Is that a blemish on Apple’s shiny peel?

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By Richard Parcia

Some months ago, I gave a tribute to the late Steve Jobs. That piece mentioned a quote that was attributed to him. The quote was about crazy people and misfits who think they can change the world and, will most likely change it.

In truth, Jobs? legacy is not a technical one. To reiterate a refrain from that piece, Apple?s contribution to the world is not so much technological in nature. Rather, theirs is more of a precise example of the merits of value creation.

In a world that is very much connected, the best toys can always be trumped by the best playground. Apple?s success is not the triumph of the ?i? devices. Apple?s success is just a by product of the image of the world according to and was painted by Steve Jobs.

Yet, in that same article, I mentioned a subtle expression of cynicism that was easily overwhelmed by my own expression of thanks for the inspiration that Jobs gave me.

While the plethora of accolades poured in, buried underneath the emotional ticker tape was a hypothesis that whatever vision Jobs pursued and achieved, it actually died with him.

At the time of his death, and of the immediate aftermath, my hypothesis, equally mentioned by more reputable pundits, would have been dismissed as the doomsday prediction of lunatics.

The possibility of being branded ridiculous up to now is still high. Except that something, uncomfortably, brought it back to the thoughts of people. That something was the release of the iPhone 5.

The iPhone 5 is a good successor to the iPhone 4S. But that?s all about it. It being a good successor is actually its problem.

Consumers are not satisfied with the ?good? label. Sure, it has a bigger screen, arguably a faster chip (I seriously disagree; ask the chip engineers), better resolution, etc. But some of the pluses are negated by a crappy operating system, bad applications, confused marketing, and poor design execution. Personally, I just think it just lacks imagination.

And that?s the crux of the seething fear and cynicism for the company. The lack of imagination that produced the iPhone 5 is being seen by some sectors, me included, as a sign that all is not well inside Apple.

And the vision and innovative spirit of a Steve Jobs character is surely missed inside their laboratories. A product that is as an iterative as the iPhone 5 is not the type of product that you expect from a company that was touted as the one that changed the world. Production iterations is the realm of RIM?s Blackberry (dead), Nokia (dying), and, to some extent, Sony (suicidal). But Apple?

The world according to Jobs is filled with devices that adapt to our lifestyle. It?s not a world inhabited by Blade Runners. It?s a world built on the idea that humans are at the center of everything — an ecosystem connected by technology that was consciously designed to close the gap between machine and the person.

In fact, the field of computer science called Human-Computer Interaction became a popular field of study partly due to the products that a Jobs-led Apple churned out religiously.

Apple devices may had looked cool to people. But the functionalities of the devices were not designed to prolong the ?wow? effect to the users. Instead, it was intended that those functionalities will ultimately be part of your system.

They were designed for users to be attached to it. And the key for that design is not to make the most advanced device that can shoot a laser or make coffee. The key factor was that Apple created an environment that these devices were part of.

Apple has always been accused guilty of ?planned obsolescence? and there seems to be some merit to it. But since you are part of the environment, your only viable option is to change the device with something from the same company. The bottomline is that once you are in, you won?t be able to get out of it.

However, that mentality is seemed lost to the current Apple. The iPhone 5 is a step towards the wrong direction and not because the company diverted from its original path.

The diversion is the apparent lack of revolutionary thinking on the side of the current designers. They just made the iPhone a commodity. This is something that any technological visionary — from Bob Noyce to Mark Zuckerberg — dreaded, and for the latter, currently fears.

For a device, once it becomes a commodity, its value diminishes. Not because nobody needs it. On the contrary, people will still be buying it. However, the one who manufactures it can no longer command a premium price for it.

Worse, unlike commodities like rice or bread, people will start or will be susceptible to any alternatives to it. This is one of the major reasons why IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo. Or why the automobile industry of the US could have gone the way of the dinosaurs if it weren’t for the bailout.

Nevertheless, it?s too early to predict the death of Apple. As of the moment its stock price is still at $500, from a high of $700. They have a large war chest to fight off the perils of commoditization.

The Samsung litigation is proof on how deep is their pockets and the arsenal that they have. Still, the signs are ominous. The actual sales of iPhone 5 were only half of what was forecasted. Apparently, their suppliers are being told to slow down on parts production because inventory is on the high side.

Remember the apology of Apple CEO Tim Cook on the faulty mapping system of the iPhone 5? Nothing can be more emphatic sign of bad things to come.

Richard Parcia is a former semicon executive and is now working in the local BPO sector. He teaches at the Graduate School of the University of Santo Tomas.

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