Bytes of Apple starting to taste a little off

Remember when Apple was the cool dude and Microsoft's PC was the pudgy guy in a suit? The launch of the iPhone 5 this week has Don Pittis thinking Apple may finally be out of season.

iPhones still selling like hotcakes, but for how much longer?

Remember when Apple was the cool dude and Microsoft's PC was the pudgy guy stuck in the box? It was way back in 2006 and it was so easy to laugh. That series of ads comparing the distinctly uncool PC in glasses, tie and polyester suit with the slim and youthful Apple character helped to create the company's current image.

Apple was an upstart smart Alec, anything but establishment. Besides the products and the Steve Jobs lore, those ads were brilliant in their own right in creating the Apple reputation. You didn't have to be forced to watch them. People collected them on the internet to be viewed as stand-alone cool recreation. 

Anthony Fletch from Paris raises the box containing his new iPhone 5 after being the first customer at an Apple store in Paris. The device still draws crowds, but for how much longer, Don Pittis wonders. (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)

It is easy to forget that some 20 years before, Microsoft had started off as an underdog. Skinny kid Bill Gates tricked the reigning tech giant, IBM by hanging onto rights for software that he realized was more important than the computers that ran it.

Of course by 2000 Microsoft had superceded IBM as the new evil tech giant with its products in every office and home. And with hugeness came abuse.

Everyone griped about the latest Microsoft product. Apple was still the cool underdog.

It may be churlish to say in the midst of today's latest Apple frenzy, with lineups stretching back for its iPhone 5, predicted to sell 10 million units in its first week and 50 million within three months, but today, I sense the worm has turned.

Tide has turned

It's been creeping up gradually.

It was actually May 2010, shortly after the triumphant run of its Apple vs PC ads, that Apple actually became bigger than its old enemy Microsoft. Somehow, despite its new behemoth status, perhaps because of its youth-oriented iPods and phones, Apple's fragrance of cool lingered.

I'm not sure when I sensed the change begin. Maybe it was this August when the Cupertino, Calif.-based company became The Very Biggest Company In The World.

But the feeling grew during the patent battle with Samsung. It won, but stories of how it was insisting it had patented the rectangle with rounded corners left a new smell in the room. Not so cool.

This week I sensed the pile-on.

Patent woes

Apple maps a fiasco, it's new software buggy, more countersuits that some claimed would pull the iPhone off store shelves. Even Switzerland's railway company is getting in on the game, accusing Apple of swiping the design of its station clocks. Live by the sword. Die by the sword.

But the clincher was when my 16 year old son showed me the anti-Apple ad from Samsung and laughed. It was at the top of reddit. Check it out here.

It has the same sense of fun and wit as the ones Apple used to massacre PC way back in 2006. Apple is for old folks, it says. Apple is making annoying changes for the sake of change. Apple is all hype.

As a desk neighbour commented, when the Samsung spot came on as an onscreen ad before another video, he didn't click to skip it but watched right through. Everyone was passing it to everyone else.

Apple lovers like Ralf Marth from Munich store are slavishly devoted to the company's products. (Michael Dalder/Reuters)

When looking for a copy of the ad to link to in this article, I found a copy with another ad at the beginning of it. Talk about making it in internet advertising land. Imagine people willing to watch an ad to see your ad.

Companies, like countries don't stay on top forever. My chum, writer and broadcaster Fred Langan, always liked to point out that there is only one company left in the original Dow Jones collection of 30 biggest companies. And the tenure of that one, GE, was interrupted.

What is it that makes great companies shrink? It is not absolutely clear.

Hubris — altering a product in a way that looks inconsiderate of loyal customers like the new apple port? Fear of undercutting its own product with disruptive technology?

Or maybe raised expectations mean a moderate fail, like their Google maps replacement, looks much worse than if the same thing were done by an underdog.

Inevitably there will be a new company with a technology that we can hardly imagine waiting in the wings to be the next big thing. It is the way the world works. Maybe it will be a product that makes Apple's superfluous.

Obviously it is too early to write Apple off. The biggest company in the world is not going anywhere fast. Microsoft is still around. And so is IBM, rediscovering itself in ways that may once again bring it to the forefront.

Apple is still riding high, but for the first time, the company feels like a real apple that has reached its peak of crisp perfection; its fragrance contains the first sweet whiff of decay.