The following interview took place by email on April 15th, 2013.
1. What are the truth and false about the ‘Apple shock’ currently? In what perspective should we see this?
First, I’d point out that during Steve Jobs’ time the company suffered many such shocks. The stock fell many times far further than it just did for trivial and irrational reasons. Recently Warren Buffett himself pointed out that his own company had 50% drops in value four times in the past. Share prices are not always good indicators of potential and markets are not always efficient. I catalogued the dramatic share price declines in Apple during the last decade here.
Second, I’d point out that the number of people watching and commenting on Apple has grown almost as fast as its sales and earnings. When Apple was small the people who studied Apple were few. (You could see this today for other, modest tech companies. There aren’t 50 analysts writing reports every day and 2000 bloggers tweeting about Lenovo even though it’s a successful and growing PC company.) Because of this growth, I would guess 80% of the observers have not observed Apple’s prior painful episodes first hand. For them this is the first time a “dominant” Apple has slowed. The amplification of so many voices raising alarm makes it seem truer, but it isn’t.
Third, the failures being cited are not significant. In terms of increased competition, before Samsung there was Nokia and Motorola and the mobile Operators and Microsoft and Dell and many others long forgotten. They were all about to “defeat” Apple. As a quick example when Apple was “the iPod company,” iTunes was considered vulnerable and fragile due to DRM concerns or the Beatles not being on it. Microsoft was launching “Plays for Sure” and Zune and Creative was suing Apple over patents. These battles are long forgotten. Before those there were concerns about the viability of the Mac that go back decades. At the time those were actually very valid concerns. At the time Apple did not have half a billion users. It depended on one product. But what saved them was a process of development of new products not the products themselves. iPod faded, Mac faded. What mattered is that they created new things to replace them.
Finally, what is not commonly understood is that the mechanism for creating things at Apple is unchanged. Its functional organization is inherently unstable and chaotic, sometimes looking like it will derail. But that’s the way it was designed to be. You just have to have faith that it’s a system that works. Those who did in the past were well rewarded.
2. What possibilities out of 1~10, do you think, Apple will suffer the same downfall as Steve jobs has left the company in the past in current?
The threat is negligible. During the first departure of Jobs, the intention of management was to make the company into “a proper company.” The plan was, essentially, to remove the chaotic model that Jobs had put in place and replace it with something more “rational” and “grown up.” After he returned he set about not just returning the company to the way it was but to also codifying and identifying exactly what that was so that it did not happen again. You have to appreciate that the greatest thing Jobs ever created was not a product but Apple itself.
Note that Apple managers stay in their roles the whole time they are there, sometimes for decades. There is no “general purpose” manager and the whole company has been organized along these functional lines. The way to think about it is that during his first departure the new management tried to undo what Jobs had built which is why it became dysfunctional: the DNA did not match the body it was operating. His return re-aligned the culture and operations to what was originally developed. As long as new management does not try to undo that, they’ll be all right.
3. Apple is now defined by some people, as ‘the company who modifies well’, not ‘the company who innovates’ well. What they made was ipad, ipod, iphone, apple tv and all the modifiers of the original products. Do you agree? If you do why?
Innovation is not invention. Innovation is the application of invention in ways that solve new needs. I’m always amazed at how misunderstood this term is even though the definition is easy to understand:
(“Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself.”)
Apple is an innovation machine. It does invent but that’s not valuable in itself. Not all inventions are applied and not all innovations depend on internal inventions. Innovation is applied invention just like engineering is applied science. A better way to think about Apple is to think about Pixar. It’s a blockbuster manufacturer. It makes blockbusters and nothing else. That means it does not make many of them and not always regularly and that the ideas may not be original, but the results are always very popular. Pixar is not like any other studio that makes some hits and some flops. Pixar is also a functional organization. It’s not an accident that they were both built by the same person and that they are both successful after he left.
4. Google is forecasted to release lots of products this year, but Apple isn’t really looking forward to so many innovations. Inside Apple, is the innovation team really making a new innovative product? what are their longterm plans to fight with Google, or Samsung and the rest of the competitors?
People outside of engineering organizations, especially large ones, don’t appreciate the time scales involved. Products you see today were designed, planned and developed many years ago. We see plenty of evidence of this but we tend to ignore it. Consider that some prototypes end up on ebay showing they were built years before launch. It is the same with evidence presented in trials proving work on the product 4 to 5 years before it was launched. This is not the case just for Apple but all other technology companies.
For this reason, what is happening in the market and what is happening inside the company are two completely different universes. The tendency is to assume a direct relationship between market momentum and current management decisions. These are connected but with many years in-between.
For example, globally accurate Maps require a minimum of five years of development. Decisions on what ended up being Apple Maps had to have been made by Jobs himself. Namely, he must have decided whether to buy or build Maps. Contrast with Nokia’s decision in 2007 to buy maps for a cost of $8 billion; instead Apple licensed and then decided to build later. In 2007 Jobs decided that it was more important to work on the product itself, meaning the iPhone (while Nokia didn’t prioritize product innovation.) The results are visible today: Apple is behind and needs to accelerate with Maps and Nokia with its great maps must find a way of staying in business.
Apple is not only working on the next product but probably 15 new products, of which 14 will be discarded. Again, I cite Pixar. Each movie is produced with multiple stories, multiple character decisions and different plots in parallel. Much ends up being thrown away. We don’t see any of that.
Apple is extremely “myopic” in that it is very concerned with execution and there is no visible “strategy plan”. That’s by design. The product comes first and then comes the market and then comes strategy. To create great products you need to tune out almost everything else. However, they do have a “strategy” and that has to do with which problems they should attack and which they shouldn’t. Usually they are successful because what they can attack nobody else can. That is due to their integrated, functional approach.
5. Isn’t Apple, relying too much on semiconductor manufacturers? Meaning, isn’t Apple only try to be ‘stable company’ to supply their products on time? sometimes when companies have disruptive technologies, they have hard time supplying products.
You’re touching on the question of the problems of integration. Yes, there are vulnerabilities but that’s the way it has to be. To mitigate this Apple is increasing its integration of the value chains. For example developing its own chip design and owning a lot of capital equipment.
6. If you were Tim Cook, what would you do?
I’d buy Intel and turn them into Apple’s microprocessor design and manufacturing group. They won’t have much to do in a few years and they’ll be cheap.
7. what are the reasons that Apple try to make a ‘apple watch’, ‘apple bicycle’? How do you define these products, since, watchs and bicycles are a total different paradigm which is a totally different industries? Is Apple realizing that smartphone industry is hard for them to innovate?
Computers are becoming more personal, intimate. It’s a natural evolution from large to mini to micro to portable to handheld. I don’t see this slowing and Apple should re-define the user experience during every such shift. Here again integration is essential.
8. what are some of the stuff that we don’t know about Tim Cook?
I can’t help you there. Only thing I can say is that people who know him have told me he’s not soft and gentle as a manager. He’s tough.
9. How will Samsung and Apples patent fight come to conclusion?
Again, I can’t add much to this. Litigation is often a decision made outside of market conditions so it can be arbitrary.
10. how does employees or executives inside apple think about their company?
It’s hard to describe this without sounding soft, but the employees at Apple tend to love the brand. You can’t measure that but I can think of one proxy: the number of applicants to retail jobs are in the hundreds for each opening.
[Update: Bono made an important observation regarding Jony Ive which was published after this interview: What the competitors don’t seem to understand is you cannot get people this smart to work this hard just for money. Jony is Obi-Wan. His team are Jedi whose nobility depends on the pursuit of greatness over profit, believing the latter will always follow the former, stubbornly passing up near-term good opportunities to pursue great ones in the distance]