Apple is selling fear disguised as innovation

Apple is selling fear disguised as innovation
Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple.Apple
  • Apple's innovation hasn't just slowed, it has plateaued. Boring is what's new.
  • Instead of aspirational products that inspire creativity, Apple is marketing fear.

At Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in 2013, Phil Schiller, the company's then SVP for Apple marketing, proudly introduced the new Mac Pro. After extolling its features, he smiled and said, "Can't innovate anymore, my ass."

That MacPro landed with a bit of a thud. Apple was applying its time-tested "we know what you want before you know you want it" design philosophy. But users were not impressed and dubbed it "the trash can" due to its unfortunate resemblance to … a garbage can.

Apple is selling fear disguised as innovation
Apple's 2013 Mac Pro was dubbed the "trash can."Imgur

Nine years ago, about two years after Steve Jobs passed away, Apple really didn't know what users wanted. Innovation was slowing. Product introductions in 2013 and 2014 included larger phones, AMOLED displays, and smartwatches — all long-standing entries in competitors' product lines that Apple had previously dismissed.

Complimentary Tech Event
Transform talent with learning that works
Capability development is critical for businesses who want to push the envelope of innovation.Discover how business leaders are strategizing around building talent capabilities and empowering employee transformation.Know More

What about the Apple Watch or AirPods? Both are nice, high-margin additions to sell to iPhone users, much like ordering fries and a large drink to go with a burger.

Fast forward to September, 2022: After watching the latest Apple product-introduction event, I believe Apple innovation hasn't just slowed, it's plateaued, at least for the time being.


Boring is what's new.

Apple showed off a slate of products with small changes — checklist items disguised as features. The iPhone 14 isn't much different from the iPhone 13 or the iPhone 12. Even with the new "photonic engine," the phone takes photographs that few users can distinguish from those taken with older devices.

Under the leadership of Tim Cook, Apple has released many boring products, but also sold tens of millions of them. This has taken the company to a multitrillion-dollar valuation, which shareholders appreciate, but is somewhat disappointing for users who keep waiting for that "one more thing," as Jobs would say when introducing a new product. Those were the products that drove Apple customers to sleep overnight in front of retail stories just to be the first to buy them.

Under Jobs, Apple really did know what users wanted before they did. Apple sold aspiration as something empowering. I sat in the audience when Jobs introduced GarageBand and John Mayer said he used it. While Mayer was performing, I thought, "The only thing between me and him is a copy of GarageBand." No user asked for an iPod or iPhone, but Apple knew they needed them, or at the very least, wanted them.

Apple is selling fear disguised as innovation
John Mayer and Steve Jobs on stage in 2004, introducing GarageBand.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

These days, Apple often thinks its users need things they neither need nor want. Apple, for instance, thought users needed ever-thinner devices — not unlike how Heinz convinced the market that "thicker" was better when it came to ketchup. But users disdained the features Apple changed in the name of thinness, such as the butterfly keyboard.


Lately though, Apple has begun selling fear rather than innovation.

iPhones now have a feature for connecting to satellites to call for help when you're stranded on a dark, snow-covered mountain in a storm. They offer collision detection, and call 911 in case you're in a car crash.

The Apple Watch? It's not just for fitness; its features can save your life. I know this from the breathless recreations of user letters to Apple recounting how features such ECG and AFib detection saved their lives, as Apple showed at the last product introduction — though warnings on the Watch explicitly say that people with AFib should not use it.

Fearful about your elderly parents? Get them an Apple Watch and be notified if they fall. Traveling alone in the desert? The new Apple Watch Ultra will let out a piercing scream to help rescuers find you if you can't follow the digital breadcrumbs you've set to find your way back to civilization.

The implied message is: "If you want to live, buy our stuff." Apple now sells devices the way First Alert sells smoke detectors.

Apple is selling fear disguised as innovation
From an Apple ad for the iPhone 14's crash-detection system.YouTube/Apple

In reality, how often do most users take ECGs on their watches, or get stranded in place that has no cell coverage but does has emergency-service rescuers? For that matter, how many would use their Apple Watch Ultra to scuba dive? These are not inspiring new tools that empower humans to create but rather a list of features most users will almost certainly never need. They are aspirational to the same people who buy expensive Breitling Emergency watches just in case their plane goes down.

Most reviewers don't take these features seriously enough to get into an accident to test the crash detection or wander the desert to test-call for help on the satellite. Dear reviewers: Come on, who really needs another analysis of the camera at this point?

My favorite article about the new Apple Watches came from a reviewer at the Verge who wrote the best feature of their new watch was the $90 stretchy band. I still can't tell if it was satire or praise.

I strongly believe none of this will hurt Apple's sales, and because I am a shareholder, I'm grateful for that. I do wonder, however, if the insanely great "one more thing" is now just a permanent thing of the past.

Michael Gartenberg is a former senior marketing executive at Apple and has covered the company for more than two decades at Gartner, Jupiter Research, and Altimeter Group. He can be reached on Twitter at @Gartenberg.


The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Disclosure: The author owns Apple stock.