Category Theory


Unicorns typically are valued on the basis of number of users. While they are not yet monetizing those users, their growth and engagement metrics are expected to be off the charts. As there are no revenues (or profits) the $billion valuation hinges on a nominal value of $/user. That figure is based on comparable companies (e.g. Facebook) which do monetize their users.

Since the unicorn’s capitalization/user defines its valuation, which company should be considered comparable? Unfortunately they range widely. There are many alternatives. The graph below shows a few Market Cap/Mobile User rates ranging from $45 for Yelp to $747 for Alibaba.

Screen Shot 2015-05-15 at 5-15-2.47.16 PM


Note that I’ve also added companies which may not be considered as unicorn comparables because they are not usually valued on a per-user basis. Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon are priced by product sales, typically. However, most of them operate and self-define as service organizations. Microsoft has been “monetizing users” for decades using a recurring revenue model. It has a “SaaS” business logic for most of its revenues. Google[1] likewise. Amazon reports its active users every quarter and obviously is measuring itself by that metric.

Apple[2] is the least likely to be seen as a company whose value is a function of user base. Nonetheless it behaves entirely on that basis. The company’s entire strategy depends on satisfying its customers and building its brand which can only have one outcome: loyalty and repeat purchases. The services and software they offer can be seen as supporting that brand loyalty which is converted to profit through an above-average selling price.

Being mature of business model therefore does not exclude a company from being valued like all the kids are these days.

So, if we do look at the value/user metric we might as well look at the revenues, operating profit and growth data.

  1. Google users are estimated at 2 billion active Android/GMS devices []
  2. The assumption here is that Apple has 520 million active users which is based on iOS devices in use estimates []

The Battle for The Wrist

The Apple Watch offers a hierarchy of surfaces onto which software can compete for attention:

  1. The Complication Layer
  2. The Notification Layer
  3. The Glances Layer
  4. The App Screen

These surfaces are arranged in a hierarchy where the highest is the most accessible and the lowest is the least accessible. In a similar fashion we can consider the hierarchy of screens a person could reasonably be considered to be exposed to:

  1. The Watch
  2. The Phone
  3. The Tablet
  4. The TV
  5. The Personal Computer
  6. The Public/Work Computer

Note that this hierarchy is correlated to the size and hence the portability and persistence of proximity to the user. Each of the screens has its own “surfaces” which expose software to the user with various degrees of ease. For instance the iPhone has Notifications, Control Center, Home Screen, etc. The OS X personal computer has the Desktop, Notifications, the Dashboard, the Browser etc.

It follows then that software which is located at the top of each hierarchy on each device will have the greatest exposure to user interaction and that the device which has the nearest proximity to the user will provide the greatest value to software developers.

This implies further that the most valuable “real estate” for software will be the Complication layer on the Watch.

The software which receives either default placement there or which convinces the highest number of users to opt for placement there will have the greatest potential value. As suggested in my post on how the Watch will be valued, how software will be valued will be by the probability of its Settings being enabled for display on the Watch and its presence within Glances.

The jostling for position within the constrained real estate on the wrist will be analogous to the competition for positioning on the phone. You’ll note that the winners on the phone were different than the winners on the PC. My bet is that the winners on the Watch will be different than the winners on the Phone.

And that’s not a bad thing.

The Watch

Watch Screens

Before its launch, I said that the Apple Watch would be as much a watch as the iPhone is a phone. Recall that when the iPhone was launched it was anchored on three tentpoles, one of which was being a phone and that when the Apple Watch was launched it was also anchored on three tentpoles, one of which was being a watch.

Realizing that on the iPhone the “phone” is but an app — one which I find populated with FaceTime calls rather than cellular calls and whose messaging history is filled with iMessage threads rather than SMS — I consider it safe to say what the iPhone is today not as much a phone as a very personal computer. And so the question is whether the Watch will quickly leave behind its timekeeping anchor and move into being something completely different.

I had the chance to use the Watch for a few days and can say that timekeeping is probably as insignificant to its essence as it’s possible to be. It feels like a watch in the physical sense, looking good in the process (as the iPhone physically felt like a phone, also without being hard on the eyes)

However it does not feel like a watch conceptually. I find myself drawn into a conversation by its vocabulary of vibrations. I find myself talking to it. I find myself listening to it. I find myself glancing at information about faraway places. I find myself paying for things with it. I find myself checking into flights with it. I order transportation, listen to news, check live data streams and get myself nagged to exercise. It tells me where I am. It tells me where to go. It tells me when to leave.

Nothing ever worn on a wrist, or anywhere else for that matter, has done any of these things before. Not only are these things mesmerizing but they are done in a productive way on a wristwatch. In other words they are done in a mindful way.

Cynics may say it does too little. Philistines may say it does too much. But for me it does just what I want it to do when I want it done. The things which are not done stay out of the way. This discretion is just as important as the effectiveness of action.

Even more remarkably, this tasteful minder is offered not to a fortunate few but to millions of people of average means. In the true sense of technological democratization, Apple Watch is a phenomenon for mass consumption.

Its launch needs to be understood as a watershed event. It could be compared to the launch of the Mac or the iPhone but it is different as much as it is the same.

The product has a completely different character. It tries not to do more but to do less. But that which it does is more meaningful, more thoughtful. We talk of computing speeds and network feeds but we spend much more time and money to visit people who have little to say and say it slowly. We value charm and wit more than bandwidth and throughput. We are drawn to beauty more than to speed. This is what this computer captures.

A maxim of the computing of the 21st century is that the closer the machine is to us the more we value it. It does not get rewarded for being fast but for being a companion. It does not get valued for features but for beauty. It does not get hired for power but for control. It does not get worn because it’s smart but because it’s clever.

People understand these tradeoffs instinctively. They are not concepts that need selling. The product speaks plainly of itself and its success is therefore guaranteed.

How will we measure Apple’s Watch success?

It won’t be easy. The company will not be reporting the Watch segment revenues or (presumably) unit sales and therefore we won’t have an accurate unadulterated view of the business. In addition, the large number of products in the mix and wide price variance means that it will be difficult for analysts to determine demand and price.

There is a hidden benefit to not having this data. All data is a creation and it tends to lead thinking in directions led by whatever is being measured (and whoever chose those measures and their motives). And yet without data there is no evidence and no credibility. In other words: You can’t manage without measurement but you can’t be sure what to measure.

The analyst is then faced with a requirement to have good taste or at least judgement about what to measure. This judgement is based on experience and good theory. Given that, what could we measure to determine whether the Apple Watch will be a success?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Language. Measure whether “Watch” will come to mean “Apple Watch”. “Phone” has come to mean not only “smartphone” but also all mobile/cellular phones and not just things used for calling but things used for all manner of information. This is a great test because the theft of semantics can only be accomplished through a degree of ubiquity of influential mindshare. Incidentally, the brand may well have been designed to do just that.[1]
  2. A measurable and significant reduction in the use of the iPhone. The Watch peels off uses from the iPhone and therefore the more it peels off, the less remains. However, that which remains will be more uniquely valuable to the incumbent. This is the process of carving and erosion that the PC experienced vs. mobile devices in general.
  3. An increase in the mix of large-screen iPhones. As iPhones are removed from pockets more rarely, the larger version might be more comfortable to carry and more useful to use for the immersive tasks that are outside the scope of Watch.
  4. An overall increase in iPhone sales beyond the foreseeable trajectory. This would suggest switchers from Android would be drawn to the platform purely for the value of the “accessory”. Note that this is not inconsistent with the lower usage and higher spec mix measurements.
  5. Apps uniquely targeting the Watch. It’s hard to imagine how this will develop as it involves millions of creative minds, but as smartphones created new economic value through the solving of new jobs to be done, the Watch should do the same. As a side-effect it should lead to new empires (or at least Unicorns) being formed around Watch use.
  6. Iteration. How quickly and deeply will the product be improved? Basic accessories like headphones and Apple TV have a leisurely update cycle. Smarter devices are faster. The cycle time of iteration should indicate how seriously Apple takes the platform and that itself should be fueled by positive consumer sentiment for the product.

These indicators are vague and the data will be weakly signaled but in many ways it will be more meaningful than any financial performance figures.

  1. It leaves open the question as to what watches as currently defined will come to be known as. []


Apple’s new watches are priced in a pattern unlike any of the previous pricing models for Apple products.

Previous pricing models for iPhone, iPad, Mac and iPod were typically structured around storage differences. The higher the storage, the higher the price. The Mac had a slight variation where processor and graphics offered some additional configuration options. To illustrate, the graph below shows typical price bands for the iPhone (2011 and 2012)

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 11.51.16 AMIn contrast, the watches are differentiated by size, materials and bands. There are also a total of 38 watch configurations available at launch (SKUs) and another 38 bands that can be purchased separately.

The bands come in four price points and the watches in 15. Of these 15 watch prices, four are dramatically different. The pricing of the watches is shown in the two graphs below (with and without the Edition).

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 12.03.19 PM

Conversations with Apple’s brand

According to Folkore, in 1981 Apple took out a two page ad in Scientific American which explained that whereas humans cannot run as fast as other animals, a human on a bicycle is the fastest species on earth.

Jobs had made the observation that a computer was “a bicycle for the mind” earlier, in 1980, at a time when the decision to purchase a computer was driven by an intellectual curiosity and justified as an improvement or assistant to the intellect. It was to make the lighten the labors of our intellect.

Apple brand at the time as an appeal to the intellect via a humanistic argument. A more emotive positioning of a tool, but a tool nonetheless. This positioning evolved throughout the 80s and 90s into an “intersection of technology and the liberal arts.”

We can see how the conversation with the potential buyer was along the lines of appealing to the intellect while offering a humanist sweetener. Humanizing the product allowed it to be accepted into a world that feared the complexity and awkwardness of such a machine.

During the 2000s, with the ascent of iPod, the conversation shifted to prioritizing  the emotions more than the intellect. The products had to appeal to those who wished to express and enjoy products of emotional value. Products like music and videos and the output of the arts rather than the sciences. The brand became emotional rather than intellectual. It created an aesthetic, and become culturally iconic.

During the 2010s, with the ascent of iPhone and the emergence of the Watch, the brand speaks a language of instinct, leaving intellect and emotion as secondary or tertiary voices. Instinct is visceral, lust-inducing. It seems to short-circuit any of the rational. Non-rationalism does not mean irrational. It just skips right over the head and heart and hits the gut.

One could argue that during these three decades, the organs the brand was engaging in conversation shifted from the mind to the heart and then to the glands. Those glands which release hormones and are directed by non-rational neurons. The evidence of the conversation would be in resulting products causing pupils to dilate, breaths to be quickly drawn and skin temperatures to rise.

The brand therefore has managed to move from a rational, to a neurological, to an endocrine response.

The curious thing is that during these shifts, Apple’s entry into new biological spheres of influence has been largely unchallenged. I suspect this is because emotional or instinctive products are appealing due to their lack of rationalized value. In other words, what makes a product hormonally appealing is a lack of intellectual appeal[1]. Apple can enter into the world of lustful appeal while lustful brands can’t enter into functional appeal.

This is a classic asymmetry which perhaps no other brand can pull off.[2]

  1. and vice-versa in many cases []
  2. The reason is complicated but stems from the firm having been built to execute nothing but home runs. By shunning portfolio theory, Apple can wander into new categories far from its biological home grounds. []

The Analyst’s Guide to Apple Category Entry

Understanding Apple’s intentions seems to be a popular parlor game and there are many attempts at divining intention from data and market study. These attempts at market research for answers are futile because Apple does not compete in existing markets but rather it creates new markets. For instance, the market for the Apple II could not have been assessed from research into the computing market of 1974. The intention for Apple to enter into music devices and services could not have been predicted through an analysis of MP3 player market in 2000. The iPhone was also not predicated on the market for “Internet Communicators” in 2006 or 2002 when the iPad was first contemplated.[1]

Instead of measuring the size of pre-existing markets, surveying the functionality of existing products, or weighing toxically financialized ratios like margins and market shares, I recall this ad (Our Signature, first seen at 2013 WWDC):

This is it
This is what matters

The experience of a product
How it will make someone feel
Will it make life better?
Does it deserve to exist?

We spend a lot of time on a few great things
Until every idea we touch
Enhances each life it touches

You may rarely look at it
But you will always feel it
This is our signature
And it means everything

My interpretation of these lines, coupled with additional public statements can be used to create a “litmus test” for new product categories:

1. The experience of a product. Read: They will work on things to which they can make a meaningful contribution. To me this means that they will build things which require an integrated approach. As Apple is “the last integrated company standing” it means they will work on problems where the system is not good enough. This means that they will not work on problems where an individual modular component is not good enough. By system I mean, in the largest sense: production, design, distribution, sales, support and services must work in a seamless way. Systems analysis implies a broad understanding of the causes of insufficient performance along the dimensions of “experience”. The experiences are what differentiate the products (and lead to high margins) and these experiences are possible only through the control of interdependent modules.

2. Does it deserve to exist? Read: They will work on very few things. They will say no to many things. It’s still true that all of Apple’s products can fit on one table. That may not be true forever, but their product space will not grow as quickly as sales grow. This means that there is no notion of “marginal value” or portfolio theory where products are added because they can be justified as “moving the needle” or balancing demand. Rather, the few things which will be worked on will address non-consumption. Non-consumption of experiences.

3. Enhance life. Read: The things they release are inevitable even though nobody asked for them. The reason this is possible is that there are unmet and unidentified “jobs to be done” which are powerful sources of demand and whose satisfaction leads to unforeseen rewards. The problems that can be addressed are uncovered through a process of conversation with a few people. They are not uncovered through surveys or large n statistical studies. Without the ability to ask the right questions, big data only leads to big misdirection. In contrast, good taste in questions allows small n to lead to big insight. Apple’s ability for finding the right problem to solve comes from this greatness of taste in questions.

So given this litmus test, will Apple build a Car?

I believe the problem of transportation and its proxy, the automobile, provide all the requisite demand for Apple’s attention. Technical questions abound and they may still prove unsurmountable before a launch happens, but there are no doubts in my mind that this is a problem Apple would see fit to address.

Non-consumption of unmet and unarticulated jobs to be done can and should be addressed with systems solutions and new experiences.

The poetry is pretty clear on the matter.


  1. The market for phones was large but the iPhone pricing and features made it incompatible with any reasonable segment of it. []

Haunted Empire

The “Stupid manager theory of company failure” (and its corollary, the “Smart manager theory of company success”[1]) remains the most popular, perhaps even the most universally accepted theory of management. Book after book, thoughtful article after article alludes to this theory and whenever a company is perceived to be under-performing, all fingers point to the leadership with demands for blood letting.

This is not a new phenomenon. When catastrophe strikes, as a thoughtful species, we have always asked for leaders to be sacrificed. In Europe during the Iron age leaders were sacrificed when crops failed. In South and Central America leaders were ceremonially tortured for similar reasons.

Of course most crop failures were due to weather phenomena and the anointed leadership had nothing to do with these causes. Nevertheless ancient correlation analysis would have revealed the pattern that good leadership meant good weather and bad leadership meant bad weather.

There was a balance to the downside however. When times were good the leadership enjoyed luxuries and praise. This was the essential deal societies made: we’ll keep you in riches and allow you to be idle as long as times are good but ritualistically slaughter you when times are bad. We’ll declare you “chief magical officer” and place all our faith in you. But, of course, if you fail, we will will be vengeful.

And so it goes in today’s corporate world. I’ve often said that corporate governance is medieval, or pre-scientific in its approach to understanding causality. That may be too generous. As far as the reward/punishment system (also known as Human Resources) it’s probably pre-neolithic. The luxuries and extravagance which we heap upon the leader provide abundant evidence. Leaders insist on these ironic “pay packages” and boards approve them because they know they can and will be ritualistically sacrificed if and when the mobs turn against them.

A manager would be a fool to accept even generous pay given the risk, actually near certainty, of ritualistic slaughter. They demand and are unquestionably given absurd pay that has no relationship to performance. Such pay has no relationship to performance because it isn’t designed to reward performance but to account for the risk of arbitrary and very public sacrifice. Boards (and hence shareholders) are deliberately hiring a scapegoat for sins as yet unknown. Luxury and violence are thus finely balanced in what is called “Executive Search”.

  1. As well as the “Smart/Stupid leader theory of national success/failure” []

The Monopolist

When the Apple Watch will begin sales, there will have been dozens of “smart watches” released. At CES this week at least 56 “wearables” were on display. One could be forgiven for thinking that Apple’s Watch will compete with at least that many alternatives. Those alternatives don’t even include the entire existing mechanical and electronic watch market, which, surely, is also filled with competitors.

When analyzing competition, it’s easy to get caught up in one-on-one competitive comparisons, each posited as a decisive life-or-death battle. Consider the list of competitors that Apple has been declared as being in a death-match with:

  • Real Networks. Yes, there was a time when Apple’s survival depended on success vs. alternative media encoding technologies.
  • Adobe. Remember Flash? No Flash support meant that Apple’s fledgling phone would fail.
  • “The Music Industry”. Unhappy partners could surely shut down the iTunes music store, and their insistence on DRM would surely cripple the experience.
  • IBM. In nearly every aspect, their business/strategy/inclination and glimmer of intent was an existential threat the Apple.
  • Microsoft. In nearly every aspect, their business/strategy/inclination and glimmer of intent was an existential threat the Apple.
  • Google. In nearly every aspect, their business/strategy/inclination and glimmer of intent is an existential threat the Apple.
  • Samsung. Obviously. But not just phones or tablets. They have control over key components that Apple used in many of its products, before the iPhone even.
  • Palm/BlackBerry/Nokia/HTC/Huawei/Xiaomi Every phone maker (and every phone) was/is an existential threat to Apple.
  • Dell/HP/Asus/Lenovo et. al. Every PC maker was a threat to Apple. Some of them made MP3 players. Some of them make tablets.
  • Amazon. Obviously. Not only as an iTunes killer but as a device disruptor. They are working on drones, after all.
  • Sony. Remember them? No longer a PC maker but they moved in many circles Apple moved in. While we’re at it, add all the consumer electronics companies in Japan.
  • Dropbox. “If Apple can’t do iCloud right, they’re doomed”.

This is a very short list (feel free to suggest more) and it becomes clear that the total count of competitors that Apple has to counter “or else” seems to number in the thousands. Practically every hardware, software and service company is positioned as an “Apple Killer”. in fact, the more interesting question might be which companies are not competing with Apple.

Another interesting question relates to why there is no transitive property of competition. I.e. if company A competes with Apple and Apple competes with company B then it does not follow that company A competes with company B.

To wit, whereas HTC competes with Apple and so does Dropbox, it does not follow that HTC competes with Dropbox. So it’s entirely possible that it’s axiomatic that

“Most companies compete with Apple but few of them compete with each other”.

Recognizing a pattern, one could build a model of the technology world where Apple is the focus of all competitive efforts. But this starts to sound absurd.

Indeed, the flaw in the logic is that these competitive pairings are based on the overlap of features of products/services being offered. The features become the attributes of a product which supposedly defines their competitive power. But this is false for the same reason that the attributes of a buyer do not determine their buying behavior. Buyer attributes[1]  are easy to measure and they may correlate to purchasing behavior but they don’t cause it.

Similarly, product or company attributes are easy to measure and they may correlate to competitive behavior but they don’t cause the substitution of a purchase.

Therefore, appealing to Apple to change its strategy, operations or even its core beliefs in response to a competitor’s behavior is deeply misguided. The cause of success and failure in the marketplace is based on being hired by the customer to get a job done. Once hired, the chances are that the trust is secured and the relationship continues even if alternatives are available. There is comfort in the knowledge of whom you’re working with.

This aspect of trusted relationship between the buyer and the product and the interweaving of ‘brand’ (aka intentions) of the hired is the root of loyalty. Of course, loyalties can be betrayed and trust can be lost. But that implies that the primary responsibility of the manager is the creation and preservation of trust. When seen in this light, an alternative axiom becomes clear:

“Great companies don’t have any competition.”

Great companies are “monopolists of customer trust” and are unaffected by alternatives. They are positioned on and nailing the job their products and services are hired for. The alternatives must not only duplicate the exact job (which they almost never do), but they must also overcome the switching costs.

Remember this when analyzing the impact of yet another competitor and considering the “Apple must fix/do X or else” assertions.


  1. E.g. demographic, sociographic []

The Innovator’s Stopwatch. Part 2

The adoption curve has been used to categorize adopters into groups by their behavior: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. This categorization asserts that adoption is function of psychology, or the likelihood of people to act or react within social systems. [Rogers first edition 1962]

It’s a compelling model and has been proposed as a tool for firms to help with their marketing strategy. As diffusion proceeds through each adopter category, the product is re-positioned to address each group’s presumed behavior. Innovators (first 2.5% of the population) are offered novelty, a chance to experiment and uniqueness of experience; early adopters are offered a chance to create or enhance their position of social leadership; the early majority build imitate the leadership of the early adopters and justify it with productivity gains; the late majority are skeptics but, given a set of specific benefits, join the earlier adopters. Finally the laggards reluctantly agree to adopt as their preferred alternative of not adopting disappears.

The theory suggests that a firm can be successful if they modify their marketing and perhaps product mix to accommodate these adopter categories in a timely manner.

If this is the case however, why is it that those who have access to these data (i.e. who is buying and when) not to do the right thing? Why is it that during a technology adoption curve, there is a high degree of turnover in the firms which capture profits from the products that deliver this technology?

If you don’t believe this to be the case, consider the smartphone market. The data about buyers is easily obtained (even without paying a fee). Shown below is the US smartphone penetration data as obtained by comScore (including teenage survey data from Piper Jaffray).

Screen Shot 2014-12-16 at 5.07.41 PM

Following the penetration data there is a second graph showing the smartphone shipments for the largest vendors as well as the sum of the “others” which make up the difference with the total market. I used vertical registration lines to align the different data sets to the same time scale.