The change has been quiet and gradual. It might have even been imperceptible if it weren't for the occasional news headlines: "Apple's Innovation Problem," "Apple's Falling Stock Price Creates Employee Retention Problem," "Apple's Fall From Leading to Lagging Brand."
Let's face it: At some point since Tim Cook took over for Steve Jobs as Apple's CEO in late 2011, Apple lost its magic. It went from leading the technological sector with its playful, creative products to boring its customers with predictable "Thinner! Faster! Lighter!" hardware upgrades and incremental software updates.
Even this year's World Wide Developer Conference, which is supposed to be Apple's shining moment, failed to produce any true game-changers. We saw revised MacBooks with more battery life, a miniature Mac Pro redesign that will probably be mistaken for a soda can, and a facelifted edition of iOS (more on that later).
I have to admit that looking at the new Mac Pro page on Apple's website was enough to make an Apple fanboy like me drool. Still, after the excitement of WWDC wore off, I was left feeling empty. While Apple's new products are slicker than ever, it would be a stretch to call them "revolutionary." They're simply more streamlined and improved versions of what came before.
And that's when I came to a realization: Apple is stuck in update mode.
The thing is, Apple is, by most accounts, still on top of the game. It flaunts the world's largest market market capitalization, and iDevices continue to sell like hotcakes (Apple's second-quarter earnings report for 2013 announced $43.6 billion in revenue and $9.5 billion in net profit).
But there are warning signs. Apple's chief competitors, Samsung and Google, are rolling out new Android smartphones and tablets with bigger screens and faster processors than the iPhone. Microsoft isn't far behind with Windows Phone. Google's Android platform continues to hold a greater market share than iOS.
Following the tragic death of Apple's visionary leader and CEO, the press reported that Tim Cook had giant shoes to fill and everything to lose. Now, almost two years later, it's clear that Tim Cook is already losing, and here's why.
Since September, when the iPhone 5 first went on sale and Apple shares peaked at $705, the price of Apple's stock has dropped by more than $300.
On Wednesday, Apple's stock dipped below the $400 mark. The last time that Apple's stock price was so low was in December 2011. The difference? Back then, it was on an upswing.
Everyone by now knows what a tremendous embarrassment Apple's mapping application was. After its debut in iOS 6, the application was ridiculed for being inaccurate, sometimes comically so.
But after everyone had a good laugh at Apple's expense, it became clear that "MappleGate" was indicative of something greater. "I think Mapplegate will pass, but it shows a crack in Apple's seamless veneer," wrote an analyst at Forrester research.
"When other companies launch half-baked software, they get away with calling them 'beta,'" she wrote. "But consumers and journalists seem to expect perfection from Apple."
And that's exactly the problem. When Apple was under the care of Steve Jobs, slip-ups and glitches were almost unheard of. One tech blogger has argued that if Jobs had been alive to see the catastrophic launch of Apple Maps, he would have fired Tim Cook on the spot.
Don't you get it, Tim? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The fact that companies like Samsung and Motorola are borrowing design elements from Apple's software to incorporate in their own mobile platforms is something that Apple should celebrate. It means that the iPhone is leading the field and that Android-based phones are still playing catch-up.
By continuing to pursue a lawsuit against Samsung that has stretched on for two years, Apple is wasting a tremendous amount of resources. Instead of hiring lawyers to rail against other tech companies, Apple should be recruiting engineers and software developers who will continue to innovate and ensure that Apple is one step ahead of the competition.
Besides, it's hardly like Apple can claim that "slide-to-unlock," "pinch-to-zoom," and inertial scrolling are entirely proprietary in the first place. After all, there's no such thing as an original business idea.
When Steve Jobs was leading the design of the Macintosh computer, he was known to repeat the oft-quoted mantra, "Good artists copy, great artists steal."
That being said, there are some things that just aren't worth stealing from, and Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 is one of them.
Basically, Apple ditched its cornerstone philosophy of skeuomorphism — which is just a fancy way to say that design elements evoke real-life counterparts (think of the way the Notes app feels like a yellow legal pad) — in favor of flat, abstract shapes and colors.
Image courtesy of the LA Times
As one design blogger lamented, "Gone are lush, skeuomorphic objects, dials, and textures. Instead, they have been replaced with stark, largely white and open app spaces; colorful, almost childlike icons; pencil thin, abstract controls for settings."
There's really no reason why iOS needed to dumb itself down in order to look more like its competitors. It's like the beautiful and popular girl in high school who is secretly a genius but purposely answers questions incorrectly in class in order to hide her intelligence from her friends.
Besides, in focusing so much on making the hands on the clock app icon move, Apple is losing sight of the bigger picture.
In an article aptly titled, "Apple's Problem Isn't Cosmetics, It's Google," business analyst Anton Wahlman writes, "If Apple thinks its problem is the look of its software, I get seriously worried. If it thinks that it can have a bright future based on copying the look of Windows 8, there's a screw loose somewhere."
Which brings us to Apple's real problem...
What was the last Apple product that, upon first touch, filled you with a sense of wonder and delight — that made you feel like a kid on Christmas morning?
Was it the iPhone 5? The iPhone 4S? The iPhone 4? The iPhone 3GS? The iPhone 3G? The original iPhone? With every iPhone reiteration that Apple produces, some of the initial magic wears off.
The fact that the iPhone 5 is better than any of the iPhones that came before it is beside the point. What we, as selfish and spoiled consumers, want more than perfection is to be amazed and awed by Apple the same way we were when the iPhone was first announced in 2008. We want to be forced to suspend our disbelief as we interact with technology on a previously unimaginable plane.
More than anything, that's what Steve Jobs did for the company. He was a visionary and a leader who was constantly coming up with new ideas. For better or worse, he would push his employees to the breaking point in order to ensure that Apple's products lived up to his own lofty ideals.
As tech writer Rocco Pendola put it, "Steve Jobs set the bar so ridiculously high that it's almost unfair to criticize what happens on Cook's watch. It's like ridiculing David Lee Roth for not being able to successfully replace Howard Stern in morning drive radio. Roth was out of his league."
Steve Jobs' ability to supply that "magic touch" is what gave Apple the edge over all other companies in the tech sector. Jobs has passed on now, and the last two years have revealed that Tim Cook, try as he may, will never be able to keep the magic alive.
Gabe Grand is an editorialist for PolicyMic and a disillusioned Apple fanboy.