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AirPower's failure won't hurt Apple. But these 3 things already are

Commentary: Apple has far bigger challenges on its docket than a cancelled wireless charger.

apple-airpower
Apple

AirPower is dead. But it's no big deal. In fact, it's the least of Apple's problems.

After being unveiled alongside the iPhone X in September 2017, the wireless charging mat -- designed to juice up to three Apple devices simultaneously -- never saw the light of day. Marketing chief Phil Schiller said at the time it would ship in 2018, but last year came and went without a peep about AirPower. Last week, Apple finally threw in the towel, admitting it couldn't produce the product "at its high standards."

Embarrassing? Sure. Obviously, Apple never should've announced something it couldn't deliver for prime time. A sign that Apple is losing its mojo? Maybe. But ultimately, AirPower's cancellation doesn't matter. For consumers, this accessory was always, at best, a "nice to have." Anyone who wants a wireless charger has long since moved on and bought one of the countless wireless chargers available from other brands.

For Apple itself, the story wasn't much different: AirPower was never going to appreciably move the needle on the sales front. At a presumed price point around $150 -- Apple never confirmed what it was going to charge for it -- AirPower was going to be at the very high end of the market compared to the competition. But even if it had defied the odds and become a megahit like Apple's $159 AirPods, it still wouldn't make a dent on Apple's earnings report, where nearly three quarters of revenue comes from iPhones and services.

In short, when analysts and pundits look back years from now, no one will identify the AirPower fail as a pivot point where Apple lost its edge. But there are at least three other problems facing Apple, each of which have far more serious consequences for Apple's future. One or all of them could point to rough waters ahead if CEO Tim Cook and his team don't address them head on -- and soon.

Apple has fallen behind Google and Huawei on camera tech

If Apple sticks to its usual schedule, we'll see new iPhones in September -- less than six months away. And while the current iPhones remain excellent overall, there's one key area where Apple is falling behind: photography. Google's PIxel 3 models -- which hit stores within weeks of the iPhone XS -- have impressive zoom capabilities and can literally take photos in the dark, thanks to a feature called Night Sight. And Huawei -- notwithstanding the myriad legal and security issues it's facing in the US -- is continuing to churn out amazing, bleeding-edge handsets. Its latest phone, the P30 Pro, includes a host of amazing camera tech, including 5x to 10x optical zoom, meaning you can get in close (or at least closer) to performers on stage, athletes on the field or landmarks on your vacation.

Google is achieving magic with a single lens backed up by some serious computational photo smarts, while Huawei (and Chinese smartphone maker Oppo) are using an impressive periscope design to mimic the telephoto capabilities of a full-blown dSLR camera. At least one 2019 iPhone is rumored to have a triple-lens camera, and Apple's portrait modes -- even on the single-lens iPhone XR -- show that its own computational photography skills are world-class. But with these savvy competitors coming on strong, Apple can't just add a wide-angle lens and call it a day -- especially on iPhones for which it's charging customers upward of $1,000, the same or more than those competitors.

The MacBook needs a serious do-over 

Apple unveiled a big MacBook Pro redesign in 2016 -- and its laptop line has been in a weird place ever since.

The 2016 Pro introduced the Touch Bar, a long thin touchscreen that replaced the function keys, and it brought an updated version of the "butterfly" keyboard -- a superflat, short-travel keyboard that debuted in its 2015 12-inch MacBook -- to the Pro line, which costs $200 to $500 more. The Touch Bar remains a curiosity that divides Mac users -- it's a poor substitute for a true touchscreen, it never seemed to be fully embraced by developers, and Pro users who don't like it resent that they're effectively paying extra for something they don't want -- no matter that Apple design chief Jony Ive says they opted for a touch strip after deciding that touchscreens were "less compelling."

The MacBook Pro Touch Bar can be used to find emoji.

Many feel the Touch Bar was an answer to a question no one was asking.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

But the butterfly keyboard -- named after the design that replaced the traditional scissor mechanism in earlier Apple keyboards -- is the one aspect of current MacBooks that remains the most controversial. While some have adapted to its nearly flattened design (the keys depress, or travel, less than 1 millimeter, compared to 1.5 to 2mm for more traditional laptop keyboards), others have found themselves with unresponsive keys or typing out frequent double letters. In fact, it was said that even a single speck of dust was enough to befoul some butterfly keyboards.

Apple created a special customer care program for early versions of the keyboard, but that hasn't stopped the negative press. "I'm afraid to use my laptop in a lot of conditions because I know how incredibly fragile that keyboard is," said Marco Arment in a recent episode of the Apple-centric Accidental Tech Podcast

Meanwhile, the third-generation keyboard, which has since found its way into the new MacBook Air, doesn't appear to be much better: A devastatingly clever op-ed and video last week from The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern that went viral included an apology from Apple to what the company called "small number" of affected users. And John Gruber, the godfather of Apple punditry, cited Stern's story to declare the keyboards "the worst products in Apple history." (And these are all people who like Apple products.)

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The third-generation butterfly keyboard on the 2018 MacBook Pros.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Yes, MacBooks have plenty of amazing tech on board, from their gorgeous Retina screens to their industry leading T2 chips, which handle encryption and security duties. And Apple may well be months away from unveiling a groundbreaking new MacBook that runs on the same sort of fast, fanless and battery-efficient ARM processor found in Apple's own iPad Pro, rather than Intel's hotter and more power-hungry CPUs. But, at the very least, Apple's engineers need to go back to the drawing board on its keyboard -- and maybe just give up on Touch Bar while they're at it.

Siri just isn't as good -- or as widespread -- as Alexa and Google Assistant

Apple's Siri digital assistant debuted alongside the iPhone 4S in 2011. But in the years since, it hasn't found its voice -- even as Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant have surpassed Siri in both effectiveness and reach. Yes, it's still early days in the smart assistant wars, with Amazon leading in smart home distribution and compatibility, and Google arguably offering a more sophisticated product. But Apple's problem is that it's not even in the conversation, despite having hundreds of millions of Siri-compatible iPhones, iPads and Macs on the market.

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The Google Home Mini (left) and Amazon Echo Dot deliver their respective voice assistants for as little as $30 each -- compared to $350 for Apple's HomePod.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Apple has made some positive steps forward on the Siri front. Last year, it hired John Giannandrea, formerly of Google, to head its AI development, who reports directly to CEO Tim Cook. It's made it easier for third-party hardware developers to build HomeKit compatibility into their devices, so products like Belkin's $25 WeMo smart plug can respond to Siri commands (in addition to Alexa and Google Assistant).

But so far, Apple's only "dedicated" Siri device is the $350 HomePod. And it competes with Amazon Echo and Google-compatible speakers that sell for as little as $30 to $50. I don't see Apple competing in that price range. But it could take a page from its recent moves with Apple Music and Apple TV services, both of which are or will soon be available on far cheaper devices from Amazon and Roku: Let Siri live on non-Apple devices. Yes, Amazon won't let that happen on its hardware, but that's exactly the point: If Apple continues to keep Siri locked up on high-priced Apple-only hardware, it's hard to see her making inroads -- even if and when she gets smarter.

Buying time until the next big thing

To be clear, Apple is hardly in dire straits. It's still making billions of dollars every quarter, and it has a $245 billion (and counting) cash war chest. It also has popular products including the Apple Watch, iPad and AirPods that are arguably all at the top of their respective categories -- and would each be impressive standalone businesses on any other company's balance sheet.

But remember this quote attributed to MIcrosoft co-founder Bill Gates: "In this business, by the time you realize you're in trouble, it's too late to save yourself."

Apple knows this: Cook and his team already have plenty of other irons in the fire, from AR/VR headsets to self-driving cars to, well, credit cards, video games and TV subscription services. Will any of them be bigger than the iPhone? Separately, I doubt it -- taken together, maybe. But I never would've guessed that Microsoft would be making more money from cloud services than it does from its Windows software, either.

That's why Cook needs to address these issues sooner rather than later: Apple needs its iPhone and Mac businesses to stay healthy, if not grow, and it needs Siri to woo a decent chunk of the nascent smart home market. And all the while, it should keep cooking up something truly innovative to disrupt the smartphone market -- before somebody else does.

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