This week's Apple media event to introduce an iPhone 5 utterly devoid of any new innovations for the first time ever confirms to me something that I began to suspect at WWDC 2011 -- the Cupertino juggernaut has reached its zenith and has since begun to coast back to earth (although very slowly, with the help of a parachute made of billions in cash). To put it more simply, Apple and the iPhone have jumped the shark.
If you aren't familiar with the term, it's derived from the fifth season premiere of Happy Days in which a be-leather jacketed Fonzie on water skis literally jumps over a shark. The Looney Tunes-esque moment marked a shift in the show that seemed to indicate the writers had run out of ideas and entered a period of creative decline.
In the case of Apple, I believe the shark-jumping moments came last year with the introduction of Siri and -- to a lesser extent -- iCloud. Both over-hyped features have failed to really catch fire in the revolutionary way we've come to expect from the company. In fact, Siri in particular flies in the face of the Jobsian mantra that "it just works." Siri often gets it wrong and people talking to their iPhones hasn't become the cultural meme it might have been.
Just as a water-skiing Henry Winkler wasn't such a clear indication of the beginning of the end for Happy Days at the time, it's taken some time for it to become clear that Apple has reached a similar point. But the iPhone 5 and rumored iPad Mini seem to confirm to me that Apple has shifted from creating and transforming markets to playing catch up in the spaces it once defined.
The iPhone 5 with its LTE and larger-screen upgrades is a clear response to the success of larger 4G Android phones, and a smaller iPad is recognition that Amazon's Kindle (and perhaps Google's Nexus 7) pose a threat.
I know how ridiculous this might sound. Apple is the most valuable company in history and as I write this it's begun selling billions of dollars of iPhone 5s. But as my colleague Roger Cheng has been pointing out this week, the future of Apple suddenly seems a bit more uncertain.
Apple and the iPhone will be around for years to come, to be certain, but it seems that when Steve Jobs left the building, he took "one more thing" with him.
Look, Apple deserves credit. Tons of it, actually. The reason the iPhone 5 introduction didn't wow many people is that Apple has basically perfected the smartphone, at least on the hardware side of things. All the iPhone 4S was lacking was LTE and little more physical heft. The only real improvement anyone has made on the iPad is to make a smaller and cheaper tablet, and that's really more about reaching a different kind of customer than actually improving anything.
So Apple is the king. They've won on multiple fronts. But what's next? This is Silicon Valley, where titans rise and fall faster than you can hop over a shark.
I'm certainly not counting Apple out. Maybe an Apple HDTV will prove me wrong in a few months, but I've got a sneaking suspicion that 2012 will come and go without a single game-changing announcement from the company.
Steve Jobs was a brilliant visionary. Tim Cook is a brilliant production guy, and man is that difference showing right now.
Happy Days continued on for five more seasons after Fonzie jumped the shark, often becoming a bizarre parody of itself centered around Winkler's stardom. Scott Baio and Robin Williams were added to the cast in the second half of the show's life to shake things up, but in the end it drifted into irrelevance and reruns.
I worry that Apple has already begun that drift, and I don't foresee any new devices on the horizon with Baio or Williams-level gravitas to ensure Apple's Happy Days continue.