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.

Sponsor: Clean Up Your Inbox With SaneBox

SaneBox brings sanity back to your inbox by prioritizing what’s important, removing spam/junk, grouping newsletters together, and automating tedious tasks. Save $25 off any plan when you start your 14-day trial today 🙂

 

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.

Do Your Standup Meetings Suck? Try Standuply Instead

Standup meetings seems like an easy and effective practice. But, they can really suck in a remote team. If your standups suck, there’s a good chance you are not using the right tools.

Standuply, a Digital Scrum Master for Slack, helps remote teams automate standups, retros, backlog grooming, planning poker via Slack-based asynchronous surveys.

To make it work, you pick a schedule, people and setup questions to ask. Then Standuply surveys a team via Slack and aggregates their answers. Once Standuply is configured, processes are up and running so that you can focus on the bigger picture.

  • Standuply is the #1 Slack app for standup meetings trusted by 35,000 teams worldwide;
  • Standuply is integrated with JIRA, Trello, GitHub, and more;
  • Standuply enables voice and video messages in Slack;
  • Use the promo code asymco15 to get 15% off for 12 months;

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 []

Sponsor: Use GravityView to Powerfully Display Form Entry Data

Using WordPress?

GravityView puts your Gravity Forms form data to work on the front end of your website. You can easily display your entries in a table, a nice-looking profile listing, or even in your own hand-rolled HTML layout.

Build virtually anything using your form data, like business directories, feedback boards, staff databases, or event location maps. Plus, GravityView is drag-and-drop—no coding is required. If you want to customize it with your own code, you can do that too.

The best part? Users can search, sort, and edit their own Gravity Forms entries.

Thousands of agencies, universities, and other organizations are already using GravityView. Try us risk-free with our 30–day guarantee.

Enter the code ASYMCO on checkout to get 10% off your purchase.

A Billion Users

In the latest Apple Earnings report, Apple announced a few details that are relevant to the forecast of the business:

  • The global active installed base for iPhone reached an all-time high at the end of December, surpassing 900 million devices. This represents growth y-o-y in each of five geographic segments, and growth of almost 75 million in the last 12 months alone
  • There are now over 360 million paid subscriptions across the Services portfolio, an increase of 120 million versus a year ago. Apple expects to surpass 500 million in 2020.
  • The installed base grew to 1.4 billion devices by the end of December. This includes all-time highs for each of the main product categories and all five of their geographic segments.

I added all these data points to the previous reported figures related to installed base, subscriptions and Services revenue.

Note that all the data sets show a linear growth path. Most prominent is the paid subscriptions line which is growing at exactly 30 million per quarter. The new projection of 500 million by 2020 is exactly in-line with this projection.

Note also that active devices and iPhones are on similar trajectories. The figure for active iPhones is interesting because it very closely relates to active users. It’s extremely likely that 900 million active iPhones means 900 million active iPhone users. An iPhone is useful if it has a data plan associated and it’s a costly proposition for most people to have multiple devices and multiple data plans.

This close relationship between iPhone usage and iPhone users means that we can approximate the entire unique user base for Apple. There might be “10s” of millions of users who use Apple devices but don’t use iPhones but there might also be multiple iPhones for some users1

So it’s very likely that the total Apple user base is between 900 and 1 billion. If it’s not 1 billion now then it’s very likely it will be 1 billion within 12 months.

In May 2010 I made the prediction that Apple would reach a billion users in 5 to 8 years. The prediction was based on the first 100 million iOS users. The company reached one billion active devices in a bit over 5 years and is about to reach 1 billion users 8 years since.

Apple stated in the latest conference call that very little of Services revenues depends on the any previous quarter’s unit sales confirming that Services is driven almost entirely from the user base. With almost a billion users, 90+% loyalty rate, 95% satisfaction, 120 million paid subscriptions and 75 million new users/yr, the analysis of Apple as a services company is becoming interesting.

  1. I would be inclined to assume that there are more non-iPhone Apple users than multiple iPhone users. []

Apple’s Unit Economics

For the last two years I’ve been studying the transportation economy and introducing the idea of Micromobility. Simply, Micromobility promises to have the same effect on mobility as microcomputing had on computing. Bringing transportation to many more and allowing them to travel further and faster.  I use the term micromobility precisely because of the connotation with computing and the expansion of consumption but also because it focuses on the vehicle rather than the service. The vehicle is small, the service is vast.1

One of the elements of analysis for Micromobility is the notion of Unit Economics. The idea is that each vehicle can be seen as an independent business. It requires an investment, has a revenue attached, requires operating costs and fixed costs and finally, hopefully, generates earnings. A fleet’s economics is therefore a multiplication of the unit economics by the fleet size. A similar partial construct exists for mobile network operators where the network revenue is defined by ARPU (average revenue per user). In consumer hardware we also have the idea of ASP (average sales price) and BOM (bill of materials) which describe the revenue and variable cost of each device.

In the case of Micromobility the unit economics is more broadly applied in being an entire P/L statement for each vehicle. One example for the e-scooter sharing company Bird is here. If the unit economics of Bird is consistent across geography and time then the entire business can be valued based on one “average unit”. Measuring the health of the business can thus be summarized in BOM, Utilization, Lifespan, Attrition and Cost structure or one unit.

For some time now I’ve advocated a similar approach for Apple.

  1. If you want to learn about the real future of transportation sooner rather than later, do consider coming to the Micromobility California conference. []