Narrative: Apple is Doomed

Updated: April 7, 2017

This narrative was the subject of the Weekly Narrative Video on April 7, 2017. You can find the video on YouTube here, or see it embedded at the bottom of this essay.

This is one of the most enduring narratives out there – indeed, it’s one of the narratives that made me want to build this site. Though there certainly have been times in Apple’s history when it really was doomed if it didn’t make significant course corrections, this isn’t one of those times. But that doesn’t stop people from weaving various stories into this narrative from time to time, usually with overblown editorials about how Apple has lost its way. Over the last five years or so, we’ve seen more and more stories ascribe this lostness to Tim Cook, but it predates his time as CEO.

The opposite of this narrative also exists, however, and it’s probably best described as “Apple can do no wrong”. We rarely see news articles from most mainstream publications taking this tack – now in its forties, Apple has long outgrown the breathlessness that characterizes coverage of some younger companies. But you do see some of this in the Apple-specific blogosphere, and even more so in tweets and other communications from die-hard fans.

More than with any other company, Apple tends to drive people into one of two camps – you’re either a true believer or a harsh skeptic. You see this most strikingly when Apple reports earnings each quarter, with one set of people pointing out the tens of billions of dollars in revenues and profits as evidence that nothing could possibly be wrong, and others pointing out the revenue lines or growth rates they cite as evidence that it’s all going horribly wrong.

As with so many of these things, the truth is somewhere in the middle – Apple isn’t doomed in any meaningful sense, but there will always be things that it’s doing very well at, and other areas that it’s either deliberately de-emphasizing or which are being neglected as a side effect of allocating more resources elsewhere. In general, I’m very bullish about both Apple’s present and its future, but not blind to its flaws and challenges.

The past year has thrown up several new facets to the Apple is Doomed story. One is that Apple is behind in AI, which is significant enough that I’ve broken it out into its own narrative. Briefly, that narrative is partly about perception and partly about focus, so there’s some truth to it but it’s overblown. Secondly, Apple has been accused of losing touch with its creative professional base, not updating the Mac line frequently enough and releasing a new MacBook Pro that’s underpowered for high-end tasks. The delay in the shipment of Apple’s AirPods was taken as another sign that something was wrong at Apple, and the fact that the Apple Watch is selling in smaller numbers than the iPhone or iPad is another.

There are legitimate criticisms around each of these threads – Apple has left its pro users hanging for a long time when it comes to Mac updates, in part because it’s so heavily reliant on Intel and it hasn’t moved fast enough. But I also wonder whether Apple may have boxed itself into something of a corner with the Mac Pro. That computer can’t be easily upgraded by the user, and is made in the US, and I wonder to what extent Apple wants to rethink the form factor but perhaps also wants to end US manufacturing. Update: in early April, Apple announced that it would be updating both the iMac and Mac Pro in the next couple of years, and is completely rethinking the Mac Pro, confirming what I said above about having boxed itself into a corner.

Beyond that, though, I think we can apply a more charitable version of Hanlon’s razor here – Apple isn’t deliberately de-emphasizing the Mac but rather is focusing resources on other areas, and the Mac is suffering as a result. That may seem a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one because it suggests Apple will get back to the Mac eventually, and I suspect we’ll see that happen in the next few months. In the meantime, Apple’s major creative apps for pros have received major updates recently – Final Cut Pro X in the fall and Logic Pro X earlier this month – which should serve to reassure the base that Apple hasn’t given up on these either.

With the AirPods, it’s clear that Apple discovered some kind of problem that it wanted to fix before it moved to mass shipments, and I actually see the delay as a positive sign, because it suggests Apple is sticking to its quality standards rather than caving to pressure to ship in time for the holidays.

On the Watch front, it is clear that the smartwatch category is smaller than many people had foreseen, because for now it’s mostly about health and fitness and notifications rather than about a wrist-worn computer, though Apple dominates the category in its current form. Watch sales have been decent, and I suspect Q4 2016 sales were healthy off the back of both new models and a significantly lower entry price. Apple’s biggest challenge with new products continues to be that nothing can ever compare to the iPhone, and yet that’s the comparison observers always want to make.

The Apple is Doomed narrative always does best when there are short-term signs of trouble, and the recent revenue declines have certainly been fodder for plenty of rumination on whether Apple has lost its way. I suspect some of this will fade in 2017 if Apple is able to get back to growth, and especially if the next iPhone is the blowout many people are hoping it will be. But I suspect that until Tim Cook announces some completely new product that sells in massive numbers, the narrative won’t go away.