I'm Worried About Apple. Again. And You Should Be, Too

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Before you flame me for what I am about to say, please consider the context.

First, read page two of an article I published in January -- Buy, Sell, Hold or Make Sweet Love to Apple?. That piece flashes back to one from almost a year ago where I anticipated what would happen to over-zealous Apple ( AAPL) longs.

Many AAPL shareholders, barking when the stock hit $700, are underwater or have smaller profits to show for their overconfidence and poor position management.

As I have been writing in recent months, Apple does and, for the foreseeable future, will dominate. Couple its greatness with relatively weak competition and Apple remains best of breed. As such, I maintain we're seeing a hysterical, noise-driven, year-too-soon sell-off.

I stopped talking about my decidedly bearish long-term concerns as they suddenly became consensus on Wall Street and in the media. The negative sentiment got ahead of itself so I had to (at least attempt to) moderate the discussion.

In other words, there's always long-term uncertainty, even when you're Apple and, in the absence of Steve Jobs, especially when you're Apple. But if any company deserves the benefit of the doubt and the type of multiple the market gives names like Netflix ( NFLX), Amazon.com ( AMZN) and LinkedIn ( LNKD), Apple does.

My long-term concerns never went away. I put them on the back burner in favor of a more rational discussion of where Apple is today and where it's headed vis-a-vis its largely unproven competition. In other words, if we're going to ask companies and CEOs to prove themselves, within the context of the probability of future success, we should start with everybody but Apple and Tim Cook. With or without Steve Jobs, Apple has earned as close to a free pass as we should ever give.

Call it flip-flopping. Call it being a contrarian. Label it riding both sides of the fence. Doesn't phase me one bit. Apple is a complex case study that crosses disciplines; I treat it as such. If you're not bullish and bearish, cheerleader and critic -- simultaneously -- on Apple, you're watering down the situation.

Things are good, but they could turn bad. This company's great, but it could wind up just good -- or worse. But that's life so there's no good reason to jump to the conclusion of a $250 crash in the stock and a price-to-earnings ratio of 10.

I'm particularly concerned at this juncture as I reflect on the article I published Tuesday -- After It Murders Best Buy, Here's How Apple Should Spend Its Cash. That piece built on my thinking that Apple should pull its products from Best Buy ( BBY) and other third-party retailers such as Wal-Mart ( WMT) and Target ( TGT).

I fully realize how unrealistic my suggestions are. As Yahoo! Finance's Jeff Macke pointed out on Twitter, Apple is doing more with external retailers, not less. And, as far as we know, it has no plans to move forward with my idea of ramping up a high-margin iAccessory business of its own, while endorsing only a handful of equally as high-end products from third parties.

As much as I believe in the particulars of my argument, forget them for a minute. They cloud the bigger picture. There's always more than one way to address a shared bigger picture concern. In this case, it's all about protecting Apple's image. We can agree that Tim Cook must make this a priority ... no?

That's Apple's bread and butter. Its image. Right now it's taking a beating.

Cook needs to create his own reality distortion field. By taking control of the retail trajectory -- lock, stock and barrel -- Apple can (re)assume ownership of its entire consumer/user experience.

This is not about scaring off middle-of-the-road buyers. We all know that it's not only high-end shoppers who buy Apple stuff. For goodness sake, "everybody" had an iPod and "everybody" has an iPhone, iPad or both.

It's about creating the perception of exclusivity alongside ubiquity. It's about saying "hey, look out on the streets, everybody loves Apple products. You can't walk more than five paces without seeing several of them; however, make no mistake, people aspire to own them and the process of acquiring them -- be it online or in person -- is exclusive, special and detail-attentive right down to how we make you feel when you open our packaging."

That's the Apple mystique. It's part of the Apple culture we feared we would lose when Steve Jobs died. And it's a critical element -- one of the elements -- of Apple's success.

I'm concerned because it seems most people don't share my worries regarding image. If it ends up that Tim Cook and Apple management have become less obsessed with image, I could quickly move from concerned to alarmed.

At day's end, Apple must distance itself from mediocrity, not strengthen associations with it.

-- Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.
Rocco Pendola is TheStreet's Director of Social Media. Pendola's daily contributions to TheStreet frequently appear on CNBC and at various top online properties, such as Forbes.

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