Is Apple in Trouble?

by Tom Taulli | August 1, 2012 7:15 am

[1]One thing is absolutely clear: Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL[2]) Steve Jobs was irreplaceable. While Tim Cook is a great executive[3], he’s not a visionary leader. He’s really the guy who gets things done. The question has been circling since well before Jobs passed away: Without him, can Apple continue its greatness?

Unfortunately, it seems inevitable that the company will get off track. And some signs already show that it’s happening.

First of all, Apple’s new ad campaign[4] — which launched with the start of the Olympics — has been horrific. If Jobs were still alive, he probably would have fired the marketing agency. The commercials look like something Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT[5]) or Dell (NASDAQ:DELL[6]) would come up with.

The ads feature a young guy who works at the Apple Genius Bar and helps rescue people flummoxed by technology. In one segment, he gets a knock on the door from a man whose wife is in labor. He wants the Apple Genius guy to set up a photo album!  The rest of the commercials are in the same vein — and yes, they’re all forgettable.

Oh, and then there’s the Siri fiasco. It’s a cool concept — but the voice-based assistant has a big problem: It really doesn’t work so well. For example, a top New York Times tech reporter, Nick Bilton, panned[7] Siri: “We barely speak anymore.”

But perhaps the biggest issue is the iPhone, which has been the company’s main growth driver. However, Apple’s fiscal third quarter[8] saw a deceleration in that growth.

It’s reasonable to assume that the drop-off is the result of consumers holding off purchases now in anticipation of the new iPhone, due in September or October. Keep in mind that this has happened before.

Well, this time might be different. With the world economy slowing down, it could be tougher to get customers to upgrade. Isn’t the iPhone 4S good enough? Consider that the new version may be a somewhat prosaic improvement.

In fact, the major wireless carriers — such as Verizon (NYSE:VZ[9]), AT&T (NYSE:T[10]) and Sprint (NYSE:S[11]) — have been backing off smartphone subsidies. This should also lessen the rate of upgrades.

At the same time, the competition is getting more intense. Samsung has been getting lots of traction with with its Galaxy S. But there also could be price wars with operators like Nokia (NYSE:NOK[12]) and HTC.

Despite all this, Apple is still an amazing company[13] and has significant competitive advantages. And yes, the recent missteps may just be noise. But over the next few years, it seems inevitable that it will run into more and more trouble, especially as the competition continues to find ways to improve and become more Apple-like.

Tom Taulli runs the InvestorPlace blog IPOPlaybook[14], a site dedicated to the hottest news and rumors about initial public offerings. He also is the author of “All About Short Selling”[15] and “All About Commodities.”[16] Follow him on Twitter at @ttaulli[17]. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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