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Now That It's Everywhere, Has Apple Lost Its Shine?

One of my favorite bits from Saturday Night Live was a skit with Gilda Radner and Dan Akroyd who played husband and wife starring in a TV commercial arguing over a new product called ‘Shimmer.’

In a nutshell: she said the product was a floor wax – he argued, no, it’s was a dessert topping, the commercial’s narrator - played by Chevy Chase - told them to stop fighting that 'Shimmer' was both a floor wax and a dessert topping (that tasted especially yummy on butterscotch pudding.)

In a nutshell: she said the product was a floor wax – he argued, no, it’s was a dessert topping, the commercial’s narrator - played by Chevy Chase - told them to stop fighting that 'Shimmer' was both a floor wax and a dessert topping (that tasted especially yummy on butterscotch pudding.)

It was hysterical and spot on because well, some things can’t be both. You can’t be all things to all people and iconic products are never a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

Consumers know that and they know what they want.

In, Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t Kevin Maney writes that consumers will give up quality for convenience and low prices, or they’ll pay more for the best goods and services. The problem lies in the space in-between – you know – is it a floor wax or a dessert topping?

Wal-Mart tried to be both - and failed big time.

In Trade-Off, Maney writes about Wal-Mart's failed experiment when it tried to be all things to all people. Known as the low-priced, one-stop shopping center, it tried to relaunch its brand as the place to shop for both those on a budget and for those holding gold cards. When Wal-Mart started carrying more-expensive clothing and advertising in fashion magazines its loyal customers were confused, the affluent customers scoffed and Wal-Mart's bottom line suffered.

In this post, Maney takes at Apple - an aspirational brand that risks becoming too popular.

One of my favorite bits from Saturday Night Live was a skit with Gilda Radner and Dan Akroyd who played husband and wife starring in a TV commercial arguing over a new product called ‘Shimmer.’

Trade-Off by Kevin Maney

What will become of Apple once every soccer mom and taxi driver has an iPhone? Short answer: Apple will look more like Microsoft than Apple.

While researching my book, Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t, I found that consumers get most excited about products that fall at the extremes of a spectrum that ranges from high fidelity (great experience, exclusive product, cool image) to high convenience (easy to use, easy to get, low cost, but zero cool factor).

Stuff that falls in the middle, with so-so convenience and so-so fidelity, often have confused brands and make consumers apathetic. Newspapers, compact disks and Sears land in that middle dead zone.

Apple’s iPhone initially caught the public’s imagination because it was THE high-fidelity cell phone. Nothing else looked or acted like it. Between the $599 introductory price and limited availability, the iPhone started life as an exclusive and super-hip product. An iPhone could make its owner feel cooler and smarter than everyone else. Apple sold 5 million iPhones before 2007 ended, and another 10 million in 2008. The iPhone quickly become Apple’s centerpiece product. Nothing Apple makes has generated more excitement these past few years.

  • Slideshow: Evolution of Wireless Communication

Apple at its best has always been a high-fidelity company. In the 2000s, Steve Jobs rebuilt Apple from a near-collapse by making it into the highest-fidelity tech company on the planet. Apple kept prices high, and made hardware and software that was beautifully crafted and undeniably better than its competitors’.

Apple always had a secret sauce.

For most of its existence, the company has been the underdog, fighting the Microsofts and IBMs. Apple is typically creative, rebellious, sexy. The other computer companies get painted as corporate and mindless, selling their products to the unenlightened masses.

For more than 25 years, Apple has played up that image, whether in its “Think Different” billboards or the more recent “Mac vs. PC” commercials. There is a sense of identity about being an Apple user that is powerful, and that’s part of Apple’s high fidelity.

Now, imagine Apple today if it never invented the iPhone. It would be making computers and iPods – neither product line feeling all that exclusive, cool, or ground-breaking. The iPod might be a terrific product, but everyone has one. Mac owners still feel superior to Windows PC owners, but nobody’s lining up at stores to buy the latest Mac.

The iPhone vaulted Apple back to super-fidelity. If not for the iPhone, we wouldn’t be talking about Apple with nearly so much love and reverence. The company, in fact, would seem kind of tired.

But these days, Apple is driving the iPhone toward the mass market. Prices are diving – now $99! Some observers say Apple can sell 100 million iPhones, which would push the iPhone past Motorola’s RAZR as the biggest-selling cell phone ever. Already, the iPhone has ceased being a product that gets second-glances when you pull one out. Soon, iPhones will be as common as iPods. As common as Windows PCs. In other words, not special or cool or exclusive.

The iPhone right now is still the high-fidelity cell phone. No new phone has matched it. The apps are still new and exciting, so they continue to give the iPhone a fidelity boost. But in a year or two, the infusion of innovative ideas for apps will slow, and only a few will generate much excitement while the rest become an ingrained part of everyday life – like computer applications.

All of which suggests that Apple is headed toward making itself into the overwhelming force in a new technology platform – smart phones – that will become an integral, common, ubiquitous factor in a vast number of people’s lives. Which is right where Microsoft found itself in the personal computing era. Not sexy. Not rebellious. Not thinking different. Not an underdog.

Apple is on its way to becoming the status quo giant. It’s heading from high fidelity to high convenience. As Microsoft found out, it’s lucrative to be the dominant high-convenience force in a market – but that’s not the kind of company Apple has always been.

Amid all that, here’s another danger for Apple. Gartner Group recently forecast that Google’s Android mobile operating platform will overtake iPhone’s market share in 2012. Android is more open, allowing multiple handset companies to make Android phones, and developers to create and sell Android apps in multiple marketplaces. That openness might eventually make Android the super-convenient winner in mobile devices, surpassing Apple and its apps.

Then Apple could find itself in that dead zone – not the high fidelity winner, not the high convenience winner. Not a great place to wind up.

To fight that, Apple will need to pull another iPhone-type high-fidelity hit out of its hat. It needs a new product at the high fidelity end.

Keep an eye out for that Apple tablet.

Stocks Mentioned Here

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Kevin Maney, is the author of Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don’t, as well as the books 'Megamedia Shakeout' and 'The Maverick and His Machine: Thomas Watson Sr. and the Making of IBM.'

He is a journalist who has interviewed many of the biggest names in business in a career spanning 25 years. He writes for Fortune, The Atlantic, and Fast Company among other national magazines, and was recruited by Conde Nast Portfolio magazine prior to its launch in 2007 to be contributing editor there until its demise in April 2009.

Maney was a weekly columnist at USA Today on business and technology for sixteen years.

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