How hard is Apple going to have to work to screw this up?

What's the weakness that will bring Apple back down again?

Apple seems to be on a roll..

Verizon just picked up the iPhone (raising the question of whether Apple or Verizon will end up being the control freak and which will be the irresponsible hippie in that relationship). That'll generate a sale or two.

iPads aren't selling too badly.

Its year-end financials will probably be OK.

A point update for its tablet OS is such big news it's getting big play in mainstream papers.

It's even ready to start taking its power directly from the sun, rather than from the pockets of worshipful fanboys.

Even Wall Street likes it. Maybe too much.

    WSJ: Eighteen months ago I questioned whether Apple stock could keep up its amazing momentum... For Apple investors, I felt, the easiest gains were surely over. Since then, of course, Apple has made me look like a total idiot. The shares have more than doubled.... Far from slowing down, the shares have actually speeded up. I calculate the growth rate works out to an annualized rate of 67%.

So how will Apple, a company that cycles harder than a bipolar yo-yo, bring itself crashing down from such grandiose heights?

Given the unquestioned beauty of most of its products and rabid base of what can only be called "fans" rather than "customers," Apple had to work unbelievably hard through most of its history to keep its profits, stock or market share from rising too high.

It wasn't until 2005 that its stock and fortunes rose above its historic high point (which would be in the doldrums for most companies of its influence and reputation).

Now its products, market share and stock price seem to have nowhere to go but up, which is when things for most companies seem to go back down.

    Reuters: Gleacher & Co analyst Brian Marshall said there's a danger that Apple could become a victim of its own success. "If expectations get too far ahead, there's no way the company can live up."

Or it could disappoint people with capricious decisions, like the one to start hating Flash, or delete the floppy drive.

It was probably right about the floppies. But removing the Home button? I love Home buttons. I'm having one put on my car.

The only major glitch Apple and its stock have taken since '05 was the period during 2008/2009, when CEO Steve Jobs apparently started spending more time away from the office for a bit and people started losing a little confidence.

There wasn't much of a downturn during Jobs' previous bout with cancer in 2004; this time, though, it took Apple nine months to finally announce he was being treated for pancreatic cancer.

Jobs' health seems to be the only major risk most analysts see for Apple's future, though that is a problem in itself. Global, multibillion-dollar corporations on whom investors and fanboys depend should not rely on the health of one man to ensure their future.

Sure, former CEO John Sculley said the biggest mistake Apple made was hiring him.

Sure, Microsoft kind of lost its evil sheen after Bill Gates left.

But there should be more to a company like Apple than one nudgy control freak billionaire whose tastes are so consistent he appears to own only one outfit? (Or thousands that all look exactly alike.)

If that were the case, don't you think Apple (and Jobs) would have put a succession plan in place?

Wouldn't it have learned its lesson from the John Sculley era?

Wouldn't it have learned from the Windows-licensing debacle, in fact -- the decision to not license Apple operating systems to other manufacturers in order to maintain quality control over both hardware and software?

It was the single decision that made Microsoft a powerhouse and left Apple in a niche.

Now it looks as if the same thing might be happening in smartphones, with Android playing the part of Windows (sorry, Android).

The iPhone's not dead, however. And that competition is just in smartphones, not tablets, where the iPad has had little competition in the PC-cannibalization contest so far.

Unless all those tablets announced at the Consumer Electronics Show this week might have some impact, too. Most of them run Android.

It's possible that Apple will continue to dominate so many of its markets as it is now. Not likely, but possible.

Unless it invents a whole new product category, as it did with iPhone and iPad, competition may take the shine off a bit.

So might the level of control Jobs demands over not only hardware, but third-party apps for iPhones and anything else with an i in front of it.

Wikipedia's founder calls that monomania the "biggest threat to the open Internet."

Apple fans don't care, when their gadgets look great and work well. When they don't, well...

Did you see the Daily Show the other night when Jon Stewart spent a ridiculous amount of time talking about how well his iPhone worked? Or in April when he talked about how Apple handled the breach of one little secret?

You can't buy that kind of publicity.

Still, when a company depends that much on one guy, whose judgment can't be questioned, and whose behavior is...eccentric, (though sometimes philanthropically so) there's a much better chance of the whole works going off the edge than if the boss was a little more stable boring.

The real story is that Apple is doing really well right now, but depends for most of its success on two really new product categories. If you realize the iPad is just a really big iPhone, that's actually just one-and-a-half categories.

It's done so amazingly well it's attracted every other high-tech company in the world to come compete with it. At some point Apple will run out of people willing to pay more for a product that does the same thing as the cheap one, but is prettier and was made by a company whose CEO once called Starbucks to order 4,000 lattes to go.

So a lot of the market will start to go to pretty-ish little phones and tablets running Android or Windows or who knows what.

Apple will stick with what it knows: slick design, great packaging, brilliant marketing and as close as possible to absolute control over every part of the process, from coding to components to assembly to retail to support.

That will kick one leg of the stool out from under it, and bring Apple tumbling down into the turmoil of a market where price competition matters more than brand name or design or credit for the innovation that got all the other vendors there in the first place.

Real innovation can put a company ahead of the market and keep it there for a couple of years. It's not a long-term strategy without a guarantee you can keep delivering it time after time after time.

Even for Jobs, that's not likely.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

What’s wrong? The new clean desk test
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies