Even those of us who aren’t Apple fanboys were watching with a keen sense of interest. This was the world’s most valuable company, and its most idolized, stepping up to the plate. Did they bring their A-game? Would they hit it out of the park? Would they make our jaws drop with delight, and push back the frontier of the possible?
Answer: no. Clearly, the iPhone 4S was a single rather than a home run. But that’s good enough for Cook, a low-key manager if ever there was one (and a stark contrast to his predecessor in that respect). Cook will take singles all night. He has his eye on the pennant, rather than delighting the fans.
The plain truth is that Cook is an inventory guy. That’s how he made his name at Apple: understanding the life cycles of products, and making sure his stores weren’t saddled with too many of them. Keeping inventory low, unsexy as it sounds, is a big part of what makes companies wealthy. And from that perspective, there’s one major reason to release the iPhone 4S now: making sure all your iPhone 3GS customers, who have just left their two-year contracts, upgrade to a new device.
And the iPhone 5? For all we know from the famously tight-lipped Apple, there may well be an iPhone 5 prototype ready and waiting to roll into production. Not all of those endless rumors had to be made out of whole cloth; one thing we know about Apple is that it works on every product years in advance. If the iPhone 5 will launch in 2012, you can bet your life it exists in some form now. Perhaps it’s just waiting on one thing, like a better, slimmer battery that can handle energy-intensive 4G signal. Or perhaps it is only waiting for the go order from Cook, and designer Jonathan Ive sighs wistfully every time he looks in its direction.
Cook, like the honey badger, just don’t care. (Indeed, with $75 billion in the bank, Apple can afford not to care.) The product cycle is now firmly established, and it’s all that matters. The iPhone 4S is for 3GS owners and curious newbies. The iPhone 5 will arrive in time for iPhone 4 owners to upgrade and lock themselves into another two-year contract, and another set of curious newbies can sign up then too. The Earth spins on its axis. Everything is in order.
Is it a risky strategy? Does it provide an opening for Android phone makers to produce ever-more advanced 4G handsets, based on the hot new Ice Cream Sandwich platform, in the meantime? Yes, and yes. Cook is betting on two things: that Apple’s current customer base is rabidly loyal enough that they won’t leave, and that the Apple name, marketing and word of mouth will pick up a steady stream of newcomers, swelling the company coffers and pleasing Wall Street. From the bleachers, those look like pretty safe bets in the long run, even if Wall Street was jittery at first.
We only wish that Cook had acknowledged the crowd somehow. Just one sly joke about iPhone 5 expectations would have gone a long way towards placating the fans; you get the feeling that’s what his predecessor would have done. But that isn’t Cook’s style. This unexciting bottom-line focus is the new normal at Apple. Better get used to it.