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Apple and the coolness factor

Apple iPad conductor composer Esa Pekka SalonenApple iPad conductor composer Esa Pekka Salonen
An Apple iPad promotional image featuring conductor and composer Esa Pekka Salonen.Courtesy: Apple

I’ve been reflecting of late on whether or not Apple has been able to retain its cool.

It’s a subject that seems to obsess professional obsessives. Apple’s coolness, its ability to position itself at the center of the cultural-technological zeitgeist, is directly proportional to its profitability and market valuation, goes this argument. Because it has been so long since Apple (AAPL) changed the world—since 2010, to be exact, when the iPad was birthed—the worry is that Apple isn’t so hip anymore. Its market share in smartphones has slipped to Google’s (GOOG) Android. It’s not the leader in digital payments. Amazon (AMZN) completely outmaneuvered Apple on e-books. Apple frittered away its commanding lead on digital music to the likes of Spotify and Pandora. And on and on.

Indeed, the gnashing of teeth over Apple’s demise began pretty much as soon as Steve Jobs died almost three years ago. (My tooth-gnashing line is a quote of myself in USA Today, which fretted, over the weekend: “Apple mojo on the line at unveiling.”) For perspective, I re-visited an essay Forrester’s George Colony wrote in April 2012 predicting that Apple ultimately would “coast, and then decelerate” without Steve Jobs at the helm. As evidence, Colony kindly cited portions of my book, Inside Apple, that spoke to the singularity of vision, decision-making, and accountability that Jobs represented. (He also pointed to the fantastic and creative organization chart that Fortune created at considerable expense.)

Colony did suggest the decline would take time, predicting that Apple’s momentum “will carry it” for two to four years. Its momentum certainly appears to be intact today. Its stock price is up about 25% since then, after having charged forward earlier that year. iPhone sales have ensured gushing profitability despite the decline of the iPod and slowing growth of the iPad. CEO Tim Cook gradually has been replenishing his management ranks after departures that already had begun under Jobs and accelerated afterwards for fairly obvious reasons.

As for coolness, Apple’s narrative arc here is interesting. And let’s not forget, “cool” is nothing if not about narrative. Fifteen years ago Apple was extremely cool, but only to a relatively small group of believers, collectively known as fanboys. Today, as I’ve written, we are all Apple customers. That’s the great trick for Apple: Now they’ve got to keep us as customers.

Can they do that? Will it be because the great unwashed decide they need a smart watch? Or a bigger phone? Or to buy more things with iTunes?

Beats me. Perhaps we’ll find out later Tuesday if Apple is “coasting.” Or maybe not. These things take time. The iPod ramped slowly. The iPad was mocked on its launch day, and then clever observers grossly underestimated the number of units Apple sold in the product’s first few months.

If Apple is to lose its cool it will take longer than most people think. In the meantime, it sure is making a lot of money.