How many times can Apple bottle lightning? The challenges of staying on top

apple tim cook iphone 5 announcement sept 12 keynote

Full Coverage From Apple's 9/12 iPhone 5 Launch EventApple has two big products left to unveil this year: the new iPhone 5 and the iPad Mini. Of the two, the phone will be more critical, because Android competitors (Samsung in particular) have been gaining significant ground on the current iPhone. The iPhone 5 may well be Apple’s only way to keep from slipping to a number-two spot. More importantly, the September 12 launch event will be the first to really showcase Tim Cook’s Apple. If Cook stumbles, are we veering toward a future Apple that looks far less powerful than the one Steve Jobs helmed?

Unfortunately for Cook, a number of problems have already presented themselves. For one, the company’s vaunted wall of secrecy might be cracking; we seem to know far more about the iPhone 5 than we should. Two, while Apple was winning its patent war with Samsung, Samsung was wracking up more market share: It now controls 32.6 percent of the smartphone market, compared to Apple’s 18.8 percent. Three, Apple’s ads during the Olympics (which made Apple customers look stupid) were arguably the company’s first marketing misstep since Jobs returned to the company in 1996.

Apple has been setting the bar for smartphones since it introduced the original iPhone in 2007, but its ability to continue raising it is more in question than ever. That makes the iPhone 5 a critical product for Apple’s continued dominance and market leadership. But will it be enough?

Treading the line between new and familiar

The iPhone 5 will have a unique 4-inch screen among highest resolutions in the market, and 4G LTE capability. Its strongest competitive feature will be its similarity to other iPhones – Apple can’t break that because we users don’t like change. This is why otherwise excellent products like Windows Phone devices aren’t taking off; they are just too different from the current iPhone standard. Maintaining that sense of familiarity creates a tricky dance for Apple: It has to showcase the product as both new and innovative, but also old and familiar. If Apple fails on either vector, it will either lose existing iPhone users for becoming too different, or fail to capture new ones for not becoming different enough.

iphone 5 vs iphone 4s september 12 annoucementSo much has leaked about the iPhone 5 that we already know a lack of similarity won’t be the problem here; existing iPhone users won’t have a problem with this product. The challenge will be appearing innovative and market leading. Even a 4-inch screen will be smaller than other phones, it won’t be as brilliant, and it won’t be as sturdy. Those are all OK if users see the unique configuration as being more useful. The iPhone 5 may well accomplish much of what its competitors accomplish without referring to those competitors’ occasionally cumbersome dimensions, but being “Best In Class” if the class in question is “fitting into small hands” isn’t what the world has come to expect from Apple.

Besides introducing new features, Apple will also be on the hook for fixing and improving old ones. Siri and iCloud have both proven somewhat problematic in actual use, so I would hope for improvements in both – especially since Siri has become a keystone iPhone feature. Apple could improve both reasonably quickly. I would also expect an improvement on how the phone takes, edits, and shares pictures, which has the possibility to appear magical with the right spin.

Finding the magic

No matter what Apple announces on Wednesday, I have no doubt that the pent-up demand will create lines. We’re creatures of habit. We lined up for the old Batman and Star Wars films long after they stopped being great, and we’ll pay Apple the same courtesy if it loses its mojo.

I don’t think Apple is going to have a flop, but it will have real difficulty creating the kind of magic that Jobs was able to summon up. For instance, we’ll likely see a celebrity trotted out at the launch event to help create the kind of on-stage presence that Steve Jobs once had, and Tim Cook lacks.

Apple’s future will have a great deal to do with perfecting the recipe for magic, and learning to conjure it up without Steve Jobs. The company will continue to sell phones either way, but retaining that magic is the only way to retain true leadership in the market. I know Apple can do it. I hope they will do it. But I also have my doubts.

We’ll know in a few days. Fingers crossed.

Guest contributor Rob Enderle is the founder and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, and one of the most frequently quoted tech pundits in the world. Opinion pieces denote the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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