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Post Leadership
Posted at 02:27 PM ET, 10/05/2011

The iPhone 4s and Apple’s expectation game


Apple announced the iPhone 4s on Tuesday, which came as a letdown to many who were expecting the release of the iPhone 5.
THUD. That sound you heard yesterday was the collective drop of thousands of disappointed Apple fans’ hopes for the iPhone 5. Or it might have been the swoon in Apple’s stock, which fell 5 percent after investors realized the company would not be introducing the eagerly anticipated phone before getting a late bump.

Instead, Apple announced that it would be launching the iPhone 4s, an upgrade to its existing bestseller which looks largely the same as the current model, but with new software and gizmos inside. Consumer technology pundits, like the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, say the phone is packed with plenty of exciting features, such as a virtual personal assistant and a better camera.

But many others seemed let down. “Underwhelming is the word that hit me,” said one analyst. “We believe ~15 months is a long time to wait for a processor speed bump and higher resolution camera,” said another. “Gotta say the new iPhone was disappointing,” tweeted a jilted consumer.

My guess is the initial bummer response will give way quickly to long lines at Apple stores and plenty of sales this holiday season. But the reaction raises an interesting question for Apple’s leadership: Are they doing enough to manage expectations? How do you lead a company when investors, consumers and analysts expect revolutionary products every time?

Apple has long shrouded its product announcements in extreme secrecy. Until about a week before, people didn’t even know for sure when Tuesday’s product event would be, much less what it would be announcing, even if the rumor mill was churning rapidly. When the company wrote on the invitation “Let’s talk iPhone,” everyone from fanboys with a blog to business reporters with inside sources the world over seemed to expect the iPhone 5.

That’s been a winning strategy for Apple for years. There’s little question it helps to keep competitors in the dark, the tech media buzzing, and consumers tuned in to latest greatest thing. But will it work as the expectation bar keeps getting set higher? Or should the company’s leaders selectively leak a bit more information to better manage what its customers and investors think is coming?

For Apple’s new CEO, getting the expectation game right may be his toughest job. By following an iconic CEO, Cook is likely to be cut less slack than Jobs would if he was still in charge, and the level of scrutiny will be higher than ever. Add to that the ever-escalating hopes people have for what’s commonly called the most innovative company in the world, at some point, he’s sure to disappoint.

This is a company, after all, that just announced new mobile phone camera hardware that rivals many point-and-shoots and some pretty amazing artificial intelligence that’s now baked into its newest phone. What exactly did people expect, a phone that replaces their brain? For Cook, rolling out exciting new products will only be part of the challenge. Over-delivering on those expectations will be just as hard.

More from On Leadership:

Putting Steve Jobs in perspective

Why all eyes shouldn’t be on Tim Cook

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By  |  02:27 PM ET, 10/05/2011

 
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