The Apple ][: Innovation looks like nothing before it, pushes the envelope, and invites us to look a the world differently.

The Apple ][: Innovation looks like nothing before it, pushes the envelope, and invites us to look a the world differently.
With all the attention squarely focused on the high profile legal showdown between Apple and Samsung, the news of an impending iPhone refresh seems to be garnering less headlines (and leaks) then in past years. Yes, there are rumors of the iPhone 5 being 17mm thinner, sporting a 4-inch screen, and featuring a headphone jack relocated to the base. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but then again Apple has always been pretty good — Redwood City bars excepted — at keeping secrets and has been known to wow the faithful with a neat trick or two at these grand announcements (Siri).

But what if the iPhone 5 is a dud?

There’s a least a few underwhelming product releases in Apple’s last twelve months that perhaps suggest its best days are now in the rear view mirror.

Take the iPhone 4S, for example. It could very well be the least innovative major product release in the company’s history.

The 4S sported the requisite hardware improvements: better CPU, camera, graphics processor. Oddly though — and receiving mixed reviews even from the faithful — was the form factor which was nearly identical to its predecessor. While Android makers such as Samsung, HTC and Motorola were pushing the envelope with screens larger than 4-inches, and thin ones to boot (Droid Razr), Apple was content with applying the Model-T formula, and giving us the same frustratingly small 3.5-inch screen (though, to be fair, it was graciously also available in white). Granted, I realize some like the fact that the phone can easily be controlled with one hand, but this is the post-PC era. We’re using our smartphones to surf the web and navigate, and to capture video, and to view photos. In this respect, Apple has been slow to offer alternatives to the market, and Android’s market share growth tells the story of a fast moving company (Google) versus one that seems to be slowing (Apple). Yes, the iPhone 4S was better than the 4. The retina display impresses. But this is Apple. Innovation has carried the day in the past. And the competition is far greater now than it was in 2008.

Then there’s the “new” iPad, the thirdgen model. I have one. It’s a super device, absolutely – though, oddly, I still find myself turning to the Galaxy Tab 10.1, maybe because I prefer Android’s notification system and the slick integration of all of Google’s web services.

When the new iPad shipped I was absolutely floored that it was bigger than the previous model. What?! That’s impossible. That never, ever happens! Unless, you’re a hugely successful company that is getting sloppy, innovating less. The built-in assumption (apparently right) is that the Apple Faithful are so trained, so expectant, that they will line up (as programmed to do) for any new product release and dole out the requisite cash for the requisite bragging rights. It’s the new American way. Heck, I admit, I’ve done it too for the previous two iPads.

But the point is that new iPad also underwhelmed. Aside from the retina display (again, impressive) it was marginally better. In day-to-day use, however, it’s rather heavy, and clunky; hence, the hugely positive response for the well-designed Nexus 7 tablet from Google. Expect Apple to respond with a mini this fall – as I’ve said before there is no doubt this will happen, as Apple, its board and investors will not let untapped markets go uncontested.

If Apple were at the top of its game, the new iPad would have a screen that goes almost right to the edges (like a magazine) and ultra-sophisticated navigation controls along its sides, with screaming performance. This is the Apple I know. None of that matters because you know what? The iPad is good enough. No one else comes close (that is, until the Nexus 7 landed). So incrementalism has been the order of the day in Cupertino.

So, is the the iPhone 5 destined to become the New Coke?

I’ve learned long time ago in this Jobs-inspired era to never bet against Apple. They’re just too many smart people there doing incredibly ingenious things.

However, it appears to me as though less and less innovations are making it to the market – that the company known for taking huge risks (ditching the CD drive early, introducing candy-colored computers, betting on gestures and touch-screen interfaces) is starting to play it safe. That’s what happened to Microsoft.

When I look to Android (my daily driver is a Galaxy Nexus) I see non-stop innovation: new features (sizable widgets, Google Now, dynamic notification bar), multiple screen sizes, multiple price points, multiple carriers. It’s worth noting that Google’s Play Store is now almost the equal of iTunes, with the latter still winning in terms of sheer content.

With the iPhone 5 we could see unprecedented reactions. Likely we’ll see three types of responses:

(1) The Loyalist: will automatically upgrade to an iPhone 5 regardless – hey, it’s a new Apple product!

(2) The Ambivalent: might upgrade if there’s enough new sizzle.

(3) The Disenfranchised: will contemplate a switch to Microsoft Windows Phone, but ultimately trade in their 4/4S for an Android.

Group 1 is always going to be there, but I wonder if that lot is shrinking? All of this patent infringement to-do surely would seem very Big Brother to the Faithful. Those that envisioned Apple as taking it to the man (IBM) back in the day, might not like what they’re seeing – philosophy matters.

Groups 2 and 3 in my estimation have grown and represent an increasing population of iPhone users.

With Sir Jonathan “Jony” Ive still heading design it’s somewhat unfathomable that the iPhone 5 could be a dud. The problem is Apple design is entangled now with something you’d never previously use in the same sentence to describe Apple: bureaucracy.

Which will win out? Innovation or legal strong-arming?