Apple became the greatest. But is its crown slipping?

Muhammad Ali in Apple’s memorable 1997 advertising campaign.

 ‘Back up, sucker!’: Muhammad Ali in Apple’s memorable 1997 advertising campaign. Photograph: The Advertising Archives

In 1997, as it was attempting to resuscitate itself from corporate near-suicide, the tech company Apple ran a series of adverts imploring punters to “Think Different”.

One used old footage of former heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, shadow-boxing at a camera and mocking his observer. “Back up, sucker. Back off,” he yells, before changing his taunt. “Come get me, sucker. I’m dancing. I’m dancing.”

The ad was apt in many ways – not least because the Louisville Lip was partial to the odd comeback himself – and it marked the start of a glorious two decades for the company that included the launch of the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone. Fans began to believe that Apple was the greatest and it became the world’s most valuable company.

Which brings us to this week and Apple’s first-quarter results, eight years after Tim Cook succeeded late founder Steve Jobs as the firm’s boss. The figures have already been well-trailed, with Cook himself forced into an Ali shuffle in front of Wall Street earlier this month. Worse-than-expected sales in China, he said, had come as a surprise. Revenues were expected to be down by around 5%.

That news whacked the sector’s shares, as it crystallised often unspoken fears that slowing growth in China will become the norm. So it will be instructive to hear if Cook is thinking differently this week following his bloody nose. With Apple largely pricing itself out of another huge growing Asian market in India, and the west pretty saturated with smartphones, there are not many obvious geographical options for punchy growth.

The company has therefore been ramping up its efforts with services (the likes of its online music store iTunes) but that hardly counts as thinking very differently. Meanwhile, there’s an obvious alternative route to boosting revenues that doesn’t seem to get much attention these days: Apple could do what it used to do, and launch a knockout new product.

This might be tricky for two reasons. First, Apple has grown so large that it has to do something utterly sensational to move the dial. Take revenues from the company’s wearable products – the Apple Watch and its AirPod wireless earphones. They have already topped those of the iPod at its peak. But who thinks the wearable products have caused anywhere near the sensation of the iPod?

Second, launching game-changing new gadgets is clearly far easier said than done. Techies will also tell you that the problem in 2019 – unlike, say, 1977 (Apple II), 2001 (iPod) or 2007 (iPhone) – is that it’s a lot harder to come up with anything new now.

But there is a curious contradiction here. On one hand, the tech market is painted as so mature that it is tricky to genuinely innovate, while on the other we are frequently told how the planet is at the start of a digital revolution that will totally change our lives. While it might be really challenging to envisage and deliver game-changing new products, it is similarly hard to believe that in 20 years everything won’t have transformed once again – whether that change is led by an existing company, a startup or, simply, a complete fluke.

Take 30 years ago, when Apple was desperately searching for its next blockbuster and alighted on a strategy so bizarre it blindsided everybody: having ousted Jobs, it got so beaten up it almost went bankrupt, but then sprung off the ropes thanks to the return of St Steve and the discovery that the pieces to create its next big product (the iMac) were already sitting, ignored, inside the company. In hindsight, that’s right out of Ali’s crazy rope-a-dope playbook.