Apple’s Tradeoff between Focus and Stagnation related to Business Innovation

On my Tech blog in June 2013 I wrote about new Apple product announcements and the need for updates for previously released Apple products. Colin Donnell just wrote a blog post on this same topic with the title “The products Apple doesn’t have time to improve.” Colin’s point was to highlight the dilemma that much of the appeal of Apple’s well designed products is their focus but that it is also disappointing when it results in lack of follow-through as their focus changes. His first example is Safari extensions and the web sites promoting them. A better example of a product justifying more focus and priority, which he mentions in passing at the end, is iPhoto especially on the Mac. The recent development of offering iLife and iWork for free could be cause for continued concern if this becomes a rationale for even less focus on these more important personal and business products. It seems to me like Apple is neglecting ongoing evolution of software products as a critical success factor.

A point I made in my June post is that this dilemma is also associated with Apple’s culture with regards to secrecy and partnerships. One possible solution is to subcontract work to third party developers on products that have recently been determined to be noncore (i.e. not of a high enough priority to receive consistent attention and updates). Rather than let the products stagnate they could continue to evolve and be supported under Apple’s guidance or independently. This could involve business model innovation with regards to information sharing and providing a rewarding incentive for partners to support the platform.

Apple Design is not Infallible

David Pogue has nicely summarized (Pogue’s Post:One of Apple’s Best Ideas Ever — Made Worse) an inexplicable design faux pas (mistake) by Apple. It is understandable that they had to change the MagSafe power cord connection to make it thinner to match the thinner laptops. Some other computers have some ghastly connectors that distort the computer case by creating ungainly bulges.

Lenova IdeaPad U310 with full size Ethernet connector

Apple would never do that but why did they go back to the T design and misjudge the strength of magnet required?

Apple T design MagSafe power connector beside USB connector

In their product videos they brag about the level of research into magnets they have done. Power cord connection seems to be a problem area for Apple because they went through a period a few years ago where they had to replace power cords which were malfunctioning where they connect to the computer.

Malfunctioning Apple MagSafe power cords

They previously replaced the T design with a more streamlined, less cord strain, and less prone to bumping L design.

Apple L design MagSafe power connector

Did anyone complain about the L design power cords? So why did they go back to the T design? It is bad enough that many people will have to buy adapters to use their old power cords but it might necessary to buy more power cords again if and when Apple goes back to a thinner version of the version 2 L design as they should.

Here is hoping that Apple does it right when they introduce a new dock connector for iPhone 5.

Possible iPhone 5 smaller connector (bottom) Possible adapter for iPhone 5 connector

Honda has designed a new unicycle robot

Honda has designed and demonstrated a new unicycle that is similar to the Segway for people who want to sit down instead of stand up. The design is impressive in how it works, simplicity of use, and compactness. What remains to be seen is how much it costs, when it will be available, and whether they can increase the battery life beyond the one hour currently specified. As a benchmark the Segway X2 has a range of 19 km and a top speed (20km/h) that is twice that of the Honda unicycle. Prices for different models of Segway vary but are approximately in the range of $5,000 to $7,000.

What makes a Successful Tablet?

Daring Fireball has a thought provoking retrospective on the Newton regarding how the new Apple tablet will differ from its tablet predecessors. This will eventually make a classic marketing and product management case study once the dust settles and we see how successful or not the new product(s) become.

Newton Messagepad
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Newton Messagepad tablet Newton with keyboard

What are some of the lessons of the Newton and other tablets which didn’t achieve widespread success?

First it isn’t about technology although partly previous efforts have experienced issues by trying to use technologies before they worked well enough to be relied on. The critical success factor is a well defined purpose for the device and doing those things well so it has immediate value beyond the potential evolution. In fact by trying to market the device to do features that are not quite ready actually damages its reputation by encouraging people to try things that they will eventually be disappointed with. Handwriting recognition is the primary example with the Newton although it did have devotees who loved it despite its limitations.

Take the text input challenge for a tablet. For a larger screen device how do you hold it and enter text on the screen comfortably? This is where such items as prosaic as a stand and external keyboard could be “key” but how is this reconciled with portability? Clearly both the on the go and fixed location use cases need to be addressed and the solution is most likely different for each. I think that without some surprising breakthrough, text input has to be recognized as a secondary feature for a tablet. If you want to do heavy duty text input, a laptop form factor currently makes more sense. For small amounts of text input an onscreen keyboard can work especially if the tablet is not too hot to put in a person’s lap. It is useful to have a wireless keyboard and stand for fixed use just because this functionality can be provided for little incremental cost or added complexity for that part of the market that doesn’t want to purchase the optimized device for each type of use. If voice recognition performance is reliable enough perhaps it can be another alternative added to the mix to address special case (quiet environment) text input.

Where the tablet can shine as a primary use is as a graphic interface, mobile media viewer, and large screen sensor interface. Touch gestures could excel for drawing, media browsing, and gaming. Sure surfing the Internet or reading ebooks requires some (text) input but buttons, gestures, popup keyboards, and voice input could work much more elegantly in this environment. It is even easier to see the tablet being used for watching movies or playing games although for playing music the ipod touch should be just as good and more portable.

Positioning the tablet as primarily a graphical touch input device also helps promote a synergy between the products so people see the need for all four. After all the ideal for Apple is to create a set of systems that all complement each other and all add value to different aspects of people’s lives. The desktop is the fixed large screen high capacity server, the laptop is the portable fairly capable general purpose computer with built-in keyboard and touchpad, the tablet is the portable media player and creative full screen graphic input touchpad, and the iphone/ipod touch are the pocket communicator sensor computers. Not everyone will have the optimized environment of all four but the ideal is for the products to have that integration and complementary functionality synergy where it makes sense while also providing stand alone capabilities that provide enough value that they can be purchased separately.

I have left out the Apple TV or Mac Mini as a media center but that is an example of how this product spectrum extends even farther. It is not hard to imagine future products including (3D) glasses, more sensors, and projector video camera to evolve the computer into interacting with the environment even more.