Opinion: Has Apple entered comfortable middle age?

Opinion: Has Apple turned into your dad?
Credit: Stewart Wolpin/DVICE

When we're young, we want to be cool. We want to know and like the coolest music, see the coolest movies, own the coolest gadgets, and take the coolest risks. When we creep into comfortable middle age, our desire for cool starts to dissipate. We become content to park our creaky carcass in a Barcalounger, point the remote at the TV, and let our kids flaunt their coolness instead.

Perhaps Apple, as with many corporations, is like a person (although not necessarily in the ways the Supreme Court has adjudicated in regards to campaign financing): a personal that has settled into its metaphorical middle-aged Barcalounger.

Just consider what the Cupertino company plans to announce next week at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference: Not one or two cool larger 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch iPhones. Not an iPad Mini Retina 2 with Touch ID fingerprint security. Not a cool new iWatch. Not a cool new Apple HD or UHD. And not a cool "…one more thing." No, Apple is likely to unveil iOS 8, essentially and merely an update to iOS 7, and perhaps Max OS X 10.10, a definite mere upgrade, and maybe a cheaper all-in-one iMac. Yawn.

The headline announcement is rumored to be readying a Smart Home System, an Apple-centric home management platform — one app instead of a mishmash of third-party solutions to remote control your home from a Barcalounger. It'll be nice. Not cool. Definitely a middle-aged product aimed at the middle-aged.

Companies are like people

When young, companies are energetic, ambitious risk takers. Like rock stars and star athletes, it's the early stuff that stuns. That was Apple during both of Steve Jobs' reigns. But older companies are content if their latter work is just slightly improved more of the same. It's time to sit back, pour a glass of wine, diet and exercise occasionally to reduce a suddenly expanding midriff bulge (in Apple's case, a cash bulge), and enjoy the literal and figurative fruits of long labors.

Add in the normal corporate reaction to the loss — natural or otherwise — of a colorful, aggressive entrepreneurial visionary, replaced by a conservative conservator more interested in placating shareholders and maintaining the status quo than creating cool, and you might be able to explain the lack of astounding revelation from Cupertino since the iPad in 2010 and the cool geek body punches it silently absorbed the past few months.

Cooler competition

First, at Mobile World Congress in late February came a confluence of cool smartphones, led by Samsung's slim, light, powerful and waterproof new flagship Galaxy S5, arguably the best Android phone ever, even if it is just an incremental upgrade to the S4.

Then, a month later, came the HTC One (M8), also arguably the best Android phone (with the dumbest name) ever, with a stunningly beautiful design and shockingly light but solid build quality that could force Jony Ive back to the iPhone 6 drawing board. I can't help fondling it, the way I used to fondle my iPhone.

A week later, Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 8.1, starring Siri slayer digital assistant usurper Cortana, whose AI awareness can actually learn from your Bing searches.

A few hours later, Amazon announced its Apple TV challenger, the Fire TV streaming media set-top box with easy-to-use voice search and clean and easy-to-navigate UI, and Google is reportedly set to announce its own Android TV STB.

Then this week came LG's G3 5.5-inch phablet that doesn't feel as big or heavy as it sounds, with a laser-fast shutter and a cool tap-to-focus-and-capture camera — again arguably the best Android phone ever.

Other than lawsuits, and the purchase an arguably cooler company, Apple merely announced it would soon announce something.

Apple is not a god

None of these 2014 competing cool attractions pose any immediate threats to the iPhone, iPad or Apple TV, which continue to be the leading sellers in their categories. What has bloodied Apple's cool tech mindshare deification was Google supplanting Apple as the world's most popular brand.

Ouch. Definitely not cool. And dangerous to Apple's position in the tech Universe.

I'm reminded of this scene in The Man Who Would Be King, in which Sean Connery sets himself up as a deity king in 19th century pagan Afghanistan. When his unwilling bride bites Connery and draws blood, the priests proclaim he was "neither God nor devil but a man!" His mortality revealed, Connery is fatally set upon by his hoodwinked, angry, and no longer fearful subjects. Similarly, it seems other companies no longer fear Apple, and are doing their own setting-upon via innovation one-upping.

Not yet rotten fruit

Apple is not a completely dried up piece of fruit. The company may yet surprise us with a crisp revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, bite. Something wild and unpredictable that everyone derides until it disrupts and dominates yet another complacent business segment or creates a new one.

Maybe Smart Home System will be that thing. Maybe Smart Home System will be cool.

Like watching an aging star win one final championship, I would be overjoyed to be wrong.

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