By Marek Fuchs
Whither the Apple (AAPL) fanfare?
The company is due to launch the latest derivation of the iPhone on Tuesday and the media, which once treated Apple gadget releases as slightly bigger news than the moon landing, are – at least on a comparative basis – fairly calm.
What does the relative quiet on the Cupertino front mean?
Before we go there, let’s allow that there is still plenty of Apple coverage relative to some other stories in the tech and business space. And, yes, it’s hard to measure precise levels of media treatment, as it comes in many different forms. But along with traders having less verve for Apple – see the fizzled stock price, which bounced above $500 in Monday trade but still sits well below its high of $705.07 hit in September of last year – the media have seemingly tempered their ways when it comes to Apple.
Look back two years ago at the time of the iPhone4s introduction, when even the staid New York Times was calling Siri “really significant” – not only for “the future of Apple” but also “for the future of what is now called search.”
This go round? Forget any mention of transcendent innovation. In a preview to tomorrow’s iPhone5s introduction, the Times starts by calling the handset market “brutally competitive.” There is no mention whatsoever of Siri, which was supposedly going to revolutionize search in 2011.
And CNNMoney, which tossed around terms such as “highly anticipated” and “long-awaited” to set the table for the iPhone5 just a year ago, said on Sunday – in a headline, no less – that “Apple’s innovation problem is real.”
The fact that the coverage we've been getting in the lead-up to the iPhone5s launch is more measured in tone tells us, first off, a lot that we already know: Since introducing the iPad, it’s been a fractured state of affairs for Apple. Either due to the death of Steve Jobs or the natural ebb and flow of the product cycle, Apple has been left, for now, to peddle incremental improvements to their existing products. And augmentation is, without a doubt, less sexy than revolution.
And even the manner in which Apple unveils these updates has lost its luster. If you can find any appreciable differences now between Apple product introductions and those of Microsoft (MSFT), do tell. Samsung, for its part, has even one-upped the Apple shtick, renting out Radio City Music Hall and deploying a manic troupe of dancers and comedians.
At the most basic level, this could be a reverse indicator. When a gizmo release comes along and the media go into presidential election mode or deploy enough reporters to cover a Super Bowl, you probably know everything about that company – from its hold on the public imagination to its stock price – is overdone. Big time. In this case, it may underscore the fact that Apple might be a bit underappreciated in the public square. That is never bad for a stock.
Beyond that, though, the collective shrug may be obscuring the complexity of this launch. Apple appears to be attempting for the first time, or emphasizing to a greater degree, several new strategies.
Take the rumored iPhone 5c (or cut-rate iPhone). Hitched to the expansion of Apple’s trade-in program, which stands to tether more users to Apple versus AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ) or Sprint (S), the sale-rack iPhone holds the potential to reach less-affluent customers. Of course, initiatives such as trade-in specials and cheaper products also run the risk of striking at Apple’s public image. Its brand might be seen in the bargain bin terms it has, until now, assiduously avoided.
In other words, this may be the point on which Apple’s fate rests – can it attract poorer customers without repelling the rich?
Lower price points might help, especially in China and India. If Apple can morph into a somewhat more affordable option in Asia without doing irretrievable damage to their high-end reputation in the U.S., they might be able to swing it. Toward that end, it bears more notice that Apple is apparently planning a September 11 launch of the iPhone 5c in China, a day after the 5s launch at its California headquarters.
While everyone and his brother has caught onto Apple’s other product-unveiling tricks, this is not the same old, same old. This double-barreled introduction is a new and potentially effective tool. Don’t let it slip by unnoticed.
Moreover, with the more limited coverage, there hasn’t been as much time and space for conjecture. Normally, of course, there is too much conjecture about future Apple products. But here the focus has been largely on the various shades of pastel we may see. Could there possibly be a lot more to this new iPhone, or a hint about TV that takes a slight hold on the public imagination?
With Apple – even in its reduced state – there is always the chance for surprise.
That’s why you need to pay attention, even if the media are not (as much).
Marcel Duchamp, the French Dadaist, was talking about America during the Prohibition era, but he could have been talking about Apple in the run-up to next Tuesday’s announcement when he said: “It’s quiet ... too quiet.”
Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' County Lines column for six years. Fuchs speaks regularly on business and journalism issues at venues ranging from annual meetings of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers to PBS to National Public Radio. His recent book, "Local Heroes: Portraits of American Volunteer Firefighters," earned widespread praise. He is on the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. When Fuchs is not writing or teaching, he serves as a volunteer firefighter. You can contact him on Twitter: @MarekFuchs.