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What's Wrong with Apple?

I'm not an Apple fanatic, but do qualify as a fan. My first Mac was the original 128K, bought in 1984. During Apple's long downward slide in the 1990s, I switched to Windows, both personally and professionally, but was never truly happy about it. I still have to use Windows at work, but I'm typing this entry on my iMac G5 at home. I have two iPods and are quite happy with them. I've admired how Steve Jobs and his team have turned around Apple since taking over, and I'm delighted that the industry once again has real competition, and that Microsoft doesn't rule every segment it enters.

All that said, I can't figure out what's going on with Apple the last couple of months. In January, they made their always-anticipated announcements at Macworld Expo. What did they show? A radio tuner for the iPod. Web-based photo publishing. iMacs with Intel processors. Renamed PowerBooks with Intel processors. Now, this month, they make another set of announcements, and what are they? A Mac mini with an Intel processor. An iPod speaker.

Moving the iMac and Mac mini over to Intel is all well and good, but in shipping them, Apple is simply doing what they said they would do when they announced their transition to Intel. The only "wow" factor is the schedule, but I think nearly everyone anticipated that Jobs was sandbagging when he first described the transition timeline. The radio tuner and speaker are simply Apple trying to grab more of the iPod accessories market, and while the tuner seems nice, the speaker is ugly enough that I never would have guessed it was from Apple. That leaves the MacBook Pro, which I blogged about earlier and found to be a disappointment: unknown Windows dual-boot capability, no two-button mouse for Windows, no breakthrough design feature, and an awful new name.

So what's wrong with Apple? After a series of hits, they're in some sort of product slump right now.

On the Mac side, it seems like the transition to Intel is sapping their ability to innovate -- as if moving to Intel is all they can manage, and so product innovation will have to wait until the transition is complete.

On the iPod side, it seems like they have hit the wall of what they can achieve without a dramatic shift in their model. Could Apple miniaturize beyond what they've done? No. The iPod nano is as small as it can be without becoming unusable. The iPod can't get any thinner without a battery breakthrough, and it can't get any shorter or narrower without making the screen too small. Could Apple offer a new model for paying for music? The only one that comes to mind is subscriptions, which they could offer, but it would be rightly perceived as a me-too move. No, where Apple has room to innovate with the iPod is in video. When they added video to the existing iPod, it was an evolutionary move -- same form factor, slightly larger screen, and adding music videos and television shows to the iTunes Music Store. The world is waiting for something dramatic and Apple has yet to deliver. Can they not make up their minds about a strategy? Can they not get the necessary partners to cooperate?

Whatever is happening, it needs to be fixed. Apple needs to resume innovating both the Mac and the iPod, and soon. Reading about their announcements earlier this week, some of the correspondents covering the event actually seemed disappointed to have made the trek to Cupertino for it. In the modern Steve Jobs era, until a couple of months ago, that would have been nearly unimaginable.

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