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Apple Car(d)

The old cliche is that we were promised flying cars but ended up with x where x is something trivial or mundane. Perhaps the best “x” is “140 characters”. This statement is meant to de-value the technologies developed in the last few decades. Instead of building grand things, we build trivialities. The irony is that x is often wildly popular and ubiquitous. x also generates a lot of profits and is likely to change behavior. Indeed, the flying car alternatives are almost always better ideas.

Flying cars are an example of “extrapolated technology” where we take a trajectory of improvement and expect it to continue forever. x are examples of “market creating” technologies which create new behaviors and which allow more people to do more things that they could not do before.

The flying car dream comes from a century of improvements in cars, and airplanes. The idea that cars must continue to get better and flying must come to personal transportation. When they are faster than what roads and human reaction times can allow and when they have more space than we can fill and when they have more cupholders than we can drink from it’s time to look for a new domain–the sky–for them to enter.

The alternative is literally unthinkable to the extrapolator: that we might drive less or not at all.

The promise of super-fast computers on every desktop and every living room of the 1990s is countered by an acceptance of a computer in every pocket and a tablet in every living room in the 2010s.

So in many ways the grandest technological revolutions are a study in humility rather than ambition.

Humility as a business model or as an operating principle is one of, if not the most most powerful tools for a manager . The queen of the virtues is most elusive but most enabling.

And so here we are, the Apple Card has arrived. And the Apple car hasn’t. The contrast is deliciously ironic. The cynics are out and having their fun. The users are out ordering the product. The cycle repeats.

Except the Apple Card demands explanation. It’s not explained by Apple sufficiently. It sounds like a slightly easier credit card. Perhaps a bit easier to keeps tabs on, perhaps a bit easier to manage payments and easier getting bonuses. It sounds, well, easier.

But easier doesn’t rock anyone’s world, they say.

It’s just another card, they say.

How can this change anything?

Here’s the thing: follow the integration. First, Apple Card comes after Apple Pay, more than 4 years ago. Apple Card builds on the ability to transact using a phone, watch and has the support of over 5000 banks. Over 10 billion transactions have been made with Apple Cash. Over 40 countries are represented.

I am quite sure Apple considered their card entry at the same time they considered Pay entry. The extension to a credit instrument is only logical as an addition the the Wallet.

The emphasis is on convenience, ease of use, integration and assistance. It’s what a credit card should be if you invented it today.

The application process is easy. It’s designed for the iPhone. No delays, no paper, no signatures.

It promises “A healthier financial life” through help in understanding your spending and acting on it. The goal is not to keep users in debt but to keep them loyal. Think about the asymmetry here.

The partner, Goldman Sachs, is chosen for their willingness to also align on incentives.

But more than anything the release of the Apple Card brings into question what could be next. The Card may not have been on everyone’s mind four years ago when we first saw Pay.

Now the die is cast. Apple’s goals seem to include enhancing financial and physical health. These are mundane goals, perhaps.

Or perhaps not. What matters more?

The Essence of Apple’s Decision

“The essence of ultimate decision remains impenetrable to the observer – often, indeed, to the decider himself.”

John F. Kennedy

The fact that we ourselves don’t know how we make decisions has not stopped us from proclaiming, loudly, that we know how everyone else decides. Such proclamations about others’ decisions are especially confident and assured the more important, or highly visible, the decision.

This is at the heart of analysis for large companies, especially Apple. The premise that decisions on product, positioning, investment and a myriad other necessary functions are guided deliberately through the will of single individuals in positions of power; rational single Actors that are directed by some rational, typically economic, calculus is pervasive. Without pause, we assume that analysis consists of de-compiling the calculus of that single Actor.

The diversity of opinion on Apple stems from disagreements about whether the calculus is purely economic or some other—aesthetic, virtuous or greater good, “satisfaction maximization” or something else that motivates the Actor.

However this is not the only decision process. It is in contrast to two other decision making processes: the bureaucratic model where decisions are the result of analysis of constraints, resulting in a “best compromise” between multiple sub-problem solutions.

Or the “political model” where maneuvering between factions with fractional power results in a consensus decision based on a political (zero-sum?) calculus.

One could classify these decisions processes as Graham Allison did in “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis“: The Rational Actor, The Organizational Process or the Governmental Politics models. That landmark work opened our eyes to the variety of ways organizations—not just governments—decide. It clashed with, to the point of refuting, the economic rationality model typically attributed to Milton Friedman.

When reading commentary on Apple decisions I almost always hear the causality ascribed to the “Rational Actor” model where the Actor is a person of great importance. The importance imparted upon them implicitly by being a “visible” person. That visibility comes from having been put forward by the company itself. We know of the Apple Actors as those whose names are revealed and we assume that those not visible are not Actors.

But, of course, visibility is a design. The company, known for its design, takes that ethos to its communications, and communicating who is visible and thus who is “an Actor” is a design decision. So we are led to believe that decisions are made by the Actors and who the Actors are is determined by the very entity we are trying to analyze.

Do you see the problem?

Rather than take the comfortable road and analyzing Apple by the surface that is exposed, the better approach might be to toss the Rational Actor model and think about the Organizational or the Political Models.

How does the company process information? How does it generate consensus? How does it deal with motivating employees? How does it allocate resources? How does it evaluate productivity? How does it balance morale and turnover? These are what Clay Christensen classified as “Processes” rather than “Resources” questions. The Actor model assumes all decisions come from individuals who are, in a large organization, Resources. They come and go. They can be hired and fired.

The Political model asks further if the decision came from maneuvering between visible and invisible Actors. I would argue that the political dimension is prevalent in most large organizations and it is corrosive to the overall health of the organization. I would also argue that Steve Jobs designed Apple specifically to avoid the Political process. But we must still assume that it’s at work to some degree. It’s like entropy.

When hearing about big staff changes at Apple, take a moment to reflect what decision processes are at work. How did that one (visible) Actor really influence the decisions made? Are you ascribing too much to them because they are visible? Are you assuming that tens of thousands of other individuals are not influential? That they are minions hired to act and not to ask questions? Doesn’t Apple also say they hire people to tell Apple what to do?

Allison did not say which model applied to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He left it to the reader to decide.

I will do the same when it applies to any particular Apple decision.

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The iPad Operating System

WWDC 2019 included a vast list of releases and it’s quite difficult to summarize. The focus is always on software updates but this year the list seems more exhaustive than usual.

The highlights for me are:

  1. WatchOS now includes direct App Store access. This continues the separation of the Watch from the iPhone, on a trajectory that remains predictable.
  2. Hearing Health/Noise App/period and trends management extends the iPhone’s health maintenance “jobs to be done”.
  3. AR & Swift extend the platform through Reality Kit and Reality Composer and Swift UI.
  4. MacOS improves through a new Apple Music app, Sidecar iPad integration, Accessibility and “Find My” Mac offline beacons.
  5. iPad and Mac are beginning to share Apps with Project Catalyst.
  6. New Mac Pro and new XDR Display are quantum leapfrog leaps in the high-end performance computing market where Apple has lagged for a few years.
  7. Sign-in with Apple is a huge and much needed update to identity management on-line. A big deal.
  8. iPadOS introduced as fifth Apple OS. Rather than merging iPad and Mac which would be suggested by Project Catalyst, Apple preserves and sanctifies the modularity of form factors based on their differences rather than commonalities.

If there is one thing I took away as most significant it would be the iPadOS spin-off. I don’t quite know how this will change the fortunes of the iPad but in declaring itself a platform distinct from iOS it signals that iPad can evolve rapidly in a new direction. The promise and problem with the iPad has always been that it was great hardware held back by software that was not able to take advantage of it.

The core apps, interfaces and connectivity were all constrained, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Constraints make a system and the constraints of the iPhone made it great. Not having a stylus, not having a menu system and not having windowing meant the UX had to be drastically simplified.

But apparently the iPad could not evolve without a re-evaluation of these constraints. The last iPad Pro release hinted at what was coming: it had a full-size keyboard and an immensely capable processor and screen.

So we saw new features such as split view for the same app, Files folder, doc sharing, USB and SD drives support, Zip/Unzip, Desktop class Safari optimized for touch. Download manager, custom fonts, new text editing gestures (copy/paste/floating keyboard). Pencil latency improvement. All these changes are geared toward “productivity” or Pro use.

And yet, the iPad is not Mac. It will remain separate and target Mac non-consumers. Indeed there are three times more iPad users than Mac users and it’s quite possible that the iPad base can expand further with enhancement into productivity.

The iPad has not proven to be either an iPhone or a PC killer. It’s just in between. It’s not a bowl and it’s not a swimming pool. It’s a bathtub. And yes, bathtubs are never going to be as common as bowls but they have their uses and are not obsoleted by better water containers.

The Operating System idea here is a bit of a conceit. In terms of the kernel and the core APIs there are vast common grounds between all Apple’s OSs. But what Apple calls an OS is not just the core code but also the positioning of the idea _to developers_. By branding iPadOS the company is signaling to developers that they should think about the iPad differently.

To a large extent they already do. Coding for iPad has always required a different design approach. But now perhaps Apple is drawing an explicit line enforcing the distinction.

Going back to the list of highlights above, none of them is a “home run”, re-enforcing the idea that the company has run out of big ideas. But hitting 8 base hits yields the same result as two home runs. There is a consistent delivery of improvements here that can’t be ignored. There’s something to be said for polishing rocks until they turn into gems.

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The Pivot

The iPhone is the most successful product of all time.

Over 1.6 billion have been sold. Including the iOS products it spun off, the total is over 2.2 billion. Of those 2.2 billion sold, 1.5 billion are still in use.

There are about 1 billion iPhone users.

Economically speaking, iPhone sales have reached one trillion dollars.1

Since the iPhone launched, Apple’s sales have totaled $1.918 trillion. Of those trillions about one half a trillion was accumulated in the form of  income.

Of that half trillion in income, $360 billion was paid out to shareholders2. and $131 billion was paid in taxes.

This sounds like a good business, but no business is good if it is static. What makes a business great is dynamism. The idea is to constantly maneuver for a new or enhanced way of doing business as technologies enable entrepreneurs to fundamentally change how value is captured or allocated.

The iPhone story isn’t static, the “pivots” or change in direction are several:

  • The App Store, a platform for collaborative innovation where millions of developers are offered the chance to improve the product.
  • Accessories, a licensing model for third-party hardware that works with the iPhone
  • Distribution through multiple channels
  • Integration with other Apple Products
  • The marketing of older products alongside new ones at reduced prices
  • An expanded product portfolio with a broader range of prices
  • Trade-in and financing options

Each of these initiatives contributed to the iPhone growth story but the biggest change in business model was the addition of services. Apple Services grew out of the iTunes business that pre-dates the iPhone and was established to provide content for the iPod.

In 2006, the year before the iPhone launched, Apple customers spent $3.3 billion on iTunes, Software and Services. By 2018 the spending rate was $80.5 billion/yr. It’s very possible that this year’s spending rate will reach $100 billion/yr. This new division is simply called Services today and consists mainly of third-party apps and third-party content sales as well as licensing.

Recently Apple launched a set of new services that it will offer itself. This includes television, films, financial services and news. Apple already has a music service of its own and file storage (iCloud) both of which are offered as subscriptions.

Apps are also allowed to offer paid subscriptions, and that total has reached 390 million, growing at 30 million a quarter with an expected total of 500 million by 2020. That amounts to one subscription for every other iPhone in use.

Some would argue that even with a $43 billion revenue rate, ($80 billion billing  rate)3 Apple’s business is still a hardware business and that comes with low margins, potential for disruption, non-recurring revenues and cyclicality.

This is not the case. Apples’s business has high margins (64% gross margin for services, 34% for products), has been resilient over 12 years while attracting hundreds of imitators at lower price points, and has loyalty and satisfaction which results in more than 90% re-purchase rates. Cyclicality is driven by seasonality and product lifespans, not competition.


This common misconception of Apple is why it continues to be valued at a deep discount to not only peer companies who are services oriented (Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon) but also at a discount to the overall market (the S&P 500).

Apple, since its inception, has always been oriented around its customers, not its products. The questions asked by management are “what can the company do to deliver experiences and satisfaction” rather than “what products can the company build”.

Every company is bound by its capabilities but the best companies re-shape these bounds because they are defined by priorities.

A priorities-driven company habitually re-designs its processes and its resources. A resources- or process-driven company re-designs its priorities as its capabilities change.

Moving as it does between computers, devices, software, services, retail, logistics and manufacturing means that it’s not classifiable as an “x” company where “x” is an industry sector. Rather, the company should be classified by the set of problems it seeks to solve (e.g. communications, community, productivity, creativity, wellbeing).

This disconnect between what people think Apple sells and what Apple builds is as perplexing as the cognitive disconnect between what companies sell and what customers buy.

Companies sell objects or activities that they can make or engage in but customers buy solutions to problems. It’s easy to be fooled that these are interchangeable.4

Conversely Apple offers solutions to problems that are viewed, classified, weighed and measured as objects or activities by external observers. Again, it’s easy to be fooled that these are the same.

This analysis is, of course, applicable to any company. Here I’m using Apple as a lens. This is because it’s just so much easier to tell this story with the narratives and anti-narratives that are so widely disseminated.

  1. The milestone of $1 trillion iPhone revenues was reached in the fourth quarter 2018 during which time the stock price of Apple fell by 40%. []
  2. As a result, the number of outstanding shares has decreased by 29% []
  3. The difference is in the way Apple accounts for App Store revenues: declaring only the 30% portion of sales that it keeps as revenues, and not including the 70% that is paid out to developers. The “billing rate” is what consumers spend, the “revenue rate” is what Apple reports. []
  4. They are only correlated. Purchase decisions are not *caused* by a product’s existence. The real cause is a combination of need and supply and time and circumstance of purchase. []

AiriPods

The Apple Watch is now bigger than the iPod ever was. As the most popular watch of all time, it’s clear that the watch is a new market success story. However it isn’t a cultural success. It has the ability to signal its presence and to give the wearer a degree of individuality through material and band choice but it is too discreet. It conforms to norms of watch wearing and it is too easy to miss under a sleeve or in a pocket.

Not so for AirPods. These things look extremely different. Always white, always in view, pointed and sharp. You can’t miss someone wearing AirPods. They practically scream their presence.

For this reason wearers, whether they want to or not, advertise the product loudly. Initially, when new, they looked strange, even goofy. But the product’s value to the wearer overcame any embarrassment and for those courageous enough to wear them, they became a point of pride. As all things distinctive enough, the distinction rubs on the user and that distinction begets new users and new distinction, and so on. So now we have a bona fide cultural phenomenon.

I have both my son and parents angling to get these things. I have not seen this universal appeal recently, even for the watch. You have to explain the watch. The AirPods explain themselves. The only thing which AirPods do remind me of is the original iPod. The iPod-and-white-earbuds had a similar signal/function ratio. Looks distinctive, works well, nails the job to be done and is self-describing. The “iconification” of white was the phenomenon of its decade.

One wonders how much of this behavior is by design or, more precisely, engineered by designers. Did Jony Ive’s team plan on users “flexing” with their AirPods? Did they make them distinctive on purpose with the stalks pointing down vs,, for example, wrapping around the back of the ear for a more discreet look? Was it just good luck and the form followed function? It’s hard to imagine that taste could be engineered but here we are.

Whether planned or not, the newest AirPods offer a functional upgrade with no visual upgrade. This is noteworthy because whatever they got right with the original design they decided not to mess with it. You can’t tell if someone is wearing the newest AirPods or the originals.

As far as the added functionality it is typical Apple: faster connections due to a new chip, longer talk time, longer listen time, voice-activated Siri and wireless charging. Broadly speaking they are just better in ways that need to better and not better in ways they are good enough.

The product is part of the “wearables” category at Apple which includes watch and is growing almost 50%/yr. and not from a small base either. The following graph show the history of the segment since 2009 (before the iPod peaked).

As can be seen, Wearables and Home segment grew out of the iPod segment, through “Other” products and is now almost double what the iPod used to be alone.

It should be noted that the AirPods can be paired directly with the Apple Watch and used independent from the iPhone. If not from this point alone, culturally the iconic white AirPods and jewel-like Apple Watch embody the spirit of the iPod.

 

mini

We want things to get better. The desire of improvement and an increase in performance is seemingly innate. The old adage goes that using the word “new” is the most effective way to increase sales. “New & Improved” if you want to be redundant.

For many in technology, New & Improved means faster with more of every measurable parameter. More memory, more pixels, more storage, more bandwidth, more resolution. In devices, the tendency has been to communicate “new & improved” through an increase in screen size. We are subject to this to such an extent that phones are becoming unusable with one hand, stretching screens to the edge of the device and then wrapping those screens around the edges and then even folding the screens so that we have to unfold or unroll to use the product. Maybe an origami phone is in the works.

But there is a parallel movement where “New & Improved” means smaller. This is the trend to miniaturization. Smaller is better because it’s more portable, more conformable. Things sold by the ounce are better than things sold by the pound. The best computer, the best anything, is the one you have with you and having it with you is more likely if you can take it with you. So that which you can take with you is the best. QED.

Apple has had a great history of miniaturization. The original Macintosh was tiny compared with personal computers of its day. It had a handle so you could take it with you. Apple pioneered laptops with breakthroughs in utility and form which made them truly portable. The iMac followed with a degree of integration and portability which made it iconic. Of course the iPod and iPhone were marvels when they first appeared.

Over the years these products expanded into ranges with “good, better, best” type segmentation. The bigger being the best in performance and the smaller typically being the most convenient. However it seemed that the positioning was toward “bigger is better” for a lot of these products. The iPhones Plus, the iPads Pro, etc. As even the largest were getting thinner, the “mini” versions appeared to be neglected. You could get “good enough” portability from the larger products so why bother with the minis.

It came to a head when the iPhone SE was discontinued last fall. Its demise felt like the end of an era. I always considered the SE as the “Steve Edition”. It was the last design Steve Jobs was involved in and it pained me to see it go. With it seemed to go the positioning around “mini”.

But also last fall we saw a re-boot of another almost-forgotten mini: the Mac mini. For me the Mac mini was quintessentially Jobsian. I remember that he loved tiny products. His launch of the iPod nano was spectacular; reaching into his jeans’ watch pocket to pull it out on stage. Holding the Mac mini up as if a tiny tray. Even the iPod shuffle was a quirky and lovable idea1. And let’s not forget the Mac Cube which made the iMac look huge.

When the Mac mini was released last fall in Brooklyn with a huge spec bump and a thunderous reveal I thought something was up. When the MacBook Air was also out at the same event I felt that the company was signaling something. Perhaps a re-dedication to the low end.

Also in parallel there is the wearables product line. The AirPods and the Apple Watch are jewelry. The essential qualities of products you wear are that they be small and beautiful. The smaller the better. Above all, both the Watch and AirPods are marvels of miniaturization. They pack so much in so little volume and that volume is shaped in such an aesthetically elegant way that they become daily essentials. I use my Apple wearables more than any other Apple product. Watch glances and time with AirPods exceeds the iPhone unlocks and iPhone use time. The fact that we don’t even realize that the smallest Apple products are also the ones we use most is a testament to their conformability to us.

So the Mac mini that is suddenly the Mac Maxi in performance, the MacBook which is an extraordinarily small laptop, the wearables success, all pointed in a direction that the iPhone did not: that “mini” was back.

And now we see the iPad mini being re-launched with a huge spec bump. We should take the hint. The iPad mini is just charming. I have been trying it out for a few days and it has worked its way into my routine. I have an iPad Pro that I use on a desk to design presentations (and to deliver them). I use it with a keyboard for dealing with email on my lap or on a plane and take it instead of a laptop when going to meetings.

But the iPad mini worked its way to my nightstand. It the one I reach for when on a couch. It is like an iPhone but when you’re at home it’s better than the iPhone because you can linger on that new true tone screen. It works well one handed. It now has Pencil support so it can be used for sketching and doodling.

I am an analyst not a product reviewer but I sense how it fills a gap between iPhones and larger devices–in a home setting. Of course it can be used in an office. It is much easer to take with you if you carry a laptop in a bag.

Fundamentally explaining mini is pointless. mini is something that is felt more than it is perceived. You can see the attraction of a tiny product only when you come face-to-face with it. In a picture it’s hard to get it–there is no frame of reference. What draws me to a MacBook or to a mini or a Watch is when it’s touched and held and carried or worn. The experience of the product is not how it works but how it works with you. You have to be part of it. It’s not asking “Does it look good?”. It’s asking “Does it look good on me?” mini means more personal.

That is the nature of mini and that is why I love the new minis: the iPad mini, the Mac mini, the MacBook (mini) and that is what I dare to hope that there is an iPhone mini coming.

  1. probably the first Apple wearable as you could actually pin it to your clothes []

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