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Apple: Being great without the insanity

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY "Insanely great" is one of those phrases that people associate with Apple (AAPL) and its late co-founder, Steve Jobs. There's been an assumption that only such greatness could have fueled Apple's rise and mammoth financial success.

Some, like Bernstein Research's Toni Sacconaghi, think that Apple could miss consensus estimates when it announces its quarterly earnings today. One of the big reasons, according to him, is that many will wait for the iPhone 5 to buy a new unit. And yet, while there is strong logic in tying Apple's quarterly fate to product releases, it may be that a constant flow of major innovation may have less and less impact on the company and its investors.

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Apple watcher extraordinaire Horace Dediu has already suggested that Apple will have its best year ever:

Actually, it's possible to confirm without looking at first quarter data. Every business line Apple has except the iPod is growing and is likely to keep growing during this year. That means that sales will increase over 2011, which was Apple's biggest year.

For good reason, Dediu gives weight to the trend lines of Apple's businesses and products, as well as the principle that, in business, things don't often wheel about to a new direction with no warning.

Look at the success of the iPhone 4S. It was hardly a major upgrade -- hence why Apple didn't call it the iPhone 5 -- and yet sold phenomenally well. But that it would was obvious at the time. There were too many customers who had come to the end of their cell phone contracts and that had a chance to upgrade.

Boring old business basics

In other words, the 4S didn't succeed because of fabulous features that everyone had to have. It succeeded because Apple was overdue for an upgrade, as were many of its customers. The company's success is tied not so much to genius as to more prosaic aspects of business. Keep costs down. Control supplies of important resources that your competitors might also want. Try to block others using legal maneuvers. Use marketing to further your brand.

And there is nothing unnatural about this. How many times can you expect one company to change the rules for how products work? The iPhone is incredibly popular, presumably in part because Apple got a lot right in its design. How many major changes to how the phone works can the company undertake without making changes for the sake of doing so?

Sure, the iPad is still relatively new and is still undergoing changes. But how radical can additions or changes be before proving that Apple actually didn't have it right in the first place?

TV won't be the savior

One reason that many analysts are pushing the idea of a new Apple take on television sets is because it would be an area in which the company could do something new. (Even though there are significant problems in the TV space that even smart device design can't necessarily address.)

But even without game-changing shifts in design or technology, Apple has harnessed business essentials to become efficient and amazingly profitable. The credit for that probably owes far more to current CEO Tim Cook, who is an operational genius, rather than the mercurial Jobs, who was happy to turn things upside down at the last minute and send people running.

The latter may be flashy and considered a sign of vision and demanding genius, but it isn't conducive to the best in running a business. So long as Apple can continue positioning its brand as something aspirational -- to embody products and services that people identify with to make themselves feel more successful -- and continue its smart operations, it will continue to see enormous financial success.

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