Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The imminent fall of Apple

WWDC 2015 was yesterday. It was a day of modest improvements, not sweeping changes. The big news was no surprise to anyone at all, which was Apple's music service.

I have a co-worker that repeats to me frequently that "Apple has lost it's way". That is the belief of some after Steve Jobs left the building.

It bears to be repeated - Apple was not Steve Jobs. He left his imprint on the company, but a part of that is a legacy of good design above all else. Apple doesn't invent many new things; it refines things that exist in ways that become obvious once Apple does it. The Watch is an example of what is right and wrong about Apple. They rushed a product to market that isn't still fully formed. It is definitely a work in progress. But, on the other hand, it is probably the best of the current devices out there that try to fuse digital assistant and timepiece.

A study of contrasts to be sure - I watch Google's developer keynote last week, and was impressed, but it ultimately I have to remember that Google is not Santa Claus. It is giving us things because it wants to get better at mining data on it's users. Why does it give so much space for people to upload photos, with some really slick tools for discovery? It uses these very same tools to mine even more data on it's users. In that picture it sees a user holding a can of Pepsi - it now knows one more thing about you. Are you on vacation in Hawaii? It knows one more thing about you that it can now use to better target you for advertising and services, data it shares with it's "partners".

There is much talk about the evils of Apple's "walled garden" versus Google's "openness", but it is really a matter of choosing your poison. This article points to a world where people are willing to give up their privacy for convenience - which  the author claims puts Apple at a disadvantage. But it is really comparing two different things. Apple is not in the business of mining it's users - Facebook and Google are. Will people gladly hand over all the small details of their lives for a little more simplicity - to the point where both of these companies become truly intrusive? It remains to be seen - the cynics have already decided.

I remember someone telling me that REM (the band) sucked after their first album. Really. REM went from indy darlings to a band that sold a lot of records. This doomed them for the early adopters, because they were popular, they must be bad. It is a form of close mindedness. Hipsters would write off Madonna as she became a pop diva, but "Ray of Light" is really a pretty great album -  if it had been recorded by a complete unknown, it would have been hailed as a masterpiece. Success breeds contempt in small minded people.

Is Apple failing? No. It is true that the Watch is not the groundbreaking success that the iPhone was, but behind the scenes, there are a lot of little things that Apple is doing profoundly right. When I heard of Apple pay last year, I told folks that it was the important thing that Apple had announced at WWDC. Google had tried to implement something similar, and had failed. Apple succeeded because their "walled garden" (so to speak) gave them an advantage that others don't (and continue to not) have. It allowed them to build a consistent user experience. It taps into something that people routinely do, and makes it better. People talked on phones before the iPhone, but the iPhone changed what people could use their phones for. I owned several smart phones before the iPhone, and they were all half-baked. Apple had the secret sauce.

Apple sells a bunch of Apple TVs. Google has tried three times to sell something similar, and the first two tries were failures. They are now back for a third try, but I think it is too late. If I had to pin anyone as the company that came in late, but has been successful, it is Amazon with FireTV. They have a ecosystem that mirrors Apple's - a superior one to Google's Play store - which is functional but hardly compelling. Google has a store because they have to - not because it offers something that is better than anything else out there - in the grand scheme of things it doesn't really fit into their overarching strategy. Android is a way to get people to use phones tied to Google services - keeping them in the Google ecoverse so that they can be further mined for information.

I think much is written about Apple because what they do is what other companies wish they could do. People really like their products. I doubt anyone really likes their Samsung phone in a way an iPhone user feels about their phone. Detractors call this a "cult" but it is not that at all - Apple doesn't force users to buy their products. People buy Apple products because they suck less. It really is that simple. Which confounds the detractors. It has to be more complicated than this - but really it isn't. Companies that focus on making great stuff do well. Sony for a long time made the very best TV sets you could buy, and it was because their TV's had a polish to them in not just the picture quality, but in the way they looked and worked. They lost that magic. Let's hope that doesn't happen to Apple.