If one more person quotes the Steve Jobs book at me, I might scream. By the end of last year, everybody who got Walter Isaacson’s tome for Christmas 2011 had finally read it, and the fascination with St. Steve had only grown deeper and more tiresome with his absence. Still, it was hard not to wonder what could be learned from the life of Apple’s difficult co-founder, and perhaps most especially from his difficultness. The better we got to know him, the more Jobs’s imperfections seemed essential to his brilliance. In the book’s final pages, the biographer reluctantly draws the same conclusion: the man’s genius and the fact that he was a truculent SOB were probably two sides of the same half-trillion-dollar coin. A leader with a chip on his shoulder makes for a company with something to prove.
But Steve Jobs is gone. Last year marked the first year of Apple’s post-Jobs life and the first glimpse of what its future might look like. With that, and it being the season for rank speculation, I’d like to offer the following bold prediction: in 2013, Apple will make a mistake. I can’t imagine what it will be, mind you. Maybe it’ll be a whopper, a massive security breach of iTunes, say, followed by an ill-considered Soviet-style denial. Or maybe it’ll just be one of those top-off-the-toothpaste things, like launching the next iPhone a little too soon after the last one. Either way, we’ll know it when it happens. Apple is going to visibly screw something up, and this time we’ll find ourselves unable to explain it away as a mere bump on the road to digital utopia.
Troubling signs have been there for a while. Apple’s decision to banish Google Maps and YouTube from iOS 6 was a bit hard to forgive for those of us who obediently keep our devices current. (IOS chief Scott Forstall, a longtime Jobs loyalist, walked the plank over the Maps fiasco, a rare glimpse of Apple’s Kremlinesque internal politics.) Its transition from MobileMe to iCloud was stunningly clunky, leaving a lot of us with two Apple IDs, neither of which we can dump if we want to keep our apps up to date. I even find myself less amused now by the way my Apple TV remote control wakes up every Apple device in the room, transforming each new episode of Downton Abbey into something out of a David Lynch movie. Never mind that wretched new dock connector. For glassy-eyed fanboys like me, the seamlessly magical Apple experience has frayed a little at the edges lately. It’s just not the same.
But there’s more to this prophesy than just a few product hiccups. Apple has also lost its narrative. That’s never good, especially for a challenger brand. In some respects, I think the best thing that could have happened to Apple would have been for its new iPhone 5 or iPad Mini to land with a damp thud. At least then, the affable Tim Cook would have had a problem to solve, a defining battle. Cook, and Apple, would have written yet another comeback story, and pulled Steve’s sword from the stone. Instead, even without the man in the black turtleneck, both of Apple’s major 2012 product launches sold pretty well, and the company moved a step closer to being more afraid of its shareholders than it ever was of Steve.
And that’s why this is the only prediction I’m willing to make out loud in these uncertain times. Apple will make a mistake. It’s not that they’ve never made them before; innovation demands them, and the folks in Cupertino have always fearlessly complied. But they’re acting like they’ve run out of dragons to slay. They seem weirdly confident, almost smug, even as the headlines report on Apple’s patent litigation more often than its inventions. Even as Android’s worldwide share of the crucial smartphone OS market has surged to triple Apple’s almost overnight. Even as its stock lost a quarter of its value between September and Christmas. Apple’s mistake in 2013 won’t be a screwed-up product. It will be overestimating how much goodwill they have in the bank. Having a chip on its shoulder is what always made this company great. In more ways than one, they may have closed the book on that a little too soon.
Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award