Why does Apple suddenly appear to be trying too hard?

With the new MacBook and Apple Watch, Apple is certainly bringing in new products. But it’s been a fair while since they’ve really disrupted the game.

Tim Cook unveils the new Apple MacBook

Yesterday’s Apple special event, as is wont with every Apple event, was rife with the classic elements of an Apple product unveiling. The layered narrative with the pregnant pauses, the massive imagery in the backdrop, the instantly recognizable Myriad Pro typeface (the font used in virtually every one of Apple’s keynote presentations), all the magical ingredients that go into the making of the classic Apple ‘reality distortion field’ that Steve Jobs wielded to masterful perfection.

But that was a different era.

Ever since Tim Cook took over the reins, it was but natural that comparisons were going to be made. Comparisons that ranged from his management style to his ability to inspire innovation. Even his choice of wardrobe. And while everyone seems to agree that Apple isn’t what it used to be–even with these new announcements–all sense of rationality seems to go out the window each time an Apple product is being announced. They can announce that they’ve just taken away every port (save one) on their new MacBook, or that their new watch has day-long battery life, and the crowds will still swoon with a chorus of ‘aahs’ like it’s the most innovative news ever. And they did.

Apple has, in recent years, been playing catch up, even with many mass market products, introducing new abilities in their products that have been par for the course: 400+ ppi screens, fast processors, cameras with high-quality sensors and day-long battery life. In the longest time, Apple hasn’t unveiled that single bang-up feature that sends shockwaves through the industry. Of late, each time they unveil their ‘next game-changing product’, they appear to be Just.

Trying. Too. Hard. Gone are the days when Apple products seemed to exude that unmistakable confidence. A confidence not just associated with the fact it was a ‘Cupertino-designed’ product, but one that stemmed from really and truly revolutionizing a sector. From the original iPhone, to the iPad, to the MacBook Air, these devices defined the bar by which future products would strive to reach.

With last night’s announcements, I just didn’t seem to get that feeling at all. Starting with the new MacBook (and that’s another thing–why have they stopped giving new products new names?) it does have bleeding-edge design, with its further slimmed-down form factor and all-metal construction. There are the redesigned keyboard switches, the fanless construction, a processor that consumes just five watts of power, more battery per pound, and a ‘retina’ display (2304×1440 pixels). Being able to shoehorn technology that will see you through a working day into something this low-profile is indeed a feat.

While this sounds like plenty of pluses, the flipside is its entry price of $1,300 (factor in at least a 50 percent markup when it hits our shores) and the wiping out of every port on the device, save a lone USB C connector. At this price, there are numerous products–13.1mm thickness and all-metal body aside–that far outweigh in specifications, at a significantly lower price: the newly-launched Lenovo Yoga Pro 3, the Dell XPS 13 and the Asus UX305 for example.

Price apart, including only one port on the entire device is a massive, massive trade-off on functionality. In what world should you not have the ability to plug in a USB drive when you’re charging your laptop? Or a Cellular data dongle? To do any of this, you’ll need to shell out an additional $79 for a dongle that brings back a charging port, display (HDMI or VGA) and a regular USB A port.

Need Ethernet or SD card support? Not possible.

Then there is the Apple Watch. It was an intriguing device when it was first announced in September last year. Its design and construction, as is with the new MacBook, is stellar. The entry-level Aluminium versions and mid-range steel are special alloys while the top-of the line version is more so, blending 18K gold and ceramic to make it harder and more scratch-resistant than anything from competition. Peeling deeper, there’s the ecosystem of development that powers the myriad of apps for this watch. The ones showcased during the event were compelling enough: using your watch to tap payment sensors at the supermarket checkout, or checking in for your flight by waving the watch in front of a QR code reader, to even using it as a hotel room key. But all of this is software, delivering abilities that are present in several other wearables as well. Then when you consider its capabilities in relation to its price, it becomes very hard to rationalize.

But Apple has never been in the business of justifying the value of its products. And they’re not about to start. These watches are clearly luxury products, and are pitched as such. There’s no question of tallying a list of its functions and capabilities and weighing them against price. At least that’s what Apple appears to think. The Aluminum and glass Apple Watch Sport version with plastic band will retail at US $349. The Apple Watch stainless steel ranges between $549 and $1049 for the 38mm version and between $599 and $1099 for the 42mm version, all varying with band type. Of course, the Apple Watch Edition–the Gold alloy one–will retail at a cool $10,000. In limited quantities. If you think this is more evocative of jewelry than electronics, it’s because it is.

Let’s take a step back though–all this is eventually wearable electronics. And it is going to be pitted against the Pebbles, Moto 360s and LG Urbanes of the world, price for performance. And that’s where the Apple Watch starts to lose its shine. There just isn’t enough newness in it to justify those price tags: the 18-hour ‘all-day’ battery life, health tracking, making and receiving calls are really pedestrian features for wearables tech these days.

There was one announcement that stood out yesterday though: ResearchKit–Apple’s foray into the health and medical space. While it’s easy to be circumspect here, where privacy is of utmost concern, Apple did announce that all of those neat diagnostic and health monitoring services showcased were opt in, so end users are not forced into revealing information they weren’t comfortable with. And the cracker: this platform is going to be open source. A truly commendable step, one that–when fronted by the force that is Apple–can have hugely impactful and pervasive implications.

So, a new netbook that is slimmer and sexier than ever but with castrated port connectivity options and a price tag that will induce a nose bleed. And a smartwatch that won’t get scratched easily and has neat software-based features, but once again at jewelry-worthy price tags.

The flair is certainly there, but where is that raw, game-changing innovation, Apple?

Posted by on March 11, 2015. Filed under Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.