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Upsetting the Apple cart

A glitch in maps could mean that the company's best days may soon be behind it. Joe Nocera writes.

india Updated: Sep 23, 2012 21:49 IST

If Steve Jobs were still alive, would the new map application on the iPhone 5 be such an unmitigated disaster? As Apple's chief executive, Jobs had no tolerance for mediocre products. The last time Apple released a substandard product - MobileMe, in 2008 - Jobs gathered the team into an auditorium, berated them and then got rid of the team leader in front of everybody.

No doubt, the iPhone 5, which went on sale recently, will be another hit. But there is nothing about it that is innovative. Plus, it has that nasty glitch. In rolling out a new operating system (OS) for the iPhone 5, Apple replaced Google's map application with its own, inferior, application, which has infuriated its customers. With maps now a critical feature of smartphones, it seems to be an inexplicable mistake.

Part of the reason is obvious: Jobs isn't there anymore. It is rare that a company is so completely an extension of one man's brain as Apple was an extension of Jobs. It's just not the same without the man himself looking over everybody's shoulder. But there is also a less obvious reason that Apple's best days may soon be behind it. When Jobs returned to the company in 1997, Apple was in trouble. It could afford to take big risks and, indeed, to search for a new business model. It had nothing to lose.

Fifteen years later, Apple has a profitable business model to defend - and a lot to lose. Companies change when that happens. It happens in every industry, but it is especially easy to see in technology, as things move quickly. Less than 15 years ago, Microsoft appeared to be invincible. But once its Windows OS and Office applications became moneymakers, its strategy became geared toward protecting its two cash cows. Now it is Apple's turn to be king of the hill - and, not surprisingly, it has begun to behave in a 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 you can see it in the decision to replace Google's map application. Once an ally, Google is now a rival. Apple wants to force its customers to use its own products, even when they are not good. Once companies start acting that way, they become vulnerable to newer 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.

Even before Jobs died, Apple was becoming a company whose main goal was to defend its business model. Yes, he would never have allowed his minions to ship such an embarrassing application. But despite his genius, it is unlikely he could have kept Apple from eventually lapsing into the ordinary. It is the nature of capitalism that big companies become defensive, while newer rivals emerge with better, smarter ideas.