Why Apple might not be able to get away with it anymore

Tomorrow Steve Jobs will deliver his usual Macworld Expo keynote. Rather than speculate on what he might say — there’s plenty of such chatter out there today, ranging from the well-informed to the hilariously speculative — I’d like to concentrate on a new challenge that Apple never had to face before.

Part of the reason Apple has been able to, as Harris Collingwood put it so succinctly, “get away with it,” with “it” being the sort of arrogance and poor customer service that would doom so many other companies, is that Apple has long been the underdog. While Microsoft enjoyed monopoly-level market share in the key operating system and office-suite markets, a smaller and quicker Apple could nibble around the edges of Redmond’s dominance. No one roots for Goliath.

What if Apple isn’t the underdog anymore? Vista hasn’t made Microsoft any less vulnerable. Apple has a lock on the current-generation handheld-device market and Net Applications maintains that the Macintosh market share, once hovering around 2 percent, is now heading toward 8 percent. That still leaves Microsoft with a huge percentage of the pie, but much published studies suggest that Apple’s market share is growing, and some of the studies make it appear as if that growth is accelerating. The promised “halo effect” of the iPod has indeed materialized. Apple is not the leading PC maker, but it’s far stronger than it was just two years ago. And if we are moving toward a device-centric, rather than PC-centric, future, there’s no question Apple is the leader. Being the leader means customers look at you differently. People expect more and settle for less.

Radar’s Nat Torkington has a smart take on this. (He’s away on vacation, so I’ll quote him.) “Success breeds risk of failure,” he writes. “Some alpha geeks are turning away from Macs. Not all, but some. The reasons they cite are quite reasonable: It has surprisingly flaky hardware, many Genius bars are impossible to use because the wait lists are a day long now, and the base apps aren’t perfect by a long shot.”

Indeed, popularity opens Apple to new threats. For example, a larger market share makes it a more attractive target for virus and worm writers. But the biggest threat might be from Apple’s most ardent supporters. Apple is famous for products and services that “think different,” as its old ad slogan goes. But once something moves from the edges to the mainstream, it’s not different anymore. It’s the status quo. Is there anything tastemakers, in culture or technology, revolt against more than the status quo? Regardless of which rabbits, real or perceived, Steve Jobs pulls out of his hat at Macworld tomorrow, the middle of the road is a dangerous place to be when there’s traffic coming from all directions.