories. I see the same happening today.

It’s great that you find other companies you like as much as Apple, but I think a lot of people are going to disagree with you. Sure, the Samsung S7 may have a brighter display or better camera compared to the iPhone. But it also runs Android. With Apple, there’s still the sense that every element has been focused on in minute detail — which is why people make such a big deal about Samsung’s questionable design issues and what it suggests about the company as a whole.

Finally, not all the changes need to be giant to be innovative. One of the coolest things about the new iPad, as revealed at last week’s keynote? The True Tone technology that uses two new four-channel ambient light sensors to measure the color temperature in a room and adjust the display to create a more natural appearance. That’s the kind of precise, Apple-ish detail I expect the company to come up with. Can you honestly, with a straight face, tell me we won’t be seeing Samsung’s Real Tone (or whatever they call it) technology on its next batch of mobile devices? Of course we will.

iPad Pro True Tone Display
True Tone is amazing.
Photo: Apple

Killian-FNFKillian: No, Apple wasn’t first to market, but it revolutionized those product categories. Smartphones, personal media players, and tablets all changed significantly when Apple came along and shook them up — but the Apple Watch isn’t going to change anything; it doesn’t do anything better than other smartwatches do, and I don’t think Apple’s take on virtual reality will be any different.

It humors me that you say “there’s still the sense that every element has been focused on in minute detail,” right after you refer to an operating system that’s currently plagued by bugs. Since Apple rolled out iOS 9.3, it has bricked older iPads, caused devices to freeze when tapping web links, and disabled data connectivity for lots of iPhone owners on Sprint.

Previous iOS updates have also been littered by huge glitches, too — remember the one that stopped iPhone 6 and 6 Plus making calls days after they launched? Then there’s antennagate, bendgate, the whole Maps debacle… the list goes on.

If Samsung’s “questionable design issues” — which aren’t questionable anymore, I must add — give the South Korean company a bad rep, what are these things doing for Apple?

Let’s hand this over to the readers now. Are you still excited by Apple 40 years on? Or are still waiting for the next big thing that never seems to arrive?

Friday Night Fights is a series of weekly death matches between two no-mercy brawlers who will fight to the death — or at least agree to disagree — about which is better: Apple or Google, iOS or Android?