For over a decade and a half now, Apple has been seeing a rise in market-share and increased popularity of its many products which are contributing to the success of a company that is perhaps responsible for the very first generation of personal computers. From 1998, since Steve Jobs took over the reigns of a nearly bankrupt company, he was the mastermind behind spearheading a slew of innovative products that perhaps no other company in the world can single-handedly claim as changing the way people use technology.
From the colourful iMac that did away with the floppy drive and introduced the world to wireless computing, to the iPod that changed the way people listen to music, and to the iPhone which not only did what other phones do, but made the internet and applications come alive straight from the palm of everyone’s hands. Needless to mention the many generations of the iMacs, Apple’s laptops, iPods and iPhones, Steve also revolutionised the tablet computing world with the iPad. For the first time users were introduced to an energy efficient device, the heat from which would not burn the lap while working on it. The Macbook Air was launched as the thinnest portable computer, and soon became a preferred portable while the PC market struggled to keep pace with both the Macbook Air and the iPad. The iTunes Store is the largest online marketplace for music, videos and mobile applications, and prides in being the single largest marketplace having the largest number of registered accounts with active credit cards where users are making regular purchases.
But after Steve Jobs death, Apple has started losing its edge with innovation, which is increasingly becoming apparent with leadership strategies that Tim Cook is using, but apparently fumbling with in many places. The trigger to write this post happened last evening, when rumours started about another Apple Special Event scheduled for Oct. 15 2013.
If we look back, the only time when Steve called for a special event in quick succession to a major release was when Apple had supposedly screwed up with the antenna of the iPhone 4. Steve was quick to acknowledge his mistake and provided immediate damage control by either providing a full refund for disgruntled customers, or complimentary bumpers which would help alleviate from the pertinent issue.
In contrast, if we look at the series of events that created dents in the apple’s legacy, such as the launch of Siri and the new Maps application, there was no serious damage control done to help disgruntled customers. The news of Scott Forstall leaving Apple (or being asked to leave) would only be a short-term fix, as the application would remain to not function properly even after his departure.
What Tim never did is call an event and accept the faults. But, ultimately what’s becoming important in the long run is not bad damage control mechanisms, but inadept leadership and lack of passion. Let’s not assume what Steve would have done, but let’s look at what Steve would not have done. And what would not have happened under Steve’s leadership is, he wouldn’t have released semi-finished products in the market – like Siri and Maps. If there were deadlines to be met, Steve would make sure those deadlines were met. Maybe it made him a bad man inside the company, but in the end, everyone came out to be a satisfied Apple user.
There’s a marked difference in how Steve would “sell” his products, against how Tim markets Apple today. During all the keynotes and presentations, Steve would take centerstage and passionately present each of the products. There was a high degree of connect between Steve’s presentations and what the product would do. The features were not talked about as a list of possibilities that the device could be used for, but as a family of integrated organs that would each have a unique function building a system that was of everyday use to human beings. Tim on the other hand, comes aboard the presentations, takes all the credit for the loud applause, with largely imitated multiple “Thank You”s and then he will start clamouring about “more customers” and “larger profits” and “industry figures” quite contrary to the design of Apple which would focus on innovation as opposed to commerce. Tim then hands over the stage to “experts” and with the larger rate of loosely integrated services or products now available from Apple, it is becoming quite evident that Tim hasn’t either spent time with any of the products, or he just isn’t capable enough to envision the use of a product in revolutionising the way we use technology.
Tim might have gone through a lot of training and education to get his job as CEO at Apple after Steve. As far as “processes” for finance, marketing or human resources are concerned, he is perhaps very polished and adept at taking decisions necessary for Apple to die a slow death after Steve’s no more, but Tim does not seem capable of delivering passion into products that were the pinnacle of excellence each time Apple released something new in the market.
Apple has always been notoriously placing its products in the media, in TV serials, movies etc., providing it a subtle foundation for surrogate advertising. However, when it came to maintaining secrecy of new releases was concerned, there was seldom precise information available before the launch of a new product. Steve was always confident about the strategy of his product launches. The iPhone for example was a revolutionary product which created a clear line of distinction between Apple’s smartphone and other smartphones available in the market. The vision behind the iPhone was sound solid strategy, innovative approach to delivering applications and creating a holistic environment for developers and consumers to be able to access a virtual marketplace to buy and sell software at a micro level, reducing the barriers to use, and making technology more available.
Everything was always delivered with a solid foundation as Product Plan A, with no option B available to consumers. Of course, there were options Product Plan A+ and Product Plan A++. But never a Plan B. You either got an iPhone or you didn’t get one. In 2013, Tim has changed things drastically. In recent years, Steve’s products saw a move towards using highly recyclable materials such as Aluminium and Glass, and reduced use of plastics while maintaining the highest environmental standards for being EPEAT Gold, BFR Free, Arsenic Free Glass and so on. Although, Apple says they are still maintaining environmental standards, the move towards creating a plastic iPhone 5C, was nothing but a Plan B, in case you were not a customer for Plan A.
What it is now showing is, Tim’s lack of confidence in his products, by either delaying launches (example, the delayed launch of the iPhone 5 by a year) and now by splitting the product line into a cheaper production cost phone, which may not necessarily sell all that cheap in the lesser developed markets outside of America. The rumours that suggest a short supply of the iPhone 5S could either be indicative of lack of Tim’s ability to keep production systems in check and vendors happy, and lack of vendor infrastructure to keep abreast the demand for a $99 priced iPhone 5 and a $199 priced iPhone 5S, both in aluminium and glass.
For the first time, Apple has lost faith in launching just one device, and replacing it with two options, with the iPhone 5C not really being a cheaper device, but being a device being produced at a significantly lower cost of production (owing to cheaper materials) with alternate production methods. The $100 price difference in the two products, at their full price (for unlocked devices) may not necessarily translate to cheaper consumer prices, as has been seen in the critical acclaim around the iPhone 5C. In fact, there might be a whole lot of nostalgia associated with the iPhone 4S (made of excellently crafted glass) which may not exist with the iPhone 5C, but this reality only time will tell.
Getting back to the point around innovation. Rumours have recently surfaced that Apple might be launching an iWatch, an Apple TV and a few other things that will make their product line-up exciting for this years’ holiday season. Truth is, and I have cited the same in one of my earlier articles, that Apple’s products were never known to just be simple improvements over the predecessors or products available in the market. What is touted about the iWatch, if that begins to be marketed, the iWatch may only be a slight improvement over what bluetooth devices and other devices in the wearable technology segment have been doing for the past decade or more. It has to be disruptive, path breaking and change the way we use that genre of products in the technology space, for it to create ripples.
That path-breaking disruptive innovation has not been the forte of Apple under Tim’s leadership. It’s just that Steve placed Apple and its products so far ahead of competition, that its taking time for “inclusive technology” players to catch up. What Tim’s management style is perhaps doing so far, is dampening the slow death of Apple, while developers still find the App Store a lucrative platform to sell their applications and engineering teams find their products built with excellence and precision. Tim is an excellent CEO when it comes to “measuring” performance, customer base, marketing, finance etc. etc. – all the disciplines of management that one can learn in a great management school. But when it comes to “vision” and “strategy” about how Steve implemented it, like creating an Apple Store at the Grand Central Station – the disruptive nature of such market expansion is very different from the expansion that was publicised about the Stanford Apple Store. While Tim is concentrating on “expanding footprint”, Steve’s strategy really was about “creating a mark” and that’s not just a different shade of grey, its the difference between night and day.