Apple(s AAPL) 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(s BBRY) — 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.
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.