Much has been written in the blogosphere about Apple’s current direction and what products/designs/direction the company needs in order to survive. There’s a strong “Apple is doomed” sentiment, which is not entirely unexpected. I think most of the Doomer crowd is composed of folks who used to tout the latest “iPod Killer” product from one of the many companies who attempted (and, let’s remember, failed miserably) to unseat Apple’s dominance in portable media. The Doomer movement focuses on Apple’s lack of “innovation” as proof positive that the company can’t survive, and most distressingly, financial markets seem to be buying into the hype. The only problem with the theory of doom is that the same companies, e.g. Samsung, who are lauded for their innovation aren’t necessarily doing all that much better.
On the Margin
For a company that’s consigned to failure, Apple’s continued growth to take nearly 40% of the US smartphone market is certainly surprising. How can a company so close to death be in such a good position (in that comScore ranking Apple had the largest change, at 2.7 positive points)? The dichotomy of Apple’s growth-but-still-dying situation revolves around the fact that many consumers are choosing iPhone 4S models instead of the more expensive iPhone 5, so clearly the company’s future profits are going to evaporate. I suspect, however, that we’ll see something very similar for Samsung with their Galaxy S4, and this hinges on a simple point; smartphone innovation has to slow down from its frenetic post-iPhone launch pace. Why?
Several reasons spring to mind, the first of which is the fact that innovation can’t simply be adding a laundry list of new features to a product before heaving it out the door. Samsung’s approach is to add a mass of new features, but the new features add complexity and take up a huge amount of the phone’s built-in storage (unlike iOS’s svelte 1 GB footprint), leaving you with a phone that has limited functionality in spite of a feature list a mile long. You may get an occasional feature that’s useful, but you also end up with a product that’s inferior, feels like a bloated mess, and drives consumers to your competition. We surely don’t want Apple to do that!
Although the word innovate means “to introduce as or as if new,” I’ve noticed that successful innovations aren’t just new; they’re better. Microsoft’s original tablet PC failed because it didn’t do anything demonstrably better than a laptop for most users, while the iPod was a runaway success because it neatly integrated the purchase, storage, transportation, and playback of music. Sure other MP3 players had more features, but Apple nailed all the key parts of the experience for a wide swath of users. Simply tacking on more stuff to a phone’s feature list may technically qualify as innovating, but it’s an unpredictable and unlikely way to create a successful product.
The most crucial reason smartphone innovation has to hit the brakes is because at this point we’ve covered most of the basic use cases for the device itself. The smartphone is an inherently limited device—although Steve Jobs imagined a limitless world when you removed the clunky smartphone keyboard, the simple fact is 4-6″ of glass isn’t a whole lot of real estate. I’m not just talking about screen size here, but other functions like credit card readers. These devices are generally not much bigger than their screens, so where do you cram new hardware? Apple is in a better position creating a rock solid core device and fostering the universe of appcessories we’re now seeing, like the Square credit card reader. You can’t meet everyone’s needs with a Swiss Army iPhone, because it would be too bulky and lead to inherent tradeoffs. This leaves a pretty bleak future for iPhone feature development and future growth, right? Wrong.
Markets are rightly worried about not only the slowing of Apple’s growth, but also the declining rate of smartphone innovation in the overall market. But they’re wrong in overlooking the growth of innovation where it really counts: tablets. The iPhone has pretty much carved out its niche, and I don’t expect to see much in the way of revolution there anytime soon. Apple’s next big, long term sustaining trend is going to be the iPad. We know the iPhone was developed as an offshoot of the iPad, a short detour if you will, and I posit that the iPad is Apple’s next big thing already in progress.
Modelled on the success of the iPod, Apple first introduced the iPad and then followed it up with the iPad Mini to address multiple markets at different price points. The iPad’s bigger screen and more powerful capabilities give it more room to grow than the iPhone, as its better battery life, beefier processor, and larger size give it more flexibility than a smartphone that fits in your pocket (good luck cramming some of the “phablet” devices into anything other than cargo pants). The iPhone was really just a brief intermission in a much longer play, but I think the iPhone’s insane growth blinded some people to Apple’s real long term strategy. The only difference between the iPad and the iPod (with respect to future Apple growth) is that the iPod obviously didn’t cannibalize sales; the iPad has displayed a tendency to be a Mac replacement rather than a complement.
Although Steve Jobs introduced the iPad as a device that fit between the limited-but-ubiquitous smartphone and the chained-to-your-desk Mac, the simple fact is the iPad is plenty of computer for a large number of people. That means there is plenty of room for growth in the number of features, as the iPad can evolve to replace more functions traditionally executed by a laptop or desktop. As an amateur photographer, I have found myself gravitating more and more to the iPad as a tool, because it lets me quickly review, edit, and post photos without carrying around a laptop, and if I really want to share pictures I don’t even have to find Wi-Fi. Apps alone can’t do everything, though, so hopefully Apple’s hardware team is busy testing and integrating new features that will continue to evolve the device.
With the departure of Scott Forstall from Apple last year, much has also been made of the potential for a visually flat redesign of iOS led by Jony Ive, who was promoted to head a unified Human Interface group within Apple. Apple’s truly standout designs have never been purely visual, but humanly functional as well. This is why the skeumorphic design trend in recent years has been so poorly received; many apps were designed to look pretty first, with functionality as an afterthought. I still smile when I see the faux plastic texture of the Calculator app, but my hatred for the OS X Contacts app knows virtually no bounds. Why? Because the original incarnation of the Contacts app featured horribly broken functionality (namely in managing groups), so the visual aesthetic got in the way of usability. Meanwhile the iOS Calculator just works, so the visual metaphor is delightful rather than frustrating.
I hope to see a hint of Apple’s continued growth strategy revealed at WWDC 2013. New software features for the iPhone would be nice, but the maturation of tablet acceptance means it’s time for Apple to really up the iPad game. I think the lockstep between iPhone and iPad could at this point be broken, as there is a clear differentiation between the two devices. Features like true multitasking (or at least side by side apps) make sense on an iPad being used as a Mac replacement, but have little value on an iPhone. iOS 7 is an opportunity not so much to redesign look and feel, but to actually jumpstart functionality changes that will truly define Apple’s long term growth.
I have no doubt Apple is still as innovative as ever, because most of iOS 6’s features have become an integral part of my life. I think markets have become accustomed to an overly energetic pace of new smartphone announcements, and they have also been blinded to the long term potential of the other irons Apple has in the fire. Shiny new gadgets and explosive growth are sexy, but the iPhone’s growth was always unsustainable (even Steve Jobs set a more modest goal of capturing 1% of the market, so double digit market share gains were never really a plan).
Other companies may introduce more phones, more features, or more new gadgets, but in the long term I’d still bet Apple has more products that stick with consumers, because of their insanely detailed focus on making gadgets that are more useful. And, despite what Wall Street thinks, that’s more valuable than pumping out three new models every year.