My presentation at Aalto University in Helsinki on The Modular Revolution. This is what you get if you give me a whole hour to talk.
What makes a product great? I struggle with this question because being great is not just being better than good. Greatness is to goodness as wisdom is to smarts. Just like getting smarter and smarter may never make you wise, getting better and better does not mean ever becoming great.
Greatness is transcendental. It’s hard to pin down. It inspires debate. It divides as much as it unites. It creates emotions as much as thoughts. It builds legends. It engages and persists. It lives in memory and penetrates culture. It implants itself in our consciousness persistently, to linger and dwell in our minds while we are bombarded with stimuli.
We use words such as “iconic” or “epic” to capture this permanent “mental tattoo” that we get from greatness. As important as this notion is, we struggle to define it. We don’t even have a proper word for it. Perhaps it is what art tries to be, or what drives us to achieve beyond surviving. As vague a notion as it may be, it is one of the most important notions I can think of. Greatness is the cause, perhaps, of our ascent.
In the absence of any measurement of greatness, how do we spot it?
It may just be down to “knowing when we see it”. But not everybody does.
- Language is another indicator. When people attach brands to entire categories we get an indication of ubiquity and permanence. As much as the brand owner fears it, the genericization of a trademark is very probably an indication of greatness in consumer products. Aspirin, iPod, xerox, jell-o and app are examples where brands became words. [↩]
Here is a smart calculator you will enjoy. Unlike a dumb calculator, it lets you see math as math. Typing is completely “what you think is what you type”. Everything is easier. Nothing gets in your way.
Magic Number is ideal for ‘back of the envelope’ calculations. Or cases when a spreadsheet feels like a truck and a traditional calculator feels like a horse.
Want to know the percentage increase going from 72 to 90?
Just type “72 + ?% = 90” and let Magic Number do the algebra.
Want to make sense of a list of prices?
Then the List feature is for you. You can see the statistics, compare prices,
and calculate their tax effortlessly.
I can go on. Magic Number is deep. But its virtue lies in its thoughtfulness.
To get a taste of Magic Number, check out this page.
What if Apple did make a car? How significant could their products be? What would it take to influence the industry’s architecture?
The global market is forecast to reach 88.6 million vehicles in 2015 and there are many ways to segment it. One could look at geography or at product configurations or the emergence of new powertrain technologies.
One could also look at the participants.
In 2014 Toyota was the top selling automaker with a total sales volume of 10.23 million vehicles. The following graph shows the leading 15 producers and the percent of total production.
Horace and Anders revisit Apple TV and answer listener questions in this special 2 hour episode.
Executives at car companies have suddenly had to answer questions about potential entrants into their business. This is a big change. I don’t recall a time when this was necessary for over 30 years. For decades the questions have been about labor relations, health care costs, regulation, recalls and competition from other car makers. To ask questions about facing challengers posing existential questions must seem terribly impertinent.
For this reason, Bob Lutz, in his dismissal of Apple’s entry, is not alone. The industry has a century of history and has seen little disruption in the classic sense. I wrote a long piece on the fundamentals of the industry titled “The Entrant’s Guide to the Automobile Industry” which explained why this industry has been so resistant to disruptive change. At best a massive effort over multiple decades usually leads in a small shift in market share.
However, one should read that post as a thinly veiled threat. Just because disruption seems hard does not mean it isn’t possible. Indeed, the better you understand the industry the more easily you can observe its vulnerability and the more rigid the industry seems the more vulnerable it may be to dramatic change.
The formula for successful entry is the same for all industries: compete asymmetrically. This means introduce products which change the basis of competition and deter competitive responses by making your goals dissimilar from those of the incumbents. This is classic “ju-jitsu” of disruptive competition.
Here’s how it would work.
Bob Lutz suggests that there is no profit to be gained from selling cars on the premise that costs are very high while pricing will be held down by competition. That may be true but entrants could deploy new processes that lower the costs of production. Traditional car making is capital intensive due to the processes and materials used. There are however alternatives on the shelf. iStream from Gordon Murray Design proposed switching to tubular frames and low cost composites. BMW has an approach using carbon fiber and other composites. 3D printing is waiting in the wings. All offer a departure from sheet metal stamping.
With new materials, costs for new plants can be reduced by as much as 80% and since amortizing the tooling is as much as 40% of the cost of a new car, the margins on new production methods could result in significant boosts in margin.
There is a downside however. What is usually compromised when using these new methods is volume and scale of production. So that becomes the real question: how many cars can Apple target? 10k, 50k, 100k per year? Could they target 500k? That would be 10 times Tesla’s current volumes but only a bit more than the output of the Mini brand.
Now consider that the total market is 85 million vehicles per year. For Apple to get 10% share would imply 8.5 million cars a year, a feat that is hard to contemplate right now with any of the new production systems. On the other hand selling 80 million iPhones and iPads in a single quarter has become routine for Apple and that was considered orders of magnitude beyond what they could deliver. Amazing what 8 years of production ramping can offer.
So the answer to the operating margin might be in a combination of new processes and new ramp strategies.
But there are more levers of change.
Subscribe to the weekly podcast about Internet History hosted by @brianmcc. Listen to interviews and oral histories with founders, engineers and other Internet pioneers with special episodes recounting the founding stories of companies you know and love. It’s like a mix of Marc Maron’s WTF and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History… but all about tech.
Past episodes have featured:
- The founding stories of Netscape, Amazon, eBay, Pathfinder, Hotwired, Suck and more.
- Oral histories from the majority of the Mosaic/Netscape engineering team.
- An interview with the father of the MP3, Karlheinz Brandenberg.
Founders of CBSSportsline, Match.com, iVillage, RealNetworks and more
- The forgotten technical co-founder of Amazon.
- The woman who carpet-bombed the world with AOL CD’s.
- The founders or CEOs most of the major search engines of the 90s.
And there’s more every week.
Subscribe now in Sticher or iTunes, or on your podcast app of choice.
I was always bemused by the notion that the Internet was able to exist solely because most users did not know they could install an ad blocker. Like removing Flash, using an Ad blocker was a rebellious act but one which paid off only for early adopters. But like all good ideas, it seemed obvious that this idea would spread.
What we never know is how quickly diffusion happens. I’ve observed “no-brainer” technologies or ideas lie unadopted for decades, languishing in perpetual indifference and suddenly, with no apparent cause, flip into ubiquity and inevitability at a vicious rate of adoption.
Watching this phenomenon for most of my life, I developed a theory of causation. This theory is that for adoption to accelerate there has to be a combination of conformability to the adopter’s manifest needs (the pull) combined with a concerted collaboration of producers to promote the solution (the push). Absent either pull or push, adoption of even the brightest and most self-evident ideas drags on.
Ad blocking offers a real-time example of this phenomenon. On desktop or even laptop computers ads were tolerable and the steps required to naviagate in order to implement effective blocking were non-trivial. In addition, no platform vendors were keen to promote products which hindered revenues for their most important ecosystem partners.
Ad blocking as an activity had neither the pull nor the push.Notes:
- By effective I mean a combination of whitelists and customizations [↩]
Apple is categorized as a vendor of consumer electronics. More specifically, a member of the “Electronic Equipment” industry in the “Consumer Goods” sector. If indeed this is what it’s thought to be selling, there is a problem because it isn’t what its customers are buying.
Apple’s customers buy a mix of hardware, software and services under a brand that assures a certain quality of experience. This bundling and integration of otherwise disparate things is why the brand is such a success.
This anomaly between what Apple is thought to sell and what buyers actually buy can leave the casual observer confused. As a result the company’s categorization as vendor of hardware deeply discounts its shares. It is, in other words a less valuable business. This is because a seller of consumer electronics does not benefit from “system valuation” since there is minimal loyalty to the product after the sale.
The consumer electronics vendor has no network to leverage, no ecosystem adding value after the sale, no platform and works through multiple levels of distribution to reach the customer. In contrast, a system vendor can expect benefits from network effects, ecosystems, and a coveted relationship with the end user.
The result is that the valuation of a consumer electronics vendor is based on the momentum of individual products. Apple has always been valued this way. Each hit product is considered to be a stroke of luck/genius and the chances of recurring are discounted to about zero. Regardless of the fact that it has a track record of “home runs”, Apple’s hit rate is not considered sustainable.. Certainly Apple is not valued as being able to generate reliably recurring revenues.
But what if we were to value Apple on the basis of what people are buying rather than what it’s thought to be selling?
The model is simple enough: determine the number of users, estimate the lifespan of the products, and figure out the services attached to the products; then, given the price, obtain a price per product per day. You then can get a recurring revenue figure.
I did just that and the results are in the following table:
- The P/E ratio is the primary indicator in this analysis [↩]