How do you like those Apples? Waning wow factor for iPhone a drag for Cook

Remember when people were in awe of the Apple iPhone and the other smartphones that followed its lead?

After nine years or so and about 1 billion iPhones sold, no one gets that excited anymore.

What affection there is for the iPhone and Apple — which looks to the handsets for about two dollars out of every three in revenue and even a greater share of profits — lingers below the surface. It doesn't necessarily show up on a balance sheet.

Apple on Tuesday reported a 27 percent drop in quarterly profit, thanks in no small part to slumping iPhone sales, as new models fail to impress and owners are slower to upgrade older phones.

The company's share price enjoyed an uptick in after-hours trading because the results modestly beat estimates, but that hardly counters the underlying concerns and negative trend.

The things iPhones do well is taken for granted. The things they don't inevitably loom larger. People are more likely to get pumped up about, say, a "Pokemon Go" app than the technology in the devices used to play with it.

With Apple reporting another weak quarter on Tuesday, some analysts are asking: What or who will make Apple great again?

Improved durability and reaching the point where changes tend to be incremental — and not always seen as improvements — have hurt smartphone sales overall and dramatically curbed demand for Apple. Its stock has fallen.

As with the iPhones themselves, it has become increasingly common to point to what's wrong with Apple rather than still be wowed by what's right.

"Apple has peaked under the leadership of CEO Tim Cook," analyst Colin Gillis of BGC Financial said this week, suggesting the already lackluster pace of customers upgrading their iPhones may slow even more.

What might not be thrilling from an investment standpoint should be good news for consumers, freed from the Pavlovian impulse to fork over cash upgrading smartphones for vaunted improvements on a regular schedule.

Yet it's just tough to gin up passion for the status quo.

Nothing creates buzz like lines outside stores awaiting the latest greatest version of anything. But greater is hard to come by, and the quantum leap represented by the iPhone is hard to replicate.

Apple Watch? It does little an iPhone doesn't, and a person has to carry an iPhone to make the watch fully functional.

People once got excited about iPads, but iPhones and other smartphones now can fill the same role.

Which bring us back to iPhones and the revolution they spawned.

It wasn't just how they looked when Steve Jobs first introduced them, what they did or how well they did it. Their mere existence seemed a miracle, and in many ways it was.

The iPhone and the smartphones it inspired changed our relationship to each other and the world, and vice versa, affecting the way we live, work and play.

But in that changed world, the mobile computers/cameras/phones with touch screens have grown about as thrilling as bathroom plumbing, rarely considered except when it fails to meet expectations.

That's true of the technology and also the company, which has its loyalists even if they aren't necessarily buying anything at the moment.

"Although the product cycle is soft, the ecosystem is strong," UBS analyst Steven Milunovich noted in his own report. "Most of the debate is about when, not if, iPhone customers will upgrade."

Having produced something so good consumers feel no need to replace it is a feat that merits celebration, especially in the fast-evolving tech sector.

At Apple, though, it's nothing to phone home about.

philrosenthal@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

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