Bad Apple

The company’s ugly, underpowered new iPhone battery case is a sign of trouble in Cupertino.

Apple’s battery case costs as much or more than those offered by third-party accessory makers like Mophie and Incipio, but provides less power. 

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy Apple.

Overpriced. Underpowered. Impossible to customize. Closed ecosystem. Form over function.

These criticisms of Apple products have grown familiar over the years. They’re among the pitfalls inherent in the company’s singular approach to design, which prizes simplicity, aesthetics, and ease of use above all.

That approach, embodied by co-founder Steve Jobs and now design chief Jony Ive, has always been polarizing. There are people who have never liked Apple products and never will, including a lot of hardcore technophiles. And Apple has always been OK with that, because there is a far greater number of people who have come to adore its products, including many who had never considered themselves technophiles before.

Apple is successful in no small part because it is stubborn. But lately there are signs that stubbornness may be wavering—and, with it, the design mystique that has helped to make Apple the world’s most valuable company.

This week, Apple released a new product that attempted to address one of the most persistent complaints about the iPhone. It’s called the Smart Battery Case for iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s. For $99, it promises to both protect the phone and increase its battery life from about 14 hours of talk time to 25—or, equivalently, from 10 hours of Internet browsing to 18. Hurray, right?

Not exactly. Apple’s battery case costs as much or more than those offered by third-party accessory makers like Mophie and Incipio, but provides less power. It does have a few perks, like the ability to see how much power remains in the case’s battery by swiping down on your phone’s screen. And it’s compatible with Apple’s Lightning cable, which is convenient, assuming you discount the inconvenience incurred when Apple forced you to switch to the Lightning cable in the first place. But there’s no external battery life display, and no way to control whether you’re drawing battery from the case or the phone itself.

Far more surprisingly, for Apple, the case is garishly unattractive. It’s thick and rubbery and suffers an awkward bulge where the battery goes. It makes the iPhone look like the smartphone equivalent of a Boeing 747.

The verdict from the tech press was swift and harsh. The case “doesn’t measure up,” proclaimed the Verge. Forbes called it “an angry, ugly mess.” Cult of Mac—not exactly a bastion of anti-Apple sentiment—called it “butt ugly.” Even the staid Wall Street Journal called the case “funny-looking” and “fairly unsightly,” while noting its technical shortcomings and poor value relative to other cases on the market.

Perhaps you could write this off as a rare and relatively insignificant stumble on the part of a company whose hardware routinely draws raves. But those stumbles are not as rare as they used to be. And they represent a broader shift that could spell trouble in Cupertino.

After years of arrogantly dismissing complaints and sticking to its guns, Apple now seems to be trying to please more people than ever, largely by releasing more different types of products than ever. In the process, it may be losing some of the qualities that once made people so irrationally passionate about it.

To be clear, a battery case for the iPhone isn’t an intrinsically bad idea. One of the great complaints about the world’s best-loved personal computing device has always been its propensity to run out of power at inopportune moments. One minute your phone is the belle of the ball; the next it’s a pumpkin.

That’s not an accident on Apple’s part, however. It’s the result of a calculated trade-off in which the company has sacrificed battery life in order to make its phones the lightest, slimmest, and sleekest on the market. It’s a decision that has paid off spectacularly. Yes, you hear a lot of moaning about the iPhone’s battery life, but guess why? Because people keep buying the things anyway. To the vast majority of iPhone buyers, a shortage of power is an annoyance, but not a deal-breaker. If Apple stopped making the prettiest phones, that would be a deal-breaker.

There are exceptions to that generalization, I’m sure. There are people out there who value the iPhone for reasons other than its aesthetics, and who view its battery problems as a critical flaw. The Smart Battery Case is Apple’s attempt to mollify that subgroup of customers without having to change the design of the phone itself. In short, it’s an attempt to offer something for everyone.

Offering something for everyone is a common strategy among the world’s largest companies. It allows them to capitalize on their design experience, brand recognition, supply chain, and distribution networks to sell their products to the widest possible audience. General Motors does it. Walmart does it. Samsung does it, and it’s a big reason why Samsung is the world leader in smartphone sales by volume.

It’s also a big reason why Samsung is not the world leader in smartphone profits. Apple is, and the race isn’t close. According to Gartner, Samsung captured 24 percent of the global smartphone market in the first quarter of 2015, while Apple garnered 18 percent. In that same period, however, Apple reaped an astonishing 92 percent of the smartphone industry’s net profits.

Like General Motors, Walmart, and Samsung, Apple is among the world’s largest companies. Until recently, however, it hasn’t acted like one. Eschewing variety and comprehensiveness, it has focused on offering, in each of a few highly lucrative categories, just one iconic product that defines the market and sets the standard by which others are judged. That has allowed the company to focus all of its formidable resources on a single design problem and arrive at what it believes is an optimal solution for the typical Apple customer.

It’s never a perfect solution, mind you—there are always flaws. But, in the case of the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, it was good enough to thrill a large swath of the populace, generally occupying the higher end of the mass market. Apple was content to let its rivals fight over the remainder of the market, including niches that care deeply about particular features or specifications (say, USB ports, or a stylus, or, yes, battery life). It was a controversial strategy, but a brilliant one.

Signs of Apple’s cracking philosophy can be found beyond the battery case. For years the company sold just one iPhone at a time, with the only options being color and memory size. You didn’t buy an iPhone. You bought the iPhone. Apple now offers two different iPhone models, the 6s and the 6s Plus, and it’s rumored to be adding a third: the smaller, budget-oriented 6c. After years of keeping iPhones small, Apple changed direction with the 6 and went large. The bold move paid off. Now, however, the company has apparently decided that bigger isn’t always better after all. Why dictate to your customers when you can offer both and let them decide? 

Similarly, Apple famously deliberated over the ideal proportions for the original iPad. Then it introduced the iPad Mini. Now we have the iPad Pro, which is not only larger, but an entirely different sort of tablet—one optimized for work, not play, and best used with the help of a special keyboard and stylus. It’s as if the company is saying: “Oh, you prefer Microsoft’s vision of what a tablet ought to be? Well, we can do that too!”

The Apple Watch comes in even more shapes, sizes, colors, and materials, its bands ranging from cheap plastic to ultra-pricey gold. The face can be customized and personalized in numerous ways. All of which is a good thing if your goal is to appeal to as many different tastes as possible. Not so much if your goal is to build something iconic. 

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these products have drawn mixed reviews and failed to ignite the popular imagination—nor that some, like the battery case, appear to be outright duds. 

What Apple used to understand is that you can’t have it both ways. You can build one legendary product, or a wide range of mostly pretty good ones. You can be loved by many and loathed by some, or you can be merely liked by all. Apple now seems to want to be liked. But it may be a little late for that—and, so far, the company doesn’t seem to be very good at it.