There’s an old saying in baseball: If you can hit the ball a little less than a third of the time you’re at bat, you’re a good hitter; if you can do slightly better than that, you’re an amazing hitter.
And we mean only slightly better.
Ty Cobb has the highest career batting average in the history of baseball at .366.
This is honestly relevant to technology for two reasons:
- The difference between “good” and “all-time great” is often quite a bit smaller than we might imagine. Over the course of a thousand at-bats, the best hitter in baseball history gets on base about seven times more than a merely good player.
- There is no such thing as “batting .1000.” Even in baseball — the origin of the idiom — no one actually does it. Being extremely good, or even the best, doesn’t even come close.
Which leads us to Apple in this week’s Apple Tracker. In particular, how to evaluate it over the last five years, otherwise known as the post-Steve Jobs period. As Tim Cook takes his position at the plate in his fifth year at the helm of the world’s most successful company, what is Tim Cook’s batting average?
It’s a harder question to answer than you might think.
Steve Jobs: The Worst Opening Act In History
Whatever else can be said of Tim Cook, he almost unarguably walked into Apple facing the toughest imaginable act to follow. Steve Jobs was a legend when he was alive and went on to be canonized by the Church of Silicon Valley as the patron saint of innovation when he died.
The Tim Cook tenure has been filled with avid curiosity and an unspoken concern that the House That Jobs Built was at grave risk of collapsing. And by “unspoken,” we actually mean “spoken fairly constantly.”
Cook had been in the job less than a year (and had released exactly zero projects that Steve Jobs hadn’t been involved with in some capacity) when “Apple Has Jumped The Shark” headlines started making the rounds in the tech press — something that has gone on to become a sort of late summer institution ever since.
However, during Cook’s tenure so far, the late summer rendition of The Doors’ “The End” that is sung in Apple’s general direction each year has usually given way to the “Hallelujah Chorus” by the time Thanksgiving and holiday shopping season rolls around.
This time a year ago, “Bendgate” was forgotten, and the iOS 8 update debacle was pretty much all forgiven. Apple Pay was the future of commerce, and the iPhone 6 was about to blast through all previous sales records for the holiday season because it was widely hailed as the greatest phone in the history of human communication.
In 2013 Apple released a holiday season commerical for the iPhone 5s that was so moving the entire nation liked teenagers for a full minute and a half and Apple won an Emmy for it.
And like the New England Patriots, New York Yankees and L.A. Lakers, Tim Cook can always point to the “scoreboard.” Except instead of counting off all the championships he’s won, Cook can note that under his stewardship, Apple has grown to become the most valuable company on the planet, as measured by market cap, while at the same time maintaining its consistent ranking as one of the most innovative companies in the market across a variety of verticals.
It’s tough to argue with a scoreboard that has $653 billion (Apple’s market cap) flashing on it, not to mention more than $260 billion in the bank (about 2x what the U.S. Treasury has on hand).
It’s Difficult To Argue With $653 Billion — But Not Impossible
A regular reader of tech press will quickly note that the world has been somewhat less forgiving going into the holidays this year.
Because unfortunately for Apple, this year started much better than it seems to be ending.
Following the iPhone 6 victory lap, the back half of the year has been marked by a fluttery stock price and a buggy iOS 9, and while everyone is sure the iPhone 6s is going to perform well this holiday season, how well exactly remains very, very much up in the air.
And a weakening iPhone spells big problems for Apple, because it far and away is the engine that drives the Apple revenue machine. So far and away, in fact, that analysts watching the space seriously wonder if it’s all Apple’s really got.
“Apple Stock: Has The ‘Magical’ Elixir Of Innovation Run Out?” is one headline pointing to the problem in a fairly on-the-nose manner but pointing to it nonetheless.
Because, scoreboard aside, the troubling part of Tim Cook’s game, so to speak, is that apart from the flagship product that will be Steve Jobs’ most notable legacy, his individual at-bats haven’t yet produced much in the way of amazing results.
Some products have fallen into a slump, like the iPad, which was once forecasted to lead the wave of tablets displacing desktops as the computer of choice for the masses. But that isn’t how it worked out. Consumers like touchscreen typing sometimes but not always, and Microsoft’s Surface found a big niche in the market of customers looking for the tablet-laptop hybrid that customers were actually looking for. Or, you know, they just stuck with a laptop when they had to type more than a 140-character tweet or an acronym-laden text message.
Part of the problem is that the iPad hasn’t fundamentally changed that much between iterations, other than getting thinner and coming in a wider color palette. Consumers, it has turned out, don’t really treat them like phones that need to be upgraded every year or so. The iPad can’t be considered a failing product, but its sales have consistently fallen for long enough that Apple is now pinning its hopes for the product’s future on a successful entrance into enterprise use.
Analysts agree that this is an interesting move with potential, but that it’s also not a slam dunk given that Apple is a late entrant into an enterprise marketplace that is dominated by extremely experienced (and well-entrenched) players like Microsoft.
Other releases — pure products of the Cook era — have had inconclusive but not wholly encouraging results.
Apple Pay — despite a very splashy entrance into the market and lasting pile of goodwill from many important payments players — is, simply stated, just not igniting as of yet. Only 5 percent of the transactions that could be Apple Pay transactions (consumers with an iPhone 6/6s at a merchant that accepts NFC) are. While the service is mostly well-reviewed by those who try it, it’s not so overwhelmingly awesome that it’s become a habit.
And that, unfortunately, is kicking off a negative feedback loop where merchants, seeing general consumer indifference, are sitting back to wait for the consumer stampede that hasn’t yet happened. And, since merchants don’t support it yet, consumers don’t remember to use it, and you know the rest of that story.
Equally splashy was the introduction of the Apple Watch, which at this point is the biggest mystery in Apple’s arsenal.
Some reports indicate that sales are higher than expected. And Apple was certainly enthusiastic, if vague, about its flagship wearable’s prospects in its most recent earnings call. But others indicate that sales are lower than expected and that Apple is considering lowering the watch’s price point to stimulate sales. In the background have been six months’ worth of dueling analysts’ notes drawing strongly defended and opposite conclusions about the likely future of the watch.
Also falling into the mysterious category is how well Apple Music is doing. The service was clearly able to sign users on during its early free trial period. What remains to be seen is how many of those users will stay with Apple once the monthly charges kick in and how many of those users are active or just forget that they have to opt out of the subscription renewal.
There was, however, controversy earlier this year when one music industry research group MusicWatch released figures that indicated Apple Music had lost as many as half of its early users as soon as paying for the service drew near. That release spurred an unusually direct response from Apple, which did not release figures of its own but did claim that MusicWatch’s numbers were very, very wrong.
Now, the good way to look at these results, we suppose, is that there are no out-and-out whiffs here — just a lot of question marks.
But the longer that it takes for all those question marks to flip to exclamation points, the more pressure that puts on the iPhone to perform, outperform and then supernaturally perform.
As the world of baseball demonstrates, Tim Cook doesn’t need to “bat .1000” to be one of the greats, and all of those products don’t have to be grand slam home runs.
But it does suggest that he and Apple need to connect, solidly and soon, because so far he’s not batting .300 either.
And the iPhone can’t keep batting .1000 forever.