This is NOT the End of Apple

rotting study 2
Since the recent keynote by Tim Cook (October 2012), there has been a media furor on how it is going to be the end of Apple, or that Apple after Jobs is dead.
I’m going to risk sounding like a Fanboy and say that this just nonsense and really a “heard” mentality going viral. What is more likely is that people and blogs are jumping on the media bandwagon for more eyeballs or mouse clicks. One prominent reviewer of the iPhone 5 even retracted his initial bored dislike and proclaimed the iPhone 5: “the best phone to ever grace the earth“. Which makes me wonder how can people review a product without even using it first? (Hence we rarely do product reviews here at Design Sojourn.)
My analysis of the iPhone 5 keynote and recent (iPad Mini, 13” Retina etc) product launch, signals that we are far from the “end of days” at Apple under Tim Cook. For sure there has been some management revamps to be sorted out, but I for one am bullish on Apple’s future.
Here is why.

We have a warped sense of how we define an “Innovative” product.
Here is basically how some of the most influential people online define Innovation.
Dan Crow at the Guardian UK said: “It [Apple] hasn’t introduced a truly new product since the launch of the iPad nearly three years ago; instead it’s making incremental and overhyped improvements to its current lines.”
Since when has Apple made anything “new”? The iPod was inspired by Creative’s Zen Mp3 Player, the iPhone was a mobile phone with a redesigned Xerox Parc’s touch screen interface, and the iPad is a tablet PC (ah la Fujitsu) with optimized hardware.
Furthermore, Apple has never been in the business of selling to early adopters. Apple sells to the early majority and the rest of the groups of consumers as described in the theory of Diffusion of Innovation.
Therefore Apple’s brand of Innovation is in taking matured technology, redesigning them, and packaging them into a proposition that consumers find easy and a joy to use. Packaging the technology so that people get it. This is also the reason why Apple products don’t compete on specifications, not do they contain the fastest CPU or biggest and brightest screen.
Technically, Apple has never been the leader in any form of technology nor products. There is nothing in their product line up you cannot fine an earlier alternative. But they have managed to find the right time to come in and spectacularly take over the market. For example how the iPod, the iPhone and iPad took over the world.

Apple is in the business of Incremental Products.
One of the big gripes of the new Apple line up was the surprise launch of the iPad 4 seven months after the launch of the iPad 3. The iPad 3 was Apple’s biggest selling iPad with 3 Million sold. This resulted in many people saying that Apple just officially pissed off 3 Million of their customers with the iPad 4.
I disagree. We have touched on this before in my previous post. Apple has to keep updating their products to keep up with the technology “Joneses”, but to their credit, they do not obsolete their old products by building an ecosystem where OS updates will work on both new and older devices.
Try updating your Samsung Galaxy S2 to Android’s new Jellybean? The Galaxy S2, at the time this article was published, has no official way of updating the software to the latest and greatest.
However what is really significant about this seven month product upgrade cycle, is that Apple can now beat the fast-followers and OEMs of this world at their own game. This, in my humble opinion, is a huge breakthrough that many pundits have missed. Especially when Apple does not technically own their factory and outsources all their manufacturing.
Think about it for a moment?
A fast follower strategy basically takes a winning product, makes the specifications 10-20% better or cheaper, and then gets it out very quick (on an average of 6-8 months). With this speed up in Apple’s development cycle, when a fast follower gets a product out, they are already obsolete as Apple not only has a the next one out, but a new model that is likely 100% better then their predecessor. (Apple claims that the iPad 4 is 2x faster than the iPad 3).
This heralds exciting times for Apple (thanks to supply chain maestro Tim Cook) and that we should expect more frequent product updates going forward, at least twice a year.

iPhone 5 and iPad Mini: It’s the iMac and MacBook all over Again.
Before we wrap up lets do a quick analysis of the two most significant Apple products of this year.
I don’t really expect any major innovation for the iPhone or the iPad range to come. Apple may be guilty of new product marketing overhype, but Apple’s innovations really only come at the start of the range, after that it is all incremental improvements (some larger, some smaller) through the years. If you look at how the iMac and the MacBooks have evolved, you can see what has happen with those ranges will eventually happen to the iPhone and iPad.

Click to zoom.
Step 1: Create an archetype changing or defining product.
Step 2: Improve it with technology and manufacturing processes.
Step 3: Milk the product for as long as possible.
It is also worthwhile to note that Apple runs on a Castle and Moat strategy.
Therefore the iPad mini is also a purely defensive play. Apple has obviously realized that they might have missed the ebook market, as the iPad’s size and weight is not the best for long term reading. With Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem doing very well, they needed to ensure that they have something in their range to keep their customers from leaving.

So what’s next?
Tim Cook at the recent D10 Conference interview shared a little about how Apple develops new products. The information may seem scarce, but if you are in the industry it says a lot. He said:

1) Can we control the key technology?
2) Can we make a significant contribution far beyond what others have done in this area?
3) Can we make a product that we all want? (Cos we think we are reasonably good proxies for others.)

So if we consider these three points, and the analysis above on Apple’s brand of innovation, we can conclude two things:
1) Apple will not launch anything new if they do not think the timing is right or if it is not right for their customers.
2) To find out what’s next, all we have to do is look at technologies out there that are important but under-performing, and under-humanized.
So with this, my bets are on voice control (which Siri has not done as well) and Apple TV or a new TiVo type system.
As you can see, Apple isn’t doing anything different today than what they did in the past. If they are guilty of anything, it could be marketing overhype or launching too many new products this year.
Regardless, the road going forward is not going to be easy as Apple’s competitors are doing things a lot better. Fortunately, Apple has proven consistent in what they do and that proven recipe is going to help fight off the competition. They will still make mistakes and we, of course, will forgive them. And Apple employees that do not fit well, including Steve Jobs, leave and some do come back again.
I love to hear your thoughts on this analysis, so please do not hesitate to leave a comment below. Thanks!

  • Miguel Sánchez

    February 10, 2014 at 1:37 pm Reply

    Apple is one of the best companies out there at the moment, currently delivering some great products. However, I think they will be in some sort of trouble in the future. I don’t think they will keep Steve Jobs vision of the company, and I keep being aware of this seeing the new products being released by Apple.

  • CJ Dellatore

    December 6, 2012 at 3:51 pm Reply

    What I find most interesting about the Apple phenom is the industrial design evolution. I’ve been in that industry all my life, and there’s not another example of such enduring strength.

  • Jessica

    December 5, 2012 at 5:04 am Reply

    Mr. Ling,
    I found this to be a very interesting post that is quite refreshing amidst the exceedingly biased, emotionally-fueled posts from either side of this topic. As a university computer science student in the United States and an enthusiast for design, I greatly respect Apple for what they have done in the technical community. I agree with your comment that says that “we have a warped sense of how we define an ‘innovative’ product”. Many in the world still think that being the first to create means everything, but it really does not mean anything; execution is what matters. I also agree with you on Apple’s presentation of its creations. Despite Google’s Nexus 10 having much better specifications, Apple’s goal is to cause the user to understand what they are getting (even going so far as to put America’s site in the English system rather than metric). These are powerful tools that have catapulted them into a realm that does not simply build products but innovates ideals. This continues to show why they are also known as the #1 brand in the world. People go to them for the best executed technology. With that said, I believe Apple is in a good but precarious place.
    The problem with being one of the popular kids in the technical playground is that everybody around Apple hates them. The danger, I argue, is that they control the ideal of their brand, while open ecosystem tablets and phones like Google are created by what people make it to be through customization and an open source operating system. If Apple starts to make mistakes, the ideal that has been established with their products will be lost, something that will be exponentially magnified by those who are greedy to take a piece of their profits. For instance, you stated that the fuss the media is making about the end of this company is for eyeballs or mouse clicks. One recent example may be the maps ordeal. While it was not serious enough to deter downloads of the new OS, the execution simply did not match the ideal, resulting in a big media explosion of a relatively trivial problem. Yes, this does not ultimately mean the company is going down the drain, but do you believe that they can really continue to create well-executed innovations to appease their audience? If this much media coverage is complaining about a simple app in the system, do you think that Apple can keep the ideal nature of their brand in tact if a greater mistake is made?

  • Michael Urena Acatl

    December 4, 2012 at 12:13 am Reply

    I have been an Apple fan for many years… but my fanhood began when I realized that Apple made better overall technical decisions than the competition. This goes all the way back to choosing the Unix Kernel as the base for their operating system… In the end more stable than DOS, a better system.
    Second, the level of product integration, another foundational design starting point. Apple Products are less computers and more Life Style Appliances… the design benefits/supplements the lives of people as they live today and (10years ago) more seamlessly than almost anything else except maybe a their car. A design perspective that placed a high value on integration is a key factor in their ability to recognize/utilize the power of cloud computing and create the ultimate thin client… the iPad.
    Apple is vertically integrated and not horizontally integrated. Integration between hardware and software up and down the design chain… not true for Microsoft until the recent release of the Slate. Samsung, while vertically integrated to some degree, is so widely diversified that too many corporate strings pull decision making apart and blurr the final product design and mfg.
    Lastly… Vision. Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives. The company is led by people who know where they want to go… not just by a corporate committee of MBAs making safe decisions and focusing only on the bottom line. The products are cohesive, gestalt, interdependent and look/preform as though they were made by the same craftsman artist.
    Michael Acatl

  • Sebastian

    December 3, 2012 at 8:36 am Reply

    I’m with you 100%, though Steve Jobs is a pretty tough act to follow. You could argue there’s no one on the whole planet as charismatic as Jobs, and certainly no one in the tech industry… and the media loves stories, angles, charisma, etc.
    Re: Castle and Moat, I agree and think there’s even another piece of their moat that’s frequently not mentioned: they bought up most of the supply chain. Apple bought *a ton* of ARM chip makers, and other key aspects of supplies, so they’ve got the component parts of their hardware cost-controlled and cost-stabilized. Probably moreso than anyone other than Samsung (which has huge sprawling operations, but who Apple out-performs and out-innovatives consistently).

  • Tim

    November 17, 2012 at 8:58 am Reply

    Great article! I’ve been getting sick of all the scrutiny on Apple lately, so it’s refreshing to read about someone defending Apple with actual historical evidence. I agree that they may have released too many products this year. I’m really curious to see what they do first quarter 2013 though. They have no more products to refresh, so it leads me to believe that something big is on the horizon early next year. I’m also looking forward to what Ive will do in his new role. Many people state that iOS is now outdated (which isn’t true), but I’m eager to see what changes Ive will make. We could witness a similar change in iOS as we saw from OS 9 to OS X. Apple devices are being more and more unified with the syncing, as well as with iOS taking from OS X and vice versa (touch gestures). I’d hate to see Apple take something from the book of Microsoft, but we could see something similar to Windows 8.

  • Brian (Design Sojourn)

    November 16, 2012 at 8:14 pm Reply

    @Jonathan: Thanks very much for your insightful comment. One of the best I’ve read in a while.
    You might be right. It is really hard to say, and only Apple really knows. But here is why I think so.
    1) Apple has really consistent development schedules.
    2) iPad has yearly releases. Everything else has a 2 year cycle with a upgrade in between.
    3) A product development cycle is not a simple tap you turn on and off. Product launches have to be planned, as you have mentioned, especially if there is a circuit board redesign, in this case a new battery and A6X chip. So such frequent launches have to be planned in advanced.
    4) In terms or a product maturity. I believes it goes: (from matured to young) iMac and MacBook / iPod / iPhone / iPad. In my analysis only the iPad is a young product. iPhone and everything else will start to mature and slow down.
    5) iPad/tablet computing market is expecting a huge growth, and has surpass PC sales.
    Therefore the new faster iPad product update really only reflect the anticipated market demand, and that this will eventually become a huge market, and Apple wants to be there.
    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  • Jonathan

    November 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm Reply

    “We should expect more frequent product updates going forward, at least twice a year”
    What makes you think this is the case, rather than this year’s double iPad release being a one-off realignment of release cycles? It seems to me that there are many advantages to releasing annually before the holiday season – for instance, it allows for an annual, unified marketing push across the iOS line, and neutralises any “new model around the corner” gifting reservations.
    Conversely, there are downsides associated with more frequent releases: marketing is harder (the public’s enthusiasm for Apple’s love of hyperbolic superlatives presumably has an upper limit) and costlier, R&D is costlier, and it’s costlier for third party developers who are forced to support more models.
    My understanding is that Apple updates their consumer Mac lines once or twice a year, but I’d contend that the dynamics there are fairly different. As a rule, Macs are more expensive than iOS devices. That means they’ll be a) less likely to be given as gifts, and b) purchased more carefully and less frequently. Further, the Mac platform has the most to gain from sales that would have otherwise gone to Windows PCs (as opposed to existing Mac owners upgrading), so — especially as Macs have run on PC hardware for years now — must remain current in order to avoid being dismissed immediately by a certain cohort of potential buyers.
    The iOS device families, on the other hand, compete more on usability and ecosystem strength than on specs. So my hunch is that, on the whole, Apple has little to gain from more rapid hardware upgrades.

  • Brian (Design Sojourn)

    November 16, 2012 at 8:27 am Reply

    @Cyrus: Thanks for taking the time to leave your thoughts. Indeed there is not much more you can do in terms of the physical design, but the design has a meaning that is beyond aesthetic. It is a strategic representation of what values Apple believes. That is also why I’m excited that Jony Ive is now in charge of all Human Interface.

  • Cyrus

    November 15, 2012 at 3:54 pm Reply

    When you consider yourself as a product designer, naturally you can’t stay calm when people are talking about this soon death! Every single design book has got something inside it related to apple and of course the number of people using its products is showing us that this popularity is not just ’cause of design aspects of the products.
    I am a fan of this brand, I confess, but to be honest I have a question for every one who has ever drawn a line on the paper. How many shape can you dig out of a product like iphone (which I analyze it a cube)?
    Switching from iphone 3g to iphone 4 was a nice move in terms of design but why people do not ask such questions for other brands?
    I think Johny Ive is right, they are manufacturing an every day device by make use of watch crafting technology and character. Personally, I as a normal user would rather to have a brand with quality more than quantity as one old proverb says that specially computer technology is expired like veggies!

Post a Comment