The iPhone is not superfluous, not easily copied, not revolutionary and not a premium product

The release of the iPhone is rightly acclaimed as a watershed event in the history of telecom. It was a sensation. But it was also a product that was widely underestimated and dismissed. Even today expert opinion is divided. The critics of the product transitioned directly from labeling it a superfluous bauble to an obvious and copyable sustaining innovation. Advocates of the product describe it as revolutionary and dazzling with the potential for capturing significant profit share due to premium pricing and positioning.

So which is it?

I’ll argue that it’s none of the above. The iPhone is not superfluous, not easily copied, not revolutionary and not a premium product. What it is is disruptive.

First, we have to quickly define disruptive potential.

A product is disruptive if it competes with an existing, incumbent set of products on a new basis. It competes along a new measure of performance. That means it’s either “low end” and hence cheaper, simpler, more modular and conformable, or it creates a “new market” where completely new measures of performance or quality are relevant.

In both “low end” and “new market” disruptions the product is usually wrapped in a business model that insulates it from incumbent response due to inherent asymmetries. Incumbents will find the economics of the entrant product unattractive and will be motivated to ignore it or actively avoid copying it.

The consequences of disruptive product entires are often catastrophic for the incumbents because, over time, the disruptor product vacuums up all the profits in the industry, robbing the incumbents of the fuel to respond by the time they become motivated to do so. In essence, the transfer of value to the new basis of competition happens so slowly that the threat is imperceptible until it’s too late.

If we look at this definition, it’s startling that the iPhone does not seem to fit.

As a phone, it’s not cheaper, nor modular and hence not “low end”. It did not create a new market.  As a phone, although it did recruit more regular phone users into becoming smartphone users, it was not the first or last phone to do so. Its phone business model was not a radical departure. It was not ignored by the mobile phone incumbents who reacted with various degrees of urgency and vigor. It was actively copied in every way from the UI to the ecosystem to the pricing model and distribution.

The only thing that seems to have happened according to the disruptive formula was the transfer of profits from incumbents to Apple, at least temporarily.

So the iPhone seems to be correctly classified as a sustaining innovation. Something that moves the phone market forward and which, except for a temporary misallocation of profits, will entrench the incumbents after they manage to copy it effectively.

However, here is where we have to dig a little deeper.

Market analysis easily becomes myopic when looking only at a market defined by a product. I’ve argued in the past that strategic insight comes from looking at products that cross over their market boundaries. Especially products that are hired to do different jobs than the same products in their categories. The iPod may seem like an MP3 player but it caused catastrophic profit collapse in multiple industries. It knocked out the CD business, it crippled the component audio system “Hi-Fi” industry, it razed the music retail business and affected the entire music value chain. It’s still pounding at the gates of video and TV production. And, almost as a side-show, it crushed the Walkman.

Even though it was a music player, the MP3 device market was the smallest target for the iPod. It turned out to be far more dangerous to ancillary industries. The reason is subtle: it competed as an integrated ecosystem. You hired the iPod to serve you music everywhere, not just in your living room. And it did the job in an integrated way from source to earbuds taking what was a hodgepodge of modular components built around analog music and smoothly integrated them to deliver music in new, non-consuming contexts.

The lesson is therefore that when looking at the iPhone one has to look at ancillary industries not just at phones.

Phones have always been a component in a wider inter-related telecom value network. Even today they are often called “terminals” in the industry meaning that they are the end points of a network. Similar to the PC, the iPhone enables a migration of intelligence away from the center toward the edge of the network resulting in a de-valuation of the network itself.

I argue that the real disruption of mobile computing (i.e. iPhone) is made possible not by the smartphone technologies but by mobile broadband. Once broadband became mobile with 3G the smartphone could shift its focus (jobs it’s hired to do) from voice to data. That shift is disruptive to incumbents because they built their businesses around operator distribution and operator service economics. With apps, mobile computing brings with it services which allow all communications to be independent of operators. Selling ringtones, maps, email and video-on-demand are all dead business plans today. But operators clung on to these hopes for many years and forced vendors to comply to this strategy.

The incumbents relied so much on the telecom value chain, where the value flows from the monthly service charge, that they would not deploy technologies or business models that were asymmetric to operator business models. This is the root cause for Nokia and Samsung and Motorola and LG “missing the boat” on smartphones. All the vendors had the pieces of technology on their shelves. But when they took these technologies to their customers, the customers rejected the package.

This is why entrants like RIM and Apple could easily gain a foothold and grow. They had modest volumes, sold new concepts like business email and new UIs with iconic designs, but did not go after the core business model. This is similar to how iPod/iTunes got a toehold with the record labels. By the time the disruption took hold, operators were addicted to the new high-ARPU being generated even though they were all pure bitpipe plans. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, so the new device brands stuck.

Do the incumbents still have time to respond effectively? It’s less and less likely. They cannot build the new computing ecosystem without the distribution power of operators. Note that iPhone ‘clones’ in Android are still sold via operators and that nobody is interested in making either iPod touch clones or iPad clones sold independent of the operator channel/subsidy model. This is not because of technical or economic reasons but because of a lack of distribution (and lack of integrated content).

When you step back and look at the phone in the context of the network business model as well as the shifts in consumer jobs to be done you realize the potential is far greater than taking share from incumbents. The iPhone is not divided into a portfolio of different phones, but it’s a part of a portfolio of new mobile computing products. It just happens to be the only one which still depends on the cellular operator distribution network.

Seen as part of a new mobile computing paradigm and following the trajectory of the mainframe, mini-computer, PC and laptop, the iPhone is an essential, non-superfluous device for a vast population of new users.

Seen as an integrated app ecosystem with strong network effects, it’s not easily copied. Responses that only account for it as a glass and metal object of desire will fall way short of being competitive. As the hardware was always available to competitors, it’s not a revolution in hardware or even in user experience.

Most importantly, seen as a computing alternative merged with a communication appliance, it and its siblings are not premium products. The pricing and service structure around it make it seem a low cost alternative for solving the jobs it’s hired to do.

In other words, it is as disruptive as it gets.