When is the last time that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) wowed the world with an iAnything? The answer will hopefully become obvious in a couple of days. Apple's Sept. 9 product unveiling event could find the world's most valuable consumer tech company raising the bar on smartphones or making its long overdue plunge into wearable computing.
However, when was the last time that Apple introduced a product so head-turning and innovative that it requires its own line on Apple's financial statements?
We don't have to guess. Apple has four product categories that it breaks out every quarter for investors in its summary data. Then it's just a matter of digging up the birth announcements.
We can argue that Apple was already making PCs before the Mac. We can argue that the bigger breakthrough than the 2007 iPhone was the App Store debut the following summer, revolutionizing the then nascent smartphone market. That's fine. The constant through all of these events remains the same: Steve Jobs was around.
Everyone knows that it's been 35 months since he ceased being around. And there's no shortage of stories over the past three years wondering if CEO Tim Cook can bring the sense of whimsy back to the class act of Cupertino. He will never be as charismatic as Jobs. He doesn't have to be if the products do the selling. However, with half of Apple's four product categories fading in popularity in the past couple of quarters -- leaving Macs and iPhones as the lone growers -- innovation has never been as important.
Success is relative
Mr. Market doesn't have a problem with Apple in the Post-jobs era. The stock has nearly doubled since he died three years ago. It hit an all-time high earlier this week. However, an important caveat with the three-year chart is that the lion's share of those gains materialized in the first year. The stock isn't trading much higher than where it was the morning that the iPhone 5 hit stores nearly 24 months ago.
Apple investors benefited from the iPad's momentum and the smartphone migration during the first year of Jobs' absence. In fact, the one product category that Jobs spoke about at length with his biographer before passing away -- a full-blown smart television -- has never materialized.
Cook isn't in a hot seat, but is Apple the same cool difference maker it was when Jobs was around? There's no shortage of innovation in consumer tech. Several companies have beaten Apple to tackling the promising wearable computing market. This week it was Samsung that raised the bar in phablets by introducing an Oculus Rift virtual reality 3-D screen that snaps onto a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. In China, the smartphone darling is Xiaomi, ripping pages out of the Jobs playbook down to the "one more thing" tease at product reveals that Apple's former helmsman milked to frenzied perfection.
This can all change on Tuesday, of course. The iPhone 6 may be able to do things that no Android or Lumia device on the market is doing. There's also growing optimism that Apple will enter the wearable computing market with either a smartwatch or fitness tracker that can set the tone in a market that's been more hype than substance so far.
Apple could be about to silence the argument that innovation died alongside Jobs 35 months ago. If not, the rumbling will only get louder next time around.
Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.