The above video is making the rounds on Reddit again today, arguing that Jobs predicted the downfall of Apple decades ago. To be fair, what Jobs is discussing above is what tech companies should take to heart: tech is a product-driven sector. The problem, however, isn’t a lack of new products from Apple so much as a lack of understanding of why people buy products in the first place, and that’s going to be the company’s biggest challenge in 2017 — finding a product to innovate that consumers actually care enough to buy.
The problem can really be boiled down to three words, the Apple Watch. Apple easily took over the smartwatch sector when it rolled out the Apple Watch, which is hardly a surprise. Any criticism of the Apple Watch has to be tempered with the fact that Apple knows what it’s doing, and even a rough draft of its tech is still some excellent work.
However, it’s king of a tech sector sinking into the ocean. Sales of the Apple Watch are off 70% this year, and the company that drove all this interest with a few successful Kickstarters, Pebble, just imploded and is selling out to Fitbit, leaving its customers high and dry.
The whole problem was simple. Can you name a single issue that the smartwatch solves that your phone doesn’t already solve for you? The smartphone has overtaken the tech world in recent years because it solves a multitude of everyday problems and it makes it easy to, say, check your bank balance or send some emails. There’s a reason the Apple Watch is suddenly so heavily focused on your health; that’s the only conceivable place there’s a genuine problem that might need to be solved with a computer strapped to your wrist. Otherwise, it’s a tool that’s occasionally convenient. But is occasional convenience worth hundreds of dollars? Consumers don’t seem to think so. Even Pebble’s enormously successful Kickstarter had a hint at the company’s future; it raised millions, but from less than 70,000 backers.
Apple is far from the only tech company with the problem of finding a new product consumers want. Despite years of hype and insistence that it’s just around the corner, mobile payment companies are excited that they’re almost at 27 million transactions this year, out of the billions of credit card and debit card transactions made every year and Snapchat’s Spectacles have yet to try and become a real product instead of hype sold out of a vending machine. Apple is only singled out because it is, in many ways, a shepherd in an industry of sheep; whatever Apple tries will be imitated quickly, for better or worse. 2017’s big ideas are psuedo-AI, which Facebook has already accidentally revealed is nowhere near as intelligent as it’s hyped to be, and virtual reality, which has a long history of failing as a consumer technology even as it reaches new heights as an industrial one.
The issue is that Apple, right now, isn’t sure where it wants to innovate. Its plans to build a car have fallen apart. Home automation would appear to be an ideal fit, but Apple is taking their time in that sector, possibly because they’re not sure how licensing their technology to the people who make refrigerators and light bulbs would work when Apple needs control of every aspect of its products. The Apple TV has struggled to be more than an also-ran. Apple is an innovative company in search of a big idea, and it just can’t seem to find it.
Apple, right now, isn’t in any financial trouble and it will likely be years before it faces anything like the doldrums it languished in during the 1990s. It has billions in the bank, iPhones sell relentlessly, iTunes still makes money hand over fist, and they own the relentless hustle that is Beats. But it is true that the company is struggling to find another product like the iPhone, and until it does, it’ll have to coast.