Apple and America: Don’t Look Back

A friend mentioned a recent column by Joe Nocera of The New York Times analyzing the “unmitigated disaster” of the iPhone5’s new map application.  I am not into technology so it took me a week or so to get around to Nocera’s column – which was not about the iPhone5 as much as about the moment when companies reach an inflection point in their history that causes them to decline.  The same thing happens to the human mind as it ages and, of course, to whole nations.

I am going to abbreviate much of Nocera’s column verbatim and ask readers to consider whether his analysis of Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and Blackberry applies to the cases the Supreme Court is deciding badly on voting rights, affirmative action, political redistricting and anti-immigrant laws.  Jumping from the map app disaster, Nocera wrote: “Though Apple will remain a highly profitable company for years to come, I would be surprised if it ever gives us another product as transformative as the iPhone or the iPad.   Part of the reason is obvious: (Steve) Jobs isn’t there anymore… Apple’s current executive team is no doubt trying to maintain the same demanding, innovative culture, but…there is also a less obvious — yet possibly more important — reason that Apple’s best days may soon be behind it…


“When Jobs returned to the company in 1997, after 12 years in exile, Apple was in deep trouble. It could afford to take big risks and, indeed, to search for a new business model…Fifteen years later, Apple has a hugely profitable business model to defend — and a lot to lose… ‘The business model becomes a gilded cage, and management won’t do anything to challenge it, while doing everything they can to protect it,’ says Larry Keeley, an innovation strategist at Doblin, a consulting firm…It happens in every industry, but it is especially easy to see in technology because things move so quickly…

“It was less than 15 years ago that Microsoft appeared to be invincible. But once its Windows operating system and Office applications became giant moneymakers, Microsoft’s entire strategy became geared toward protecting its two cash cows…Although Microsoft still makes billions, its new products are mainly “me-too” versions of innovations made by other companies.  Now it is Apple’s turn to be king of the hill — and, not surprisingly, it has begun to behave in a very similar fashion. You can see it in the patent litigation against Samsung, a costly and counterproductive exercise that has nothing to do with innovation and everything to do with protecting its turf…

“Apple wants to force its customers to use its own products, even when they are not as good as those from rivals. Once companies start acting that way, they become vulnerable to newer, nimbler competitors that are trying to create something new, instead of milking the old. Just ask BlackBerry, which once reigned supreme in the smartphone market but is now roadkill for Apple and Samsung.”

Nocera’s column should be posted in offices and cubicles of corporations throughout the land, of course, but it also should be slipped under the doors of the offices of the Justices of the Supreme Court.  It would be wasted on the Tea Party, of course, but it would be more than worthwhile for the few aware members of the Republican National Committee to consider mailing it to every member of every school board in the nation.

Russia and Japan – resistant to change and anti-immigrant in nature – are the most evident examples of countries taking the wrong track.  Compared to their contracting populations, America should rely on its history and progress faithfully into the future. It should not now fall back by limiting the voting rights, educational opportunities and the individual potential of the very individuals on whom the future of the country depends.

Apple might one day go the way of other companies.  America might, too.  But it does not have to – not now.

Jesse Treviño is formerly the editorial page editor of The Austin American-Statesman.


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