Apple boring? Get over it

September 12, 2008, 12:00 PM UTC
Click above for video about Apple’s updates to the iPod and iTunes ahead of the holiday season.

After Apple’s iPod announcement this week, pundits groused that the whole event was predictable and utterly lacking in surprises. Well, yes. Yes it was. And for investors, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

To recap: On Tuesday CEO Steve Jobs took the stage as he always does in September, and instead of unveiling shockingly innovative products, he delivered pretty much what bloggers had predicted: thinner, multicolored nanos with bigger screens and high-def video in the iTunes Store. About an hour later, dejected reporters filed out of the auditorium and blinked in the sunlight, looking as though they’d just suffered through an over-hyped summer action movie.

Apple stock dropped 3 percent. Wall Street analyst Gene Munster of Piper Jaffray said the event was “overall negative” for the stock because observers had hoped for more cool gear.

Calm down, everyone. Jobs did what he needed to do: unwrap iPods with enough new features to send the shopping hordes back to the electronics aisle this holiday season. And besides, all of this predictability stuff is really beside the point.

The lack of surprise wasn’t exactly Apple’s fault; there was plenty of interesting news, and the company tried to keep things quiet. But as Apple stock has soared and the company has become a bigger, more disciplined and more powerful operation, it inevitably has become easier to figure out, too. In other words, this is the price of success.

Take Apple’s Mac computers for example. Back when its market share wasn’t growing and Apple relied on IBM for chips, you never knew when faster machines would come out. Creative professionals, some of whom relied on Apple’s upgrades to help them do work faster, would get especially impatient. But since Apple switched to Intel , the guesswork is mostly gone; when Intel has new chips available, Apple usually builds them into its computers.

Apple’s success has also made it more vulnerable to leaks. It’s not hard to see why. Given the fact that the company plans to ship well over 20 million iPods during the holiday quarter alone (it sold 22 million during the period last year), it has to share information with manufacturing partners well ahead of time – and they can’t always keep a secret. What’s more, companies that make iPod accessories also get inside info on future iPods so they can design cases and other gear to fit the new products’ dimensions.

With all those people in the know, tidbits inevitably find their way onto blogs – a fact that Jobs lamented during his keynote. (Not only were spy photos of the new nanos online days ago, but blueprints too.)

While that spoils a good surprise, I’ll argue that it’s better than the alternative. Just seven or eight years ago, no one cared enough about Apple to sniff out so many of its secrets, and the company made some wild moves.

I recall one visit to Apple’s Cupertino headquarters in 2001 when senior marketing VP Phil Schiller invited me to check out the latest iMac lineup. When he whipped the covers off of them, they were an odd couple – the case of one, dubbed “Blue Dalmatian,” sported a translucent blue background with white spots; another, “Flower Power,” had a multicolored floral motif, like a bad ’60s sundress. I genuinely hoped it was a joke, and asked Schiller if Apple had focus-grouped them. “We don’t do focus groups,” he told me.

Let’s just say Blue Dalmatian and Flower Power aren’t the kinds of surprises Apple fans want to see more of.

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