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Apple's High Stakes Game

Like most techies I watched the live blogs of Apple's iPhone 5 announcement last night. I can't remember an Apple product that had been so expected, not just anticipated.

What I mean by that is we knew what was coming. We knew exactly what was coming, to be honest and there were, in the words of Thom Yorke, no surprises.

The Verge's Ross Miller even pointed out while the event was happening that a forum poster on their site had (very) accurately predicted what form the iPhone 5 would take - all the way back in April!

Today, on the morning after, publications like Wired are writing about how the phone is "completely amazing", but in the same breath they say, "it is also so, so cruelly boring".

What is this strange paradox of emotions in which Apple now trades? Euphoria and consternation seem to go, absurdly, hand-in-hand. It's not nearly as simple as pointing out that there are some people who are excited and some who are not - clearly individuals are finding themselves sharing two contrasting opinions.

Wired said, "it's just the march of time and technology. Revolution becomes evolution," but I think more is going on here than that.

There was an overwhelming atmosphere of disappointment among die-hard fans when the iPhone 4S was announced. After that event, I wrote about how Apple had created a pseudo-religious following but one which had been contaminated with false prophets and unreasonable hype:

"The contemporary dogma is that Apple, having created such innovative designs and products, must continue to exponentially satisfy our wildest desires. This is the Epicurean folly of mass consumerism in an age when businesses are confusingly perceived as spiritual and customers, by virtue of their faith, have a right to salvation."

A friend of mine agreed with me but put it in much simpler terms. He said Apple was just playing a "high stakes game". We were talking about which of the three; Microsoft, Google and Apple, had the most difficult road ahead to maintain profitability in coming decades. Each of them have weaknesses to shield and advantages to exploit, none is immune to the potential of failure.

To examine Apple's case, though, is to observe a company which self-defines as an arbiter of standards. An outspoken innovator, Apple is ferociously protective of its intellectual property and totally unwilling to compromise on quality for the sake of a lower price tag on its products.

Apple's elitist approach has developed a cultish following as we all know. The problem with that is that while expectations and loyalty are at an all time high, the fickleness of the market could very easily kick in one day soon.

The media scrutiny, the hunt for leaked information and the unfathomable forum chatter surrounding each new iDevice launch is truly extraordinary. Leagues ahead, indeed, of product launches by any rival. Those very rivals, then, feel a little less pressure. Their innovations are free to fail (at least a bit) in a way Apple's are not. Then again, they are faced with the challenge of eating away at Apple's market share - no mean feat in itself.

The company, in its legal melee with Samsung, has already sent a warning to competitors to innovate instead of copy. And so should it be, but as competitors pick up on Apple's tricks and create original and desirable products of their own, there is always the chance that they may gain ground with all the romanticised ingenuity of the underdog.

Techies like start-ups. Techies like new ideas and new appearances. Like Roman Emperors, the next best thing we can think of after discovering our favourite gladiator is finding the man who can kill him. So there is every opportunity now for a smartphone to effectively compete with Apple - the market is ready for it.

I don't think this is the end of Apple yet - far, far from it. The iPhone is far too beloved by mainstream users who will be uninterested in Android alternatives and who will prefer to stick with iOS's familiar, user-friendly interface. That alone will determine the iPhone's longevity in iterations far into the future.

But I do think that the kind of status Apple achieved in the later years of Steve Jobs is now passed. And, as I am hinting, this demise is occurring for no good reason! It's not as if Apple has made terrible blunders or tarnished the quality of its output. Quite the opposite. It has consolidated, streamlined, and continued in the same direction.

No, the change in status we all now perceive and seem to agree on is down to the effect of Apple's illusions and magic, its courting of fantasies, all of which have begun, frankly, to wear off. There is little anyone could have done to avert this inevitability - certainly not at the risk of harming an established and wildly successful product line.

What happens next, anyway, will be very, very interesting. Google, Samsung, Nokia, Microsoft and others are gathering their forces in the smartphone world. It's sure to be a long fight. So let combat begin.


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