Apple’s secret strategy: Underpromise and overdeliver

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iPhone 7 colors
Why the critics are wrong who think Apple's lost its touch.
Photo: Apple

Apple’s always been the company that promised us the world. Steve Jobs’ genius was his ability to convince us that every single thing Apple did shifted the Earth on its axis.

Recently, that feeling of magical futurism has faded. Apple events have been preceded by a feeling of “been there, done that.”

Forget the “wireless future” that Apple talked up at yesterday’s iPhone 7 event as it tried to convince us that we really want AirPods and a dongle rather than a headphone jack. If Apple has a strategy in 2016, it’s underpromise and overdeliver.

And it’s working great!

The difference between Steve Jobs and Tim Cook

Tim Cook gets a lot of flack. Last month, when he marked five years as Apple’s CEO, Forbes published an article entitled, “After 5 Years As Apple CEO, Tim Cook Scores C-“.

The accusations were a variation on the criticisms you’ve heard a million times before: essentially, that Cook isn’t Jobs and that his success has been pretty much a lucky accident, amidst acquisitions and dodgy hiring decisions. Generally, it paints Cook’s direction of Apple as uninspired.

Virtually every recent “Apple is doomed” article trots out the same tired trope. I doubt very much if Cook cares. He’s been too busy turning Apple into a company that brings in four times the revenue it did in 2010, Jobs’ final full year as CEO.

It’s a dynamic that’s characterized Cook’s tenure as Apple’s maximum leader.

Jobs was the visionary who captivated millions and made us believe that buying a portable music player or a candy-colored computer was tantamount to changing the world. Cook was the bean counter who (yawn) revolutionized Apple’s logistics chain by bringing Apple’s on-hand inventory down from $400 million to just $78 within a few months of joining Apple.

Even Cook’s early nickname, “The Attila the Hun of inventory,” sounds like something you’d call a boring school teacher.

Since he took over the reins at Apple, Cook’s quiet world-changing behavior has continued. Apple, being Apple, is taciturn about its revolutions. Sure, we have Jony Ive doing his Morgan Freeman “voice of God” monologues at Apple events, but some of the company’s biggest innovations — like Apple’s extraordinary advances in artificial intelligence — don’t even get mentioned when they take place.

The soft bigotry of low expectations

President George W. Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson coined the phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” to refer to the idea that we arrogantly assume some people are capable of less. During Cook’s time at Apple, we’ve seen similarly low expectations: Apple is continually undervalued in terms of both its innovation and its share price.

It’s the reason folks like Carl Icahn were able to swoop in and make billions by investing in AAPL like it was some unproven startup.

I’ve fallen prey to the same low expectations. Earlier this year, I thought Apple’s quarterly earnings were going to disappoint. A lot of people did. Cook warned us in advance about falling iPhone sales and, hey, if Apple loses that, what else does it have? Quite a lot, as it turned out.

The same phenomenon was in play at yesterday’s iPhone 7 event. Sure, I was expecting the iPhone 7 to be a great smartphone, most likely the best smartphone yet created. But it was also, like last year’s iPhone 6s, an incremental improvement rather than the kind of “tear it down and start again” revolutionary change that mark Apple’s best product launches.

What a difference a couple of hours make! From Super Mario Run arriving in the App Store to an iPhone that feels like anything but a stopgap as we await next year’s 10-anniversary model, Apple’s stream of decidedly un-boring announcements was a bit like arriving home on a rainy Monday to find a surprise party being thrown in your honor.

As a result, Apple is feeling like something it hasn’t in a long time: a company people approach with low expectations, but which blows them away every time. Underpromise and overdeliver. Lather, rinse and repeat.

Will Tim Cook ever be the bombastic showman that Steve Jobs was? No. Will Apple ever experience the type of roller-coaster reversal of fortunes it did in the decade from, say, 1997 to 2007? Probably not.

But is Cook’s strategy paying off — and in the process making this one helluva time to be an Apple fan? You bet!