In the interests of balance, the BBC website has posted two contrasting opinion pieces about Apple’s launch of its iPhone 5: a favourable piece written by an editor from MacUser magazine, and a critical one from a writer and comedian who had at one time set up a blog satirising Steve Jobs. Curiously, both contributors agree that the latest iPhone is an evolutionary and not a revolutionary step; they differ on whether it’s really what Steve Jobs would have wished, and on how likely it is to maintain Apple’s commercial success.
I wouldn’t like to predict Apple’s prospects in the medium term, because it’s in the nature of working with new technology products that the biggest challenges are frequently about dealing with products and services which haven’t been invented yet. But I have noted before that Apple’s success has stemmed from being able both to launch completely new products, and from being able to handle evolutionary change very well.
So I would take issue with the critical post, because it simply focuses on one product announcement which, unsurprisingly, is evolutionary. Of course, there is some discussion of what revolutionary products Apple might be preparing to spring on the market, and the thought that the Apple television, for all its hype, looks unlikely to materialise (perhaps it’s the networked equivalent of the Dyson washing machine, which made few inroads into a very established market). Apple has managed to re-invent itself over the years, morphing from a computer company to a music distribution company to a phone hardware company.
The remark in the critical piece, that the iPhone was initially like a new top-of-the range car from BMW or Porsche doesn’t quite work. Apple and BMW actually have a lot in common with strong brands and a ‘mass affluent’ strategy. For BMW a central tenet could be summed up in a few words, to make products which are high enough up the scale to be perceived as exclusive, but are still at a level where they sell in large numbers. But to get the pricing, the publicity, and what I’ve heard described as the polish of the design right to achieve this positioning is really difficult. To sustain it over years or decades in which the market can change, in BMW’s case in a world where the city boys might have fallen out of love with glossy cars, is more difficult still.
That’s why I’m sure that Apple’s fundamental decision to make the latest iPhone an evolutionary step is a sound one. The decision to make it longer and thinner, to keep the user interface similar but to add a single extra line of apps, may not look like much. But it does have the mark of careful, evolutionary, design, of creating something that’s similar enough to attract existing Apple devotees and offering something new enough that Apple users will want to upgrade. Whether they have succeeded, I don’t know and this is an area where classic ideas around market research and usability testing don’t really work.
Finally, I’d remark that Apple’s engineers haven’t usually been original thinkers. They have been good at spotting innovations that have originated elsewhere and at bringing these to market, and if anything they did this best way back in the 1980s when the first Mac computers were launched. So the other thing that Apple-watchers should be looking at, is what innovations Apple might have seen elsewhere that they are looking to convert into products.