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Can Apple Still Amaze and Delight Without Surprising?

Apple fans are spoiled. For many years now, the company has delivered cutting-edge products that amaze and delight customers, if not always tech pundits.

Until the death of co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, one of the highlights of an Apple event was the trademark “one more thing” reveal. Iconic products like the original iMac, iPod, iPhone, and the MacBook Air were all introduced by Jobs at the end of his “Stevenote,” sometimes pulling them from his back pocket seemingly as an afterthought. Of course, they were anything but and the crowd would go wild.

Despite the fact that some products (like the original iPhone) were widely predicted, their full outlines and specifications were rarely known in advance. Apple’s legendary penchant for secrecy, coupled with its track record of setting new benchmarks for design and performance, created an anticipatory frenzy that contributed to the company’s historic rise from nearly bankrupt computer maker to global consumer electronics behemoth. Eventually Apple’s product launches became genuine pop culture happenings.

While Apple continues to create great products that customers clearly love, the method of its product introductions has changed dramatically. It had to. To his credit, the low-key Tim Cook, Job’s successor as CEO, has not attempted to do a Steve Jobs impersonation. He is no impresario and he knows it. Cook – by all accounts an exceptional executive – instead prefers to set the stage for others to make the big reveal. The message is clear: this is no longer a company led by a single visionary, it’s an entire company with a shared vision.

But with the end of “one more thing,” the surprise factor for Apple seems to be gone. Almost everything about yesterday’s announcements – the new iPhone 5, new iPods and updates to iOS – had been leaked online or revealed in part by Apple well before the show. With such a huge and far-flung supply chain, it’s no wonder that Apple has a much harder job keeping a lid on the products in its pipeline. By the time the mythical iPad Mini is introduced, we’ll probably know everything about it.

In an odd way, the muted response to yesterday’s announcements is actually a good thing for Apple. Basically, customers now fully expect Apple to introduce the most polished, well-designed products in their respective categories. “Great” for Apple is now just table stakes. No other company has set such a high bar for itself.

Pundits and competitors have almost always dismissed new Apple products as lacking innovation (“It’s a just a colored computer!” – the iMac), for being too expensive (“$400 for a music player?!” – the iPod), for being too radical (“Who wants a phone without a keyboard?” – the iPhone) or derivative (“It’s just a big iPhone” – the iPad). And after yesterday, some tech pundits will undoubtedly claim that Apple has lost its magic, focusing on what the new products don’t have rather than what they do. Of course, this misses the point. If there is one lesson that Steve Jobs imparted throughout Apple, it’s that it takes discipline to be great. Apple won’t be introducing any new products, technologies or features that don’t have a real purpose or make the experience better for customers.

The Apple of 2012 is a very different company than the one Jobs rescued when he returned from exile in the late 1990s. It now plays the long game. It has institutionalized a method of innovation that is based on regular iterative improvement with occasional leaps forward and married it to a ruthlessly efficient logistics and production system that generates handsome profits from whatever it sells while still matching or beating its competitors on price.

So can Apple still amaze and delight? Of course. They may yet again rock the world with something that is truly revolutionary and disruptive. A TV? A camera? A car? A teleporter? Who knows. But in an era where companies often chaotically lurch from one fad to another, slavishly copy and substitute feature and spec bloat for real innovation, Apple remains focused on satisfying the one constituency that matters: its customers. And that’s why it’s so successful.

The new normal for Apple is to amaze us occasionally but delight us consistently. While I’ll certainly miss the finely honed showmanship of the Jobs-era Apple event, today’s Apple doesn’t need “one more thing.” It just needs to keep doing lots of great things.

Is there a PR lesson here? Just this: if you stay true to yourself and focus on your customers, you won’t have to worry about what the pundits say.

Kevin Pedraja is vice president at Sterling Communications. Email him at kpedraja@sterlingpr.com. Follow him on Twitter @kpedraja.

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