Category Theory

C is for Cognitive Illusion

My assumption going into this, sixth iteration, of the iPhone was that we would see the expansion of the iPhone into two distinctly positioned products: a low-end C and a high-end S. The assumption was based on what what we saw with the iPad: the regular iPad and the mini iPad.

By using the iPad as a template, my exercise in August was to forecast what the pricing[1] might turn out to be for such a split-personality product.

I expected the 5C would replace the “low end” n-2 variant[2] and the 5S would continue as the core product. This is reflected in the original graph as devised in mid-August:

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 8-12-11.44.05 AM

The surprise was that the 5C was not “low end” in any way other than having a plastic case. It has a minor spec increase over the 5 but is otherwise a 5 feature set in a plastic skin. It also is priced as if it was the continuation of the 5, with a modest reduction in ASP.

In addition, the continuation of the 4S and 4 (in China at least) means that the old strategy continues more-or-less unchanged.

Knowing the line-up and pricing all that remains to understand is the positioning, or how the products are defined relative to each other.

This is where there might be a shift happening. Under the old model the n-1 variant was meant to be a modest volume contributor to the portfolio, being essentially a cognitive illusion which encouraged buyers to stick with iPhone n at the expense of competitors. However, the new n-1 product (the 5C) has a distinct positioning that makes it seem fresh and not a lesser, stale version of the flagship. It is designed to appeal as a legitimate upgrade for iPhone 4/4S users.  It is, in other words, not meant as an illusion, and not focusing attention on the flagship[3]. Rather, it is meant to be a genuine, core product.

As a result, I expect the mix of iPhones to be more evenly split between the C and S variants. I expect the C to even become the most popular version in the mid-term. My expectations are shown in the following graphs.

  1. Revenue/unit to be more precise []
  2. Older by two generations as the iPad mini replaced the iPad 3 []
  3. It might still be an illusion for many but I’m suggesting that it won’t be for most. []

Who's next?

In February I asked Why doesn’t anybody copy Apple?

Put another way: Why is it that everyone wants to copy Apple’s products but nobody wants to copy being Apple?

Being Apple means, at least:

  • Insourcing all aspects of operations which affect the customer experience. Increasingly that has meant insourcing everything, a toxic idea to every MBA-trained professional since forever.
  • Organizing functionally and having no product level P/L responsibility. That also means removing almost all incentives for employees to climb ladders and thus prove their worth.
  • Developing products using integrated “heroic” efforts which shun  every best (or even adequate) process for product development.

I asked somewhat rhetorically because it’s an open question. Apple’s operating model and devotion to integration have been asymmetric to technology dogma for decades. To the casual (read: naïve) observer, pursuing the Apple way seemed also to be tied to one individual. You could not “be Apple” unless you were also Steve Jobs and there was only one of him.

But it seems I did not give enough credit to other observers.

Who's buying whom?

When a prosperous company buys a struggling company you have to wonder what they’re really buying.

Here’s how to think about it. A company is defined as the sum of three values: resources, processes and priorities (RPP). Everything of value can be classified into these three categories.

When one company buys another it’s the equivalent of one set of RPPs trying to engulf or swallow another set of RPPs. The simplest (naïve) interpretation is that an acquisition is the purchase of Resources in terms of customers, sales, profits, etc. It might be of assets like employees, intellectual properties, brand etc. I say this is naïve because Resources are the easiest to value because they can be measured and valuing only what can be measured while ignoring what can’t be measured is deeply mis-pricing.

So most people look for the “R” value or the value of Resources in an acquisition. It’s may be naïve but it is what markets typically value because it’s what they can price. But what happens when the “R” is flimsy or fleeting?

The answer has to be that it’s  the processes or even priorities which are valued by the acquirer.

The rear view mirror

In the Innovator’s Curse I reflected on the fact that a serial innovator cannot be efficiently financed or even rewarded for having figured out how to repeatably create. If anything, a serial innovator has to suffer a discount to peers who do not habitually (or ever) innovate. The innovation process is the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs but is destined to perish due to the lack of faith in its existence.

So how can I back this up?

To start, this is partially evidenced in this graph of Apple’s price to earnings ratio since 2006 vs. the S&P 500′s. The S&P reflects the 500 largest companies in the US and is thus a proxy for the “average” company.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 8-30-6.36.23 PM

[I added Apple's P/E excluding cash for additional perspective.]

The graph shows that during the period of time when iPhone and iPad changed computing and telecommunications, Apple was mostly held in contempt: the profits it was generating were not considered of “sufficient quality” relative to an average company. Since markets look forward, not backward (one assumes), the vote cast is decidedly that success cannot be repeated. Put another way: you can trust that a soft drink maker like Coca Cola (P/E of 19) or a utility like ConEd (P/E of 18) will continue in the manner we’ve seen them perform in the last year more than Apple (P/E of 12) will.

I can offer yet another way to consider this curse.

Steve Ballmer and The Innovator's Curse

The most common, almost universally accepted reason for company failure is “the stupid manager theory”. It’s the corollary to “the smart manager theory” which is used to describe almost all company successes. The only problem with this theory is that it is usually the same managers who run the company while it’s successful as when it’s not. Therefore for the theory to be valid then the smart manager must have turned stupid at a specific moment in time, and as most companies in an industry fail in unison, then the stupidity bit must have been flipped in more than one individual at the same time in some massive conspiracy to fail simultaneously.

So the failures of Microsoft to move beyond the rapidly evaporating Windows business model are attributed to the personal failings of its CEO. The calls for his head have been getting loud and rancorous for years. Taking this theory further, now that he’s leaving, the prosperity of the company depends entirely on the choice of a new (smarter) CEO.

It’s all nonsense of course.

The Innovator's Curse

When Clay Christensen discusses innovation (for example his talk at BoxWorks here) he puts forward theories on the causes of success and failure of innovation. Through a repertoire of case studies evoking David vs. Goliath he offers a convincing alternative to the management orthodoxy which prevents innovation, especially the meaningful disruptive kind, in established organizations. More importantly he asserts that innovation is not something that happens randomly or only through the incantations of a Chief Magical Officer. There is a process and even perhaps a repeatable process for successful innovation.

But one assumption that underlies this narrative is that innovation is good. Or more precisely, that innovation is rewarded–making its goodness desirable through market mechanisms. The happy ending to the story is that the innovator solves the dilemma, delivers the great innovation, perhaps more than once, and then basks in glory.

But my observation is that the way markets behave often contradicts this measure of worth of innovation.

Here’s the problem: If a company produces a string of successes, the conventional wisdom is that the chances of another success are precisely zero.  A company is valued based on its cash flows and foreseeable improvements to them. What it’s not valued on is its innovation flows (and foreseeable improvements to them).

In other words, if you’ve succeeded in the past, the only certainty is that you will not be able to succeed again. This assumption exists even if you’ve succeeded more than once. The wisest will offer as many excuses for being lucky more than once as they will for being lucky once. In fact, just as the illusion of a run of heads means the next coin flip must surely be a tail, a string of random successes is deemed to increase the probability that the next attempt will end in failure.

This discounting of repeatable success means that the reward for a process of innovation is zero and therefore that innovation itself is a priori value-free.[1]

This means that an innovator not only has to struggle with getting an organization to create something new (the gist of The Innovator’s Solution) but also to do so without the benefit of capital markets. When trying to raise financing for a sustainable innovation engine, the markets speak unanimously: you haven’t got a chance.

Therefore the only way an innovator can finance the next innovation is to use proceeds from a previous innovation, having faith in his engine of creation. Listening to the market would only convince the innovator that the new thing is pointless. In fact, the best idea is to stop trying.[2]

I call this The Innovator’s Curse: that building repeatable innovations provides the innovator no respite. There shall be no basking in glory, only expectations of imminent failure and attribution of success to good fortune.

When I first realized this I thought I chanced upon a remarkable paradox. That this must be some new insight into human nature. That realizing this will change everything.

But just like Disruption Theory is beautifully illustrated through the ageless David vs. Goliath parable, The Innovator’s Curse is but a retelling of this fable:

A cottager and his wife had a Goose that laid a golden egg every day. They supposed that the Goose must contain a great lump of gold in its inside, and in order to get the gold they killed it. Having done so, they found to their surprise that the Goose differed in no respect from their other geese.

Even if the cottagers were naive enough to have faith in the replicating miracle of golden egg laying geese, wise men would quickly advise them to kill it and get the gold more quickly. The Goose is doomed no matter what.

  1. A company will be priced according to products it created in the past, and that price might be significant, but as competitive pressures increase, the value itself is discounted. What is certain to be worthless however is the ability of any company to come up with something new.
  2. When managers give in to the temptation to stop trying they build great sustaining companies which are subject to disruption and invariably fail.


The Meanings of Appleiness

I’ve never worked at Apple and know very few people who did. Nevertheless, I read Adam Lashinsky’s book and enough that I think I can get away with replying to the Meaning of Googliness with the following:

Googliness means Appleiness means
Doing the right thing Doing the best thing
Striving for excellence Striving for greatness
Keeping an eye on the goals Keeping both eyes on your task
Being proactive Being obsessive
Going the extra mile Going to the moon
Doing something nice for others, with no strings attached Doing everything for the user
Being friendly and approachable Keeping your mouth shut
Valuing users and colleagues Valuing functions other than your own
Rewarding great performance Punishing failure
Being humble, and letting go of the ego Keeping your mouth shut
Being transparent, honest, and fair Keeping your mouth shut
Having a sense of humor Never writing a post on what Appleiness means

It's a wonder

My responses to questions from Juliette Garside of The Guardian newspaper:

Q: Will noise from Icahn distract the Cook from focussing on product?

A: Investors may think that they can influence management but they do so only when companies are in distress. It’s only then that shareholders can affect some change with their votes as they have a common purpose. The voice of investors carries little weight or distraction when a company is successful. At first glance it seems that Icahn thinks he can unlock value in Apple by getting management to accelerate share buybacks. That’s a modest goal and not one which needs to distract managers.

Q: What will do most for the share price – a buyback or a blockbuster new device?

A: Neither. What will do most for the share price is a change in the perception that Apple is not going to survive as a going concern. At this point of time, as at all other points of time in the past, no activity by Apple has been seen as sufficient for its survival. Apple has always been priced as a company that is in a perpetual state of free-fall. It’s a consequence of being dependent on breakthrough products for its survival. No matter how many breakthroughs it makes, the assumption is (and has always been) that there will never be another. When Apple was the Apple II company, its end was imminent because the Apple II had an easily foreseen demise. When Apple was a Mac company its end was imminent because the Mac was predictably going to decline. Repeat for iPod, iPhone and iPad. It’s a wonder that the company is worth anything at all.

The Anti-Apple

Building a successful business is hard. Many try, few succeed and those that do tend not to thrive for long. So success in business it should be respected. Especially in highly competitive industries like technology. The fragility of success however should also give one pause to think about how delicate a business model is.

The presumption that companies can shift business models at will is usually false. Businesses are balanced on a knife’s edge of dependency on multiple variables. Almost all resources are expended on preserving this balance.

This being my observation, I take issue with assumptions that large companies can “pivot” on a dime or that they can change their business models “when conditions are right”. Consider Microsoft’s dilemma. They have all the resources in the world and yet they could not pivot to take advantage of a change so mundane as a low power microprocessor (which enabled a mobile computer and hence a new ecosystem and profit model for software.)

Or consider the dilemma of Apple which after building a successful computer business which included system software, could not pivot to license that system software so others could build computers with it.

Or consider the dilemma of Nokia which had an early and large leadership in smartphones including having its own OS and platform and large volumes and users bases. It could not pivot to allow into an ecosystem and had all its advantages disappear.

Each company thought they could manage change but none of them actually did.

It’s with this thinking about inertial navigation that came to consider the idea that Amazon has a flexible business model which, though unprofitable today, will be profitable some day.

The premise that Amazon can, on a whim, change its business model from selling other people’s products at a razor thin margin while investing in capital-intensive distribution to selling other people’s products at a large margin while not investing in capital-intesive distribution is not credible.

I would argue that Amazon’s existing business model is a direct consequence of the market it’s in: that it could not be anything else given the circumstances it finds itself in. Enlightenment may be an illusion.[*]

That’s not to say that there is no wisdom in the management of Amazon. Quite the contrary; recall the respect that’s called for in creating a great business. Managing the business to this point was a work of decades of vision and creativity.

What I take issue with is the premise that Amazon is the “anti-Apple” in its hunger for growth and patience for profits. Apple has its own “Amazon-like-business”: iTunes has been growing at a steady 25% or more and it also has its ancillary zero-profit hardware analogue to the Kindle called Apple TV.  iTunes is a great business in the Amazon vein, harvesting hundreds of millions of users (and their credit cards.) Presumably iTunes could also some day “flip the switch” and become profitable, but something magical needs to happen. Something like becoming a payments processor or retailer of other things. Analyst beware however. There might be conditions that make such switch flipping extremely difficult.

At an even deeper level, Apple and Amazon are much more alike than they are different. They are both hired for similar jobs (convenience, ease of use and a controlled, predictable environment for average users interacting with technology). They both focus on delighting customers and controlling all the variables which come into contact with that delight. They both have long-term views and are driven by vision rather than competition.

Where they differ is in others’ perception of sustainability. Whereas Apple is perpetually given an expected lifespan of less than a decade, Amazon is expected to have an indefinite lifespan. This is because Amazon is seen as having no competition and Apple is seen as having infinite competition. In other words, Amazon is perceived as a monopoly and Apple is perceived as the  innovator that is in a permanent state of being disrupted by the low end.

I disagree with both assumptions. I’ve always thought Apple fragile but dedicated to moving into new markets as older markets are disrupted. It’s a tough strategy and one which (literally) nobody believes possible. But I’ve also thought Amazon’s monopoly status fragile. This too is not a popular idea but the company depends on many variables.

Retail is hard and it is being disrupted by technology wielded well by Amazon. But it’s also subject to further disruption. Amazon’s job to be done can be done by alternatives. Buyers are typically hiring Amazon for convenience, not just price and ease of use is where the value is. But again, new information technology which makes shopping, discovery and delivery of products directly from the vendor, bypassing the aggregator (i.e. retailer) could shift value along the value chain yet again.

By the time Amazon reaches some point of monopoly in distribution it could be too late to make the switch to profit generation.

I don’t want to suggest that failure is inevitable, but I want to point out that success is not certain by any means. Disruption happens.

* It’s possible that Enlightenment is also an illusion at Apple. Even if they once had it, there are forces which act on companies that make them lose their wisdom.

Understanding Apple's Organizational Structure

Apple has hired a new VP who will report directly to Tim Cook. Paul Deneve is cited as having responsibility for “special projects” and will report directly to Tim Cook.

The previous roles as a manager in luxury brand companies has led to a great deal of speculation about what new projects Apple could be working on that might also fit this new manager’s background and title.

The most commonly cited speculation is around the iWatch or TV product lines (with some surprised that he will not be heading Retail.)

Although reading “luxury product CEO” and concluding “new luxury products” seems logical, a little knowledge about how Apple is organized dispels this notion. And a little knowledge happens to be about all we have, as Apple’s organization is one of its most closely guarded secrets. Even employees at Apple have little idea of how the company is organized. What we do know is summarized into this org chart:

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 7-3-3.37.27 PM