By John Gruber
Plan your novel, finish your dissertation, launch a product. You need Tinderbox.
New York Times columnist Joe Nocera (of “and I think you’re a slime bucket” Steve Jobs phone call fame) devoted his weekend column to Apple. He describes a company already in decline, several times citing Yukari Iwatani Kane’s widely-panned Haunted Empire:
The only real way to stave off further decline is to come out with a product that establishes a whole new category — the way the iPad did in 2010. But that seems unlikely. “Outside the echo chamber of Apple’s headquarters, the notion of the company’s exceptionalism has been shattered,” Kane writes.
That’s the extent of Nocera’s argument that iPad-like new products from Apple “seem unlikely”: Yukari Kane’s having written so in her book. Really.
As I’ve written repeatedly, these Apple bears who believe Steve Jobs was indispensable may well be right. We don’t know yet. Only time will tell. But (again, as I’ve written repeatedly) the evidence so far doesn’t back that theory up, and the “new category” breakthrough products were in fact few and far between under Steve Jobs, too, and often dismissed by critics upon their unveiling. In between those rare new products, the company’s life blood has always been incremental improvements to existing products.
Which brings me back to the litigation with Samsung — the company that is coming to market with products that are every bit as good as Apple’s, and at a lower price to boot. This never-ending litigation is yet another sign that Apple is becoming a spent force. Suing each other “is not what innovative companies do,” said Robin Feldman, a patent law expert at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
I’d argue with both aspects of the “products that are every bit as good as Apple’s, and at a lower price to boot” clause (unlocked 16 GB Galaxy S5’s cost over $700 on Amazon; unlocked 16 GB iPhone 5S’s cost $649), but let’s leave that aside. The primary thrust of the “Haunted Empire” theory on Apple is that Steve Jobs was indispensable, and that the company entered an inevitable decline as soon as he left. But Steve Jobs is the man who told his own biographer:
Our lawsuit is saying, “Google, you fucking ripped off the iPhone, wholesale ripped us off.” Grand theft. I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go to thermonuclear war on this. They are scared to death, because they know they are guilty. Outside of Search, Google’s products — Android, Google Docs — are shit.
Much like how Kane, in her piece back in February for The New Yorker’s website, tried to have it both ways regarding Scott Forstall — arguing that Apple Maps was “a fiasco” in the very next paragraph after arguing that Tim Cook should not have fired Forstall, the executive who was responsible for Apple Maps in iOS 6 — Nocera here has painted Apple into a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t scenario. He spends most of his column arguing that Apple is screwed because they’re lost without Jobs. But now he’s saying they’re screwed because they’re doing exactly what Jobs expressly told his biographer he wanted to do: fight Android handset makers — and by proxy, Google — tooth and nail in court.
“Suing each other ‘is not what innovative companies do’”, Nocera quotes a patent law expert. But Apple sued, and threatened to sue, companies all the time while Steve Jobs was CEO. Jobs joked about having patented every aspect of the iPhone on stage during its unveiling. Under Jobs, Apple sued and eventually put out of business an Apple rumor site run by a teenager.
I think there’s nothing Apple could have done in the last three years that would have kept Nocera from writing this column. Likewise with Kane and her book. The company is lost without Steve Jobs and nothing will convince them otherwise.
My gut feeling is that 2014 is going to play out poorly for the “Haunted Empire” crowd. If Tim Cook is willing to tell The Wall Street Journal, “We’re really working on some really great stuff. I think no one reasonable would say they’re not a new category,” I’ll take his word for it.
I have no knowledge regarding what products Cook was referring to. But if history repeats itself, the odds are good that the announcement of these new products — along with annual new versions of iPhones and iPads and MacBooks — will do nothing to quell the doomed-without-Jobs critics.
The iPad was “just a big iPhone” when it was unveiled in 2010; today it’s hailed as Apple’s last great new product. My guess is we’ll see the same reaction to whatever Apple releases this year. It takes years for even the most amazing of new products — the iPhone, for example — to prove themselves on the market. It’s a long game.
Even then — come, say, 2017, when Apple is reaping billions in profits from some product first introduced this year — the doomed-without-Jobs crowd could (and I bet will) just argue that the product succeeded only because it had been conceived while Steve Jobs was alive. It’ll never stop.