Ever since 1997, when Steve Jobs famously returned to the company he co-founded, Apple has been a major driver behind the technology we use and love. From iTunes and iPhones to MacBooks and the App Store, Apple has been on the forefront of many of the most exciting innovations modern consumers enjoy. It may be a coincidence, but since around the time Mr. Jobs left the company in 2011, it looks increasingly like Apple isn’t sure what the next big thing will be. That’s a major shift for a company that spent nearly 15 years leading the charge in consumer electronics. What’s going on?
First, let’s give Apple an enormous amount of credit for what it has achieved in the 2000s. When Jobs came back as CEO, he wasted no time restructuring the company and eliminating all projects that didn’t fit into his view of the company’s future. He also helped create many of the devices, programs, and concepts that would take over the tech world.
The first major innovation was a portable music player called the iPod. It wasn’t the first MP3 player to hit the market, but it would become far and away the most popular. During much of the first decade of the new millennium, the iPod was both a status symbol and a beloved piece of personal technology for many consumers.
Next came the MacBook product line in 2006, which ranged from the standard consumer-level MacBook to the powerful MacBook Pro, and eventually to the ultra-portable MacBook Air. These laptops led the industry in terms of power, thinness, and battery life, and their evolving designs have influenced nearly all high-end laptops on the market since.
During this time, the most innovative Apple product by far was the iPhone, introduced in 2007. Apple took the concept of a smartphone — a device that, at the time, consisted of a screen, a miniature keyboard, and often a trackball — and stripped it down to its core element: the screen. By making the screen highly responsive and multi-touch capable, Apple created a device with an incredibly versatile method of input. It turned out you could do just about anything on an iPhone, provided you had the app to do it.
Then, the apps entered the scene. Once Apple introduced the iOS App Store in 2008, you could hardly go a day without hearing someone say, mockingly or not, the catchphrase, “There’s an app for that.” The iPhone was huge, and it continued to grow for many years.
The last big thing Apple introduced was the iPad. While it didn’t take off as fast or fly as high as the iPhone, it still represents a highly profitable product line for the company.
Which brings us to the post-Steve Jobs era for Apple. In the years since his departure from the company in 2011, Apple has done a good job of maintaining its high profile and honing its existing products. It’s one of the most profitable companies in the world. But the one area where Apple has struggled is in creating new groundbreaking technology.
The new products Apple has released over the past few years are underwhelming compared to what it released during the (admittedly hard to top) run between 1997 and 2011. The Apple Watch, which debuted in 2015, is a fine device, but reviews were mostly tepid, and consumers don’t seem to be buying it in vast numbers. The new Apple TV is a good device as far as set-top boxes go, but it’s hardly better than its often less-expensive competitors. There was plenty of talk about Apple building a car of its own, but Bloomberg recently reported that the project has been scrapped in favor of a much less ambitious plan.
And while it’s smaller potatoes than the above projects, the new lineup of MacBook Pros have been letting creative professionals down in large numbers. For all the world, Apple increasingly looks like a company without a grand vision for the future.
Where to go from here?
Seeing as phones and tablets have been around long enough to lose their luster, now would be a perfect time for Apple to introduce a new device that offers a bold vision for the future. Instead, we’re getting niche products alongside what feel like rote updates to its current product categories.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but with competitors devoting themselves to forward-thinking projects like the Amazon Echo, Sony’s PlayStation VR, and Google’s self-driving car initiative, Apple seems to have lost its sense of innovation. Apple can’t do everything, of course, but it would be nice to see the company once again bring something magical and new into the world.