Who can out-Apple Apple?

The current iPhone6 and iWatch mania not withstanding, is Apple in irreversible decline?
Given the business long ago transcended being a mere manufacturer of electronic goods to become a kind of corporate cool uncle figure to the world, its diminution is likely to be disorientating even to those who never bought into the company’s mythology.

Apple is unlikely to continue to be the industry and popular culture-disrupting unstoppable force it was during those 10 golden years between October 23, 2001 (the release date of the iPod) to October 5, 2011 (the departure date of Steve Jobs).

First, the company hasn’t released any truly groundbreaking products since 2010’s iPad and will be turning up late to the smart watch party, which appears to be a fizzer anyway.

“Apple’s finances are incredibly strong and I wouldn’t say it is on a downward slide – yet,” says technology commentator and analyst Patrick Stafford. “”Before the launch of the Apple Watch, plenty of people had been waiting to see if Apple was going to release anything at all. It’s encouraging to see they’re still innovating. The real test will be how the Apple Watch actually performs. Given it’s Tim Cook’s first major product launch, this will be a great testing ground to see how the company cannot just continue, but thrive under his leadership.”

Second, the company is failing to connect with the youth market, especially in Asia, the world’s most important emerging market. “Apple is a Gen X brand – it spoke to that cohort through iconic ads such as ‘Here’s to the crazy ones’ incredibly effectively,” says social researcher Michael McQueen.

“But largely because iPhones are so expensive, younger consumers, especially in Asia, are opting for Android, HTC or Samsung devices. Plus, as companies such as Billabong have found, it’s difficult for a brand to maintain its cachet among tastemakers when it becomes mainstream. The leading-edge consumers tend to drop it at that point.”

Third, Apple would seem to be a prime target for mounting public rage over greedy corporations. Apple’s coolness has long insulated it from the criticism less hip corporations routinely receive for avoiding tax, exploiting their employees and polluting the environment. Especially on the tax issue, a too-clever-by-half Apple may find itself facing the kind of backlash Nike did over its use of sweatshop labour.

“That tech companies such as Amazon, Apple and Google are not paying their fair share of tax is a big deal with the public,” notes McQueen. “Even with brands people love there can come a tipping point where they are ripped off the pedestal. I’d argue Apple is close to that point.”

Apple’s decline will almost certainly be of the genteel variety. “Even if Apple released no significant new products, it still produces some of the best laptops and tablets on the market,” says Stafford. “Any downfall would take years to unfold. The big question is whether Apple is just going to create high quality computers or if it’s going to discover and dominate new product opportunities as it did under Jobs.”

“I’d imagine it would play out as more of a Sony rather than a Blackberry scenario. They’ll be a mature company with huge cash reserves. Apple will soldier on, it just won’t be synonymous with innovation or countercultural cool the way it once was.”

If the king is dead, who will fill the void?

“Samsung is the company best positioned to take advantage of any difficulties Apple experiences,” says Stafford. “It’s already moved into wearable technology and if Apple don’t do anything groundbreaking in that space, Samsung will have it largely to themselves.

“In terms of another Steve Jobs ‘crazy innovator’ figure emerging to transfix us all, I’m sure that will happen. Already Elon Musk, who’s involved in rocket and electric car technology through SpaceX and Tesla Motors, is assuming that mantle.”

“There are some sexy new companies such as Uber that are making a splash disrupting specific industries but in terms of being a game-changing innovator on the scale of Apple the only realistic successor would be Google,” argues McQueen. “In terms of another Jobs figure, an enigmatic individual whose approach to business will be endlessly analysed by people seeking to somehow replicate it, the only possible successor on the horizon is Musk. As Jobs did, he’s creating or at least redefining entire industries.”