Is Apple's iHabit about to break?

Posted by Rob Enderle

This week, everyone but me appears to be at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona watching Eric Schmidt say silly things.

Yes, he’s been in the news this week because Google just hired an ex-Congresswoman as a lobbyist - a practice Schmidt had previously termed evil, as he once believed it crossed a line in the sand. Apparently, that was then and this is now.

In any event, the Mobile World Congress in Spain is where everyone thought the action was going to be.

Then Apple invites us all over to a party on March 7th to "touch something" (I’m betting it’s not Katie Perry) and suddenly it seems like all of the news in Barcelona is just tired and old.

This is slightly reminiscent of when the iPhone launched during CES. Although we were in Las Vegas, it  instantly became clear that the real action was in Cupertino. But what makes the event particularly sad this year is that Apple didn’t even really announce anything (yet), all Cupertino did was confirm it was going to reveal something. Nevertheless, the "announcement" still seemed to suck all the air out of Barcelona.

Let’s analyze why, and discuss if it will be the last time Apple can pull something like this off.  

The iPhone Habit

Coincidently, Power of Habit - a new book that hit store shelves this week - may explain the industry's odd behavior. Basically, some of the media, along with quite a lot of Apple followers, suffer from a definite iHabit. Yes, the book argues that we are ruled by habits, some good, and many bad that define the quality of our life. 

Moreover, it suggests many of the choices we make are now automatic, rather than the result of conscious decisions. The underlying implication? Much of what we do (which supposedly defines how good a life we have), is no longer under our control, yet we are completely unaware of giving anything up.

The author defines three parts of a habit cue (or trigger), routine (what we do), and reward (why we do it).   Frankly, I’m thinking of Pavlov’s dogs who were trained to salivate when they heard a bell and the author, perhaps correctly, is arguing that we humans are little better. 

In this case, our bell is the Apple announcement of an announcement. Think about it - we have developed a definite habit of salivating for the next Apple product so the trigger is an announcement like the one Cupertino just made. The routine? Focus like a laser on what Apple is doing (if you are media), or start thinking about getting in line and/or purchasing the product if you are a consumer. The reward is the status and hits you get when you write (favorably or unfavorably) about an Apple product or see Steve Jobs confirm your positive beliefs when he presents this magical offering.  

If you consciously want to break a habit, the book argues, you need to replace the routine. One example is Alcoholics Anonymous, where drinking is replaced by sober meetings and companionship. Of course, habits can also be altered due to a crisis that forces change or automatically after a period where the reward has been removed. After a long enough time of ringing bells with no food, well, eventually even Pavlov’s dogs will stop salivating. 

Apple Reward

If you have ever seen an Apple pitch with and without Steve Jobs presenting, you know the key difference is magic. When Jobs came on stage, the event went from being just a product pitch to something that was magical and memorable. I recall one of the early pitches he made chatting with a bunch of analysts as we left talking about how amazing the event was. Eventually, we all seemed to have an epiphany and realized that the event hadn’t actually announced much of anything. However, we were so overwhelmed by the magic of it all that we totally missed the lack of content.

Over the last decade, Steve Jobs truly distinguished Apple from a number of other companies. With Jobs gone, Apple will likely struggle with supplying the reward that fuels the iHabit. Granted, this could take a while unless some other CEO steps in and puts the magic on their product lineup like Microsoft once did, but didn’t repeat, with Windows 95.  If you recall, there there were huge lines for that particular iteration of the OS, smaller ones for Windows 98, and really not much after that.  

Wrapping Up:  The End of the iHabit?

Apple still has what is arguably the best solution for both tablets and smartphones on the market. I still see folks who rave about their iProducts and people who don’t have them lust for a change. However, I’m also seeing a growing trend to seriously consider alternatives like the Kindle Fire, Samsung Galaxy, or very powerful Asus Transformer. Shortcomings with all products are tied back to productivity, and while the iPad 3 will substantively close an ever widening gap in terms of performance with alternatives, Windows 8 will undoubtedly strike at the heart of the industry's productivity shortcomings.