While it’s amusing to hear critiques of iOS coming from the guy stuck with running BlackBerry, it’s clear that Apple’s competitors sense an opening.

This is Z10, the first BlackBerry 10 handset Thumbnail

Apple had the best-selling smartphone during the last two quarters of 2012 and its corporate profits, driven primarily by the iPhone, are through the roof — it made over $13 billion in the last quarter alone. Yet its competitors smell blood. Samsung attacked first, with its 2012 ad campaign making fun of iPhone owners, but now even lowly BlackBerry — whose future existence as an independent company is not at all assured — feels comfortable publicly suggesting Apple is faltering.

The latest competitive jab came in an interview with The Australian Financial Review, in which BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins gave Apple its due, but also suggested iOS was getting a bit long in the tooth:

“Apple did a fantastic job in bringing touch devices to market … They did a fantastic job with the user interface, they are a design icon. There is a reason why they were so successful, and we actually have to admit this and respect that,” Mr Heins said.

“History repeats itself again I guess … the rate of innovation is so high in our industry that if you don’t innovate at that speed you can be replaced pretty quickly. The user interface on the iPhone, with all due respect for what this invention was all about is now five years old.”

He’s not incorrect: The iPhone’s basic user interface design — with the single home button, pinch/zoom gestures and grid of icons — has not changed since the iPhone arrived in 2007. There have been yearly updates of course, and several significant changes to the software since then, like the App Store, Notifications and Siri, but the basic hardware and user interface has stayed consistent over time. Obviously Apple subscribes to the don’t-fix-what’s-not-broken school of thought; it’s sold more than 500 million iOS devices on that design.

But Heins is trying to imply that Apple is back on its heels and is out of touch with the latest mobile trends. This, obviously, is part of Heins’ job: to market his company’s last-gasp attempt to reinvent itself with BlackBerry 10 in whatever manner necessary. Apple very likely doesn’t care what he thinks. But what’s so interesting about his comments is how it’s not just Samsung, Apple’s only serious mobile hardware competitor, whose marketing department has latched onto the “Apple is finished” or “Apple is off its game” meme.

 SVP of Marketing Phil Schiller introduces the iPhone 5.

SVP of Marketing Phil Schiller introduces the iPhone 5.

As Jean-Louis Gassee pointed out in this week’s Monday Note, Apple is selling a lot of smartphones and making a lot of money, but it is losing the “war of words.” Samsung senses the growing sentiment repeated online and on cable television shows that because Apple doesn’t have a brand new product right-this-moment, it is no longer innovating. That sentiment is why BlackBerry feels emboldened to weigh in too. And Apple started to play into this, but only halfway: without a brand new product to crow about, but with a lot of buzz leading up to its competitor’s big launch last week, it had SVP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller call up selected journalists to bash Android.

The incident didn’t go over well at all. It appeared to many of us that Schiller sounded defensive and a little desperate. With new iPhones, iPad and Macs introduced in the fall, Apple is between product cycles right now, and it doesn’t have an event on the calendar that will draw back attention to what new thing the company may have come up with. The lack of buzz in the market it essentially created is certainly not something Apple has encountered very often over the last five years.

Trashing its mobile competition seems somehow petty for Apple because of its position. But obviously the company should fight back. As Gassee suggested, Apple needs to rethink its usual posture about criticism and competition: “Perhaps it’s time for senior execs to rethink the kind of control they want to exercise on what others say about Apple. Either stay the old course and try to let the numbers do the talking, or go out and really fight the war of words.”

And it appears Apple has decided to claw back with the help of its marketing department. This weekend it launched the “Why iPhone” campaign to remind iPhone users thinking of switching and potential new customers of the iPhone’s legacy and what it can do.

It’s no “I’m a Mac” campaign — yet. We’ll see what else Apple may have planned. But it’s at least a sign Apple is not going to let the tables be turned and allow itself be painted as the stodgy John Hodgman character to its competitors’ cool underdog Justin Long.

The former Research in Motion once occupied an Apple-like position at or near the top of the mobile world: the BlackBerry was at one time synonymous with smartphone. Five years later, the company is scrambling to remain relevant. Now, while it’s hard to imagine the iPhone falling from grace right now, someone some day will do to the current iPhone what Apple did to the BlackBerry in 2007.

The next big innovation in design or technology — not just PR jousting — is what will dictate the next five years in mobile.

  1. horomatching Monday, March 18, 2013

    I agree and so would millions of iPhone users. I havn’t seen much of innovation in iPhone except for Siri, everything else is just feature upgrades which all the other competitors of iphone are doing exceedingly well. If apple remains stagnant in it’s innovation I am pretty sure others are going to catch up and soon Iphone will slip down the rankings.

  2. Nicholas Paredes Monday, March 18, 2013

    A conversation that includes your competition is never good PR, which is why the comments last week out of Apple were so surprising.

    That said, I would suggest that these companies focus on their ecosystems rather than the competition. As a mobile e-commerce experience manager, I have yet to see any numbers that suggest a product strategy that begins with Android or Blackberry. I am certain that will change as everything does, but not for a year or two at least.

    I don’t mind kicking Apple for a variety of reasons, including the closed nature of its products. But, they are solidly number one as a cohesive platform. Sorry to have to share that reality.

  3. I don’t own an iPhone but I’m sure even Apple can see that it’s time for something new. They can’t sit on the same OS and count on the legions of loyal fans to stay with them. Even they’ll get bored eventually. Whatever their next big product is, I think it’ll be completely different from the current iPhone. The big challenge is to figure out what that next big product is, whether it’s to eliminate the rows of apps or change the look/size of the phone. Who knows.

    Though I thought HTC had a clever idea with using the news widget as their home screen and not the rows of apps.

    Windows had a clever alternative to the rows of apps with their mosaic design, but too bad they are not resonating with the public!

    Those two examples goes to show something different can be done. The question of what is it and will it work with people?

    1. Linda, I don’t think those two examples you gave are really showing anything new, are they? They’re really just interface variations off Apple’s existing GUI work. What you could have mentioned as new were features like Samsung’s phone having eye-tracking. That’s a big game-changer. And I apologize for using that term. (slaps own face)

      And though I’m a happy iPhone user, yeah, I’d like to see something new. Really new. Apple will either wow us again with something market-shaking or blow it and fall from grace quickly. DISCLAIMER: I’m a 25-year Apple user.

      1. Whether eye-tracking or flailing with your hands in front of your device will have such a big impact is a completely open question. I sincerely hope that Apple is working on advancements on iOS because I believe it is time for the next development. But I have an iPad, Android smartphone from HTC, and have used my friend’s WP8 phone. I agree with some comments above that the tile interface is a nice innovation (evolutionarily speaking), but generally all OSs have developed in increments, which includes the entire Android line and its UX variants. While there are many interesting functions in Android (and some of the new things in the S IV certainly are), none of that is a serious game changer. Let’s see where things go, but in my opinion there have been no serious revolutionary innovations in smartphone OS desing in 5 years. Actually, almost every single one of the new functions in the SIV were available through 3rd party developers. Samsung may have alienated a few good innovators on that front.

        I have to concede though, I know next to nothing about Blackberry 10 etc. And I think it is the high-end HTC and Blackberry that may be more problematic (from what I have heard about those new phones) for Apple in the future. Samsung will have problems as soon as Firefox and Ubuntu phones come out. I think those will eat away at the low-end market, especially in lower-income countries, and greatly affect Samsung’s bottom-line, and I think they see it coming too, what with that show last week ;)

        Hardware on the other hand… ;) I wish I had the money for an iPhone 5 :D Yes, yes, I do like Apple products. But to me there have always been 3 major stumbling blocks to getting one. Size, price and functionality. Size is now a non-issue (as opposed to samsung phones which keep getting bigger to accomodate a bigger battery). Price is still major, and I think this is an issue for a lot of people who aren’t as interested in all the gimmicky details, instead looking primarily at price, external look and feel, and the first few minutes of OS usage, all of which I still believe Apple has a lead in (though not as dramatic a lead as 2 years ago!). And with functionality we are back at the OS. With size not changing again soon, and Apple offering older iPhones in lieu of a cheaper new version, this is the only space that Apple can develop further. And I hope to see that soon… just cause those keynotes are fun to watch! As opposed to Samsung at the Music Hall… hehe, that was just embarassing :D

  4. Apple need do nothing more than release a 4.5-5″ phone, then it’s game, set, match; there’ll be nothing left for their competitors to hang their hats on.

    1. Yeah… no… I seriously doubt that.

  5. Apple came with a form factor made people want it but once the innovation began and most of the others got on the design bandwagon and pushed device hardware limits to ends.

    Apple went on its own and though its still a force to reckon with, it has not been able to stamp a global footprint.

    Samsung, HTC, Sony and Blackberry are pushing the hardware but Samsung is slowly losing the form factor battle to HTC and Sony. Even the new Blackberry Z10 has a better feel to it.

    Personally, the form factor, design and packaging of the Galaxy SII was the one to emulate. Each phone got a leather pouch to place the phone in

    More than design and technological factors, a company that is able to produce a viable and large battery power source for future cell phones is the one could take away the victory if hardware requirements and innovations stay the same.

  6. Apple has the best ecosystems on the desktop and in mobile, putting or allowing little widgets won’t make either OS better, Apple should continue to make both OS’s core better underneath where it counts, which Apple has been doing for the last 15 years.
    And their earnings sheet over that time has shown the results of their efforts, without smoke and mirrors just actual real execution.

  7. Erica’s last sentence nailed it.

  8. Multitasking just doesn’t exist on the iOS platform and can’t unless they change just about everything under the hood of the OS.

    Heck didn’t it take Apple over 2 years of iOS development just to offer cut and paste or MMS to their users?

  9. I have had a iphone 5 and a Samsung 3. Now own a Blackberry Z10. Its heads and shoulders above the phones I just mentioned. I will never go back to those older operating systems. Once you use this one you will see what I mean. It will take a couple of days to get used to. Not to mention that it is one hell of a Classy phone. The others may have more apps but I think 100,000 not such a bad thing. I really dont need 1500 flashlights.

  10. This is old news – 50% of those buying the new Blackberry have put their iphones or androids away because they are blown away by the new blackberry 10 OS and interface. After using it for a few weeks I can’t see myself buying another iphone until they really get creative – it looks like the stock price is a reflection of Apple’s general direction since Job’s passing. In some ways Blackberry was forced to innovate and the resulting new OS is stunning and incredibly efficient.

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