AirPods

AirPods will turn out to be one of the more strategically important hardware products Apple has released this decade. However, you would never know it judging from the way Apple unveiled the device last week. I suspect that was intentional. While the press remains focused on the short-term debate surrounding the iPhone's lack of a 3.5mm headphone jack, few have realized that Apple just unveiled its second wearables platform. 

AirPods 1.0

Apple introduced AirPods as a $159 solution to a problem that many iPhone users never thought they had: wired headphones. By accelerating the transition away from wired headphones, Apple is convinced that the user experience found with mobile devices will be improved. While AirPods are designed to handle most of the tasks currently given to wired EarPods, a look inside shows that Apple aims to do much more with the device. Apple's new W1 chip, the company's first wireless chip, addresses traditional shortcomings attached with wireless headphones. However, when the W1 chip is combined with additional sensors, including voice accelerometers, AirPods become Apple's latest product that capitalizes off of Siri.

After spending some time with AirPods in the demo room at the Apple keynote, there were four items that stood out to me:

  1. Easy to use. The AirPods setup was so incredibly simple (just open the AirPods charging case), I figured I must have been missing a step or two. It is clear that Apple spent much time addressing the known shortcomings found with many of the current wireless headphones available in the market.  
  2. Designed for Siri. AirPods are designed just as much for voice capture as they are for delivering sound. Even in the boisterous demo room, AirPods were able to capture my Siri command and then quickly provide the response from the nearby iPhone.
  3. The touch interface. A double tap on the outside of an AirPod activates Siri. It is easy to see how Apple will expand this touch interface in future hardware versions to activate or control additional actions. 
  4. Siri in my ear is more intuitive than in my hand or on my wrist. Using AirPods to query Siri and then quickly receive a response is incredibly intuitive, more so than my typical use case of looking at my iPhone or Apple Watch display to see Siri's written response. In addition, by having my primary interface with Siri be a small wireless device in my ear, I also gain an increased level of privacy. We will eventually get to the point at which I will be able to whisper or even mumble and AirPods will capture my command and deliver a Siri response. This will make the behavior of talking across the room to my iPhone or Amazon Echo seem downright archaic. 

There is also much intrigue found not just with the AirPods themselves, but also with the charging case. The AirPods case contains enough battery life for 24 hours of listening time while AirPods provide up to five hours of listening time on one charge. This means that I will be able to use the case for up to four to five quick recharges. (A 15 minute recharge will be enough for 3 hours of listening time). Apple ID appears to be telling us that AirPods are designed to be charged while not in use but if in a bind, an emergency recharge is possible. We see this same thought process when looking at the design given to the Apple Pencil and Magic Mouse 2.  

A New Wearables Platform

AirPods are not just a pair of bluetooth headphones or an iPhone accessory. Instead, AirPods represent Apple's second wearables platform. When thinking of AirPods in this way, it becomes much easier to envision where Apple may bring the product category over time. Not only will Apple expand the functionality found with AirPods, which is obvious, but there is opportunity for Apple to introduce a range of AirPods models that share a design language. 

Consider how far Apple has pushed its first wearables platform, Apple Watch, in just 16 months. The Apple Watch is already a $10 billion business. Apple now has five distinct Apple Watch models ranging in price from $269 to $1,499 and dozens of SKUs. While each model has the same design language (rectangular watch face and interchangeable bands), there are also key differences when it comes to features and functionality. In addition, Apple has been aggressive in building out the Watch ecosystem by releasing various Watch bands and other accessories.  

Apple's First Wearables Platform (September 2016 - 16 Months after Launch)

I expect AirPods to follow a similar pattern as Apple Watch. Additional models will eventually be introduced to address a wider portion of the wireless headphone market. While there will be some commonality between models, such as containing basic health and fitness monitoring capabilities, there will also be models that will be able to handle more differentiated use cases for certain environments such as schools and the workplace or for specific activities like running. Apple included its W1 chip in a few models of wireless Beats by Dre headphones. This move, while unusual for a company like Apple, does suggest that Apple has the intention of eventually expanding the AirPods line to include a range of models.

While Apple's two wearables platforms are inherently different from each other based on how they are designed for different sensory inputs, the two are in fact complementary to each other. The Apple Watch is designed to take advantage of the wrist's superior line of sight. This explains the device's rectangular display, designed to show as much text and other consumable information as quickly and efficiently as possible. Meanwhile, AirPods are designed to capitalize on the very powerful notification capabilities found with the human ear.

Items that are currently given to Apple Watch, such as tap notifications, may end up making much more sense for a device like AirPods, while Siri responses such as location or sports scores make sometimes make sense to be shown on an Apple Watch display instead of simply through voice in the ear. Apple's two wearables platform may end up working hand-in-hand, or maybe I should say wrist-in-ear, to provide a seamless user experience based on the most personal tech gadgets that Apple has ever sold. 

Strategy

The product strategy behind AirPods is based on what I coined the "Apple Experience" era. (My article introducing the term can be read here.) Apple will move beyond the iPhone by offering users the ability to create custom Apple experiences involving various form factors and software platforms. Apple services will help to connect everything together. 

There is a very straight-forward premise underlying the Apple Experience era: The iPhone will not be the hub of everyone's digital lives. This may seem counterintuitive considering that the iPhone has become the most valuable computer for hundreds of millions of users. However, it is this greater dependency on iPhone that opens the door for new, more personal products to flourish.

Just as our iPhone has become more powerful and capable over the years, the percentage of our daily tasks and responsibilities that we give to iPhone has been on the rise. The ongoing debate as to whether an iPad can handle all of the tasks given to a Mac ignores the fact that many have already positioned an iPhone as being able to handle many Mac tasks. We saw a few examples last week during Apple's keynote of how this trend is only going to intensify going forward. For example, the iPhone 7 Plus has a dual-camera system capable of capturing depth of field. The possibilities associated with that kind of technology could very well represent the next wave of smartphone innovation. 

While this increased functionality will increase the iPhone's value to hundreds of millions of users, it sets in motion the scenario in which room is created for new personal technology devices to begin to handle some of the more simpler tasks currently given to iPhone. For example, instead of looking at our iPhone to see who sent that incoming email, we can quickly glance at the notification on our wrist saying we received a new email. Instead of looking at our iPhone to see if we are at the right location for lunch, we get a small notice from Siri in our ear that we need to walk another two blocks for lunch. It's not that the iPhone will become less valuable in these scenarios. Rather, the value found with more personal gadgets will increase. 

By allowing consumers to pick and choose which products will handle their technology needs, we see the Apple Experience product strategy beginning to come to life. For some people, the iPhone will remain the primary hardware in their lives while others will find that Apple Watches and AirPods make much more sense for their lifestyle. We already see this evolutionary phenomenon materializing with the rise of wrist wearables. AirPods will usher in a new group of wearables that also begin to handle tasks formerly given to iPhones. 

Writing Is on the Wall

Apple is officially positioning AirPods as the beginning of the end of wired headphones. I would go much further. AirPods are the latest clue that the post-iPhone era is approaching. The writing is on the wall. A pair of AirPods (or even just one AirPod in an ear) and an Apple Watch with cellular connectively will eventually be able to handle many of the most popular tasks currently given to an iPhone.

 
 

It will begin with simply leaving the iPhone at home while taking Apple Watch and AirPods on a run. Then it will expand to being able to leave the iPhone at home when running a quick errand. Soon, the iPhone will become the dedicated device for tasks like watching video and writing emails. Eventually, the iPhone will begin to be treated like an iPad or Mac, serving as the device we turn to for those times we need a more powerful device. All the while, more and more tasks are given to Apple Watch and AirPods. 

Throughout this process, Apple services such as Siri, iMessage, and Apple Maps will play a big role in making this transition away from iPhone possible as the very nature of computing tasks are simplified. As third-party developers embrace Apple services in new ways, the way we interact with these services will also change. 

Apple is learning from lessons experienced with the Apple Watch to approach AirPods in a much more modest way as seen with the way management discussed the product on stage last week. AirPods are being given a very simple directive today. It may be difficult to believe, but AirPods contain the potential to eventually become a more important product for Apple than even Apple Watch. Many possibilities are created by having Siri in our ear. AirPods are a very big deal. 

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The Apple Services Myth

The narrative surrounding Apple Services has taken on a life of its own. While many people think Apple is moving to embrace a more services-oriented culture in response to slowing iPhone sales, the reality is much different. It's time to dispel the myth that Apple is becoming a services company. 

The Myth

Apple Services was thrown into the spotlight this past January when it became apparent that Apple would soon report its first year-over-year decline in iPhone sales. In an effort to get Wall Street to focus on something other than slowing hardware sales growth, management began to weave a new Apple narrative involving terms such as "installed base related revenue" and "installed base related purchases." Apple's goal was to provide Wall Street with a different way to think about Apple's business. 

The plan made sense on paper. Apple had amassed a loyal customer base of more than 750 million people spending an increasing amount of time and money on iOS apps and content. Apple was sitting on a $20 billion per year stream of services revenue growing at 20% per year. 

However, many company observers misinterpreted the change in narrative as Apple looking to pivot into a services company. Given Facebook's and Google's successful narratives on Wall Street based on recurring revenue streams, it was thought that Apple management must be trying to follow a similar path.

The Apple Services myth was born. We have gotten to the point where seemingly every report chronicling iPhone sales declines quickly turns to Apple's supposed push into services. Articles about slowing Apple hardware sales include boilerplate language about management looking to boost recurring revenue streams. Relatively minor Apple moves such as bringing paid search to the App Store are now being classified as signs of management's new strategy of becoming more like a services company.

The Actual Story

Apple's original services narrative has been taken completely out of context. Management's goal in pointing out service revenue was to emphasize the value found within the iOS ecosystem, not to explain an upcoming pivot away from hardware.

Here's Tim Cook on Apple's 1Q16 earnings call explaining Apple's services business: 

"[A] growing portion of our revenue is directly driven by our existing install base. Because our customers are very satisfied and engaged, they spend a lot of time on their devices and purchase apps, content, and other services. 

They also are very likely to buy other Apple products or replace the one they own. And because of the enduring value of the device, their replacing is likely higher to be given or sold to someone who will also love and use it often. 

So, as a result, our install base has been growing very fast and has recently reached a major milestone, crossing 1 billion active devices for the first time. This is an unbelievable asset for us. Because our install base has grown quickly, we have also seen an acceleration in the growth of our services business, another large and important source of recurring revenues."

Cook is making the case that Apple's service business is seeing strong growth because of the growth in the install base driven by hardware sales. Nowhere did Cook discuss a new Apple directive aimed at increasing services revenue. Specifically, Cook is taking the information found in Exhibit 1 and flipping it on its head.

Exhibit 1: Apple Revenue

At initial glance, things look pretty grim for Apple with sizable year-over-year revenue declines expected in every major hardware segment in 2016. However, one fact that isn't easily visible in Exhibit 1 is the amount of new people Apple added to its installed base over the past year. I estimate the iPhone alone is responsible for adding nearly 100 million new people. In terms of unit sales growth, this may not be enough to keep the iPhone in growth territory, but it sure goes a long way in eventually boosting services revenue as Apple positions apps, content, and services such as Apple Music to these 100 million new people. Cook wanted to tell Wall Street to look beyond declining hardware sales and instead think of this installed base growth and the implications it has on Apple's recurring revenue stream. 

Services Revenue

A closer look at Apple's financials goes a long way in demystifying the Apple Services myth. Exhibit 2 highlights the growth in services revenue since 2010 in relation to Apple's hardware revenue. The ratio between the two has actually declined over the past six years. In 2010, Apple services represented 14 percent of Apple's hardware revenue, lower than the 12.5 percent expected in 2016. This may be quite shocking to those who figured Apple has been focused on growing its services business over the years. 

Exhibit 2: Apple Revenue (Services vs. Hardware)

However, circling back to Cook's actual services narrative, the point isn't that Apple has been focused on growing its services business but rather that strong services performance is an outcome of strong hardware sales.

Apple is making the claim that the much higher "red" bars found in Exhibit 2 denoting Apple's hardware sales will eventually end up boosting Apple's services revenue as the installed base grows and people spend more time and money in the Apple ecosystem. Apple hardware is needed to grow Apple Services. Instead of Apple becoming a services company, Apple will continue to be an experiences company selling hardware products that include Apple services. Only when this occurs can Apple support a larger recurring revenue business in terms of apps, content, and services. 

Apple's Services Goals

Even though Apple is not becoming a services company, it is incorrect to assume that there isn't a role for services to play within the Apple ecosystem. Specifically, Apple has had two long-standing goals when it comes to services: increase the value and functionality of Apple hardware and leverage Apple platforms by delivering content to users. 

Increase Hardware Value and Functionality. Management looks at services as a key differentiator that helps to increase the value found with Apple hardware and software. Services such as Apple Pay, iCloud, App Store, iMessage, and FaceTime are meant to make Apple hardware more functional. If a consumer has the choice between an iPhone and a competing smartphone, Apple wants the services found on iPhone to give the device the edge. 

Apple Services are not built to be stand-alone profit centers. Instead, their value is found by increasing the value of Apple hardware. The two complement each other. Without one, the other becomes less valuable.  

As an example, it is doubtful that Apple Pay, given the service's current economics, will become a revenue driver for Apple anytime soon. Apple users would need to transact more than $1 trillion through Apple Pay for Apple to earn $1.5 billion. However, the presence of Apple Pay may have played a role in Apple selling hundreds of millions of iPhones for approximately $300 of gross profit per device. In addition, some of the 15 million Apple Watches that Apple has sold to date may have been bought by people who were attracted to Apple Pay on the wrist. In a similar way, items such as iCloud and AppleCare service contracts, items within the "Services" line item, won't amount to much from a revenue perspective. Instead, these services play an indirect financial role by straightening the Apple experience and contributing to Apple hardware sales. 

Even services such as Siri, iMessage and FaceTime, despite serving hundreds of millions of users, currently don't contribute directly to Apple financials. Instead, Apple's goal is to position these Apple-exclusive services as ways of increasing the value found with Apple hardware. For Apple to actually become a "services company," not only would the way Apple approach services need to change, but the company would inherently be placing less importance on hardware. This isn't going to happen.  

Delivering Content. The second goal Apple has for services is to be a major player in delivering content to users. This is not a new Eddy Cue directive given priority due to slowing iPhone sales. Instead, Apple has had a long-standing ambition of leveraging its platforms to become a leading content distributor for music, video, and apps. 

Apple has been dedicating significant resources to make the jump from its iTunes empire where paid downloads ruled the day to the new frontier found with streaming. With Apple Music, Apple is looking to own the entire music industry by removing oxygen from the paid streaming market. We see Apple leveraging its balance sheet to obtain artist exclusives and in the process, become a type of music label. The Apple Music/Frank Ocean exclusive was a result of Ocean working with one person from Apple with the goal of trying something unique and different. 

Apple is also displaying all of the signs indicative of a broad push into the paid video streaming industry. Shows such as "Planet of the Apps," and Dr. Dre's "Vital Signs" have the markings of being test runs for what likely will be Apple's plan for investing in a range of original content programming. Similar to Apple's approach to music, Apple would aim to become a big player in video streaming. Apple's goal by getting into original content programming is to speed up the process of apps becoming the main way content is delivered to Apple users. 

The primary reason Apple has been involved in delivering content to users is that  the company is well-positioned to leverage its platforms (nearly 950 million iOS devices, 95 million Macs, and 25 million Apple TVs) to deliver high quality content to hundreds of millions of users. Having Apple Music work with other Apple services such as Siri for hundreds of millions of users gives Apple Music an advantage that competitors lack. 

One potential wildcard concerning Apple and content services involves content bundling. It is easy to envision Apple eventually offering a content bundle subscription that provides a consumer access to all of Apple's content including Apple Music and a future Apple video streaming service. While this wouldn't change Apple's approach to services, it would go a long way in demonstrating the value found in the Apple installed base and broader ecosystem. A bundle may end up being one of the largest Trojan horses in the media entertainment business as Apple could add additional paid content to this bundle over time. 

Doubling Down on Hardware

Apple isn't turning into a services company. The narrative that Apple management tried to sow earlier this year with Wall Street wasn't meant to foretell a shift to new recurring revenue streams. Instead, Apple wanted to give investors a different way to think about Apple hardware sales. Apple can still grow the installed base despite year-over-year hardware sales declines. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but given the way Apple is approaching services (increasing hardware functionality and delivering content to users), management is actually doubling down on hardware. Without hardware, Apple's services business would lose much of its value. 

It is telling that Apple management curtailed its service narrative on the 2Q16 and 3Q16 earnings conference calls. I suspect this was done to slow what had become a services narrative that was being misinterpreted outside of Apple. There is a critical role for services to play within Apple. When looking at Apple's future with Project Titan, services such as ridesharing and new ownership models may play a large part in increasing the value of an Apple Car. However, it would be incorrect to say Apple will become a services company. Instead, Apple's goal will continue to be to sell products that impact people's lives. 

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Jony Ive Is Making People Uneasy

Apple pessimism is on the rise. New Apple products are being questioned like never before. Even some of Apple's most loyal customers are beginning to wonder about Apple's direction. While many are directing criticism towards Tim Cook, nearly all of the criticism pointed towards Apple can in one way or another be traced back to a different person: Jony Ive. 

Apple Power Brokers

The two most powerful people at Apple are Tim Cook and Jony Ive. While Cook is tasked with making sure the Apple machine is being run by the best team possible, Jony's role is much more abstract. Cook aims to foster collaboration at the top of Apple's functional organizational structure. If something goes wrong, much of the criticism is quickly pointed at either Cook or one of his top lieutenants. (Phil Schiller and Eddy Cue seem to take the brunt of the criticism.) Cook has also taken on the more traditional CEO role of representing Apple in the outside world

However, the one area Cook does not have complete control over is product strategy. That distinction belongs to Jony. It may seem hyperbolic to consider Jony the most powerful person at Apple. He no longer spends much time managing anyone on a day-to-day basis. He doesn't speak on Apple's earnings conference calls. Wall Street knows very little about him, and neither does Silicon Valley. In fact, following his recent promotion to Chief Design Officer, Jony doesn't even spend as much time at Apple HQ these days. Yet Jony has such a significant influence over Apple's product strategy, it is safe to say we are firmly within the Jony Ive era at Apple. 

Design Led

Jony holds an incredible amount of power because Apple is a design-led company. Apple's functional organizational structure and culture are set up in order to give the Industrial Design (ID) group absolute power. ID holds more power at Apple than any other group. 

This structure was put in place more than 15 years ago with the iMac being the first product to take advantage of this new culture. Up to the late 1990s, engineers held the most power at Apple. Designers were merely tasked with skinning Apple products created by engineers. With the iMac, ID was afforded the freedom to move ideas from conception to reality without compromise. While Steve Jobs was the primary architect of this new power structure, the relationship he had with Jony undoubtedly played a role.

 
 

This transition from an engineering-led organization to one based around design was not easy, leading to high turnover throughout Apple's engineering ranks. Jon Rubinstein and Tony Fadell are widely believed to have been pushed out due to Apple's design-led power structure. The primary motivation for Steve Jobs to give ID absolute power was to allow Apple to make big bets and not have them get watered down by compromises that arise from having too many cooks in the kitchen. Jobs saw design as the best way to keep the user experience the most important priority during product development. ID was given the task of overseeing the user experience. 

Doubling Down

Much of the criticism pointed towards Apple today is a by-product of Apple executives doubling down on Apple's design-led philosophy. The logic behind the move is pretty clear: The strategy works. Jony, Richard Howarth, VP of Industrial Design, and the rest of the ID team have more power today than at any other point in Apple history. Jony grabbed additional power during the first major management reshuffle under Tim Cook in 2012. His promotion to Chief Design Officer in 2015 reflected Jony receiving even more control. In fact, Jony has so much control, he now is able to spend more time away from Apple HQ (which I suspect is related to Project Titan). 

ID has complete reign over Apple. This may seem like an overstatement, but take a look at how ID has impacted Apple's overall product direction during the Tim Cook era.

  • Apple's move into wearables, health, and fashion? Jony and the ID team. 
  • Apple's move into cars and transportation? Jony and the ID team.
  • Apple's eventual move into clothing? Jony and the ID team. (Give it a few years.)

This isn't to suggest that Apple isn't empowering other groups within Apple, including those focused on developing services, machine learning and other core technologies. In addition, it would be a disservice to not point out the hardware engineering talent Apple has been accumulating. These groups work closely with ID on turning ideas into products, often creating brand new manufacturing apparatuses from scratch. However, at the end of the day, Apple executives depend on ID to look after the user experience like never before. 

Examples of Criticism

It would be incorrect to position Jony as single-handedly guiding every Apple product from conception to shipped product. Not only would such a statement grossly mischaracterize how much input actually comes from the rest of the ID group, but Jony has traditionally doled out the lead designer role for each product to different people. For example, Howarth was tasked to oversee iPhone design and ended up playing a crucial role in iPad, along with Christopher Stringer. 

Instead of playing a day-to-day role, Jony's influence at Apple reveals itself in terms of the company's overall product direction and narrative. 

There are five examples of how Jony is making people extremely uneasy. 

1) iPhone. There is a growing amount of criticism being thrown at Apple concerning the iPhone's design direction: 

  • Apple is looked at as being too focused on device thinness instead of pushing for better battery as if the two attributes share some kind of direct relationship.
  • Apple's infrequent hardware refresh cadence has led some to question if Apple is losing its smartphone design edge to Samsung.
  • Apple's decision to eliminate the 3.5mm headphone jack from the new iPhones has led many to question if Apple executives have lost their minds. 

For each one of these items, criticism can be traced back to Jony. We are merely seeing Apple continue on the same design path that they were on when the first edition iPhone was launched in 2007. Jony's long-standing goal is to have the iPhone's screen take precedence above all else. This means that ID will likely have the iPhone evolve into nothing more than a display with as few physical distractions or unnecessary additions as possible. Most ports, buttons, and excess bezel will be removed. The design changes rumored to be included in the 2016 and 2017 iPhone models certainly seem to fit ID's long-term goal for iPhone. 

2) Mac. The sheer panic that the lack of Mac updates has caused some people is nothing more than ID shuffling resources and priority. Instead of updating older Mac models merely for the sake of updating, something that isn't that difficult to do, Apple continues to push the boundary with the Mac by mostly focusing on design and the user experience. We saw this firsthand in March 2015 with the new MacBook. All signs point to the second phase being announced soon with an updated MacBook Pro. To complete the Mac line, the iMac will eventually see a redesign in order to give the product an even firmer position in an increasingly mobile world where smaller screens are grabbing all of the attention. Overall, the Mac still has a role to play, but I suspect its priority is continuing to fade in the eyes of ID. This is classic resource allocation at Apple as devices capable of making technology more personal take priority.

MacRumors Buying Guide for Mac

Source: MacRumors

3) Apple Watch. Apple's entry into the wearables space and corresponding deeper relationship with fashion and luxury themes originate with Jony. While a growing number of Apple users are poking fun at the amount of attention Apple has been giving to Watch bands over the past year, the bands go a long way in explaining how Apple managed to sell 15M Apple Watches to date. More importantly, the broader Apple Watch category highlights Jony's quest for using design to make technology more personal. Apple is clearly positioning Apple Watch as the evolutionary outcome for iPhone, something that the vast majority of the population do not yet see as a possibility. 

4) Accessories. New Apple accessories including the Apple Pencil, Magic Mouse 2, and iPhone Smart Battery Case have been ridiculed by many in the tech press. Some people are wondering if Apple has given ID too much power as no one wanted to say "no" to these accessories and their seemingly awkward charging experiences. All of those accessories can in one way or another be traced back to Jony. The Apple Pencil has many trademarks of Jony, including how the top cap is designed to be played with in hand. The Magic Mouse 2 charging position makes plenty of sense when compared to the older battery-powered Magic Mouse. (A one-minute charge gives a half a day's worth of usage.) Listen to Above Avalon Podcast Episode 45, "People Love Accessories," for a more detailed discussion on Apple's accessories.  

Island of "Misfit" Apple Accesories

 

Source: YouTube

 

5) Project Titan. While consensus is still coping with the idea that Apple is designing its own car and it took more than a year for some to wrap their mind around the idea, there is still an elevated sense that Apple must be very desperate to want to move into the auto industry. In reality, the Project Titan startup is a design-led initiative. This goes against prevailing wisdom in the tech industry that says the future of the car will be determined by autonomous driving. I disagree. Instead, design will be the factor that allows us to redefine the car. Jony and Marc Newson are likely the two most powerful people currently working in the car industry given their interest and expertise in industrial design, which includes working with new materials and manufacturing techniques. One of the key aspects of Project Titan will be coming up with new ways to manufacture car parts, a key strength of both Jony and Newson. 

Jony's Apple

One aspect of Apple that is rarely discussed is how the company has seen most of its success in a relatively short amount of time. In the span of just seven years, Apple unveiled three brand-new categories (iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch) that cumulatively bring in $150 billion of revenue per year.

Not enough time has passed for us to get proper historical perspective on how some of the decisions being made by Cook will end up impacting Apple. On paper, things look fine and all indications suggest Apple's product pipeline is healthy. However, it will take years to properly analyze the decisions Cook is making today.

However, when it comes to product strategy, I suspect that in a few years, when we look back at this current stretch, we will refer to it as the Jony Ive era at Apple. 

  • Existing products like iPhone and iPad are seeing evolutionary design changes that fit with Apple's long-standing design language put forth by Jony. 
  • Apple is embracing luxury in an entirely new way, all the way down to how it designs its brick- and-mortar locations and headquarters.
  • Apple is running quickly into automobiles and transportation, which has the potential to shape the direction of the company for the coming decades.

All of these changes are making people uneasy. Some think Apple's design-led culture doesn't fit within today's changing tech landscape. Others think Apple is running out of ideas. Instead, the opposite is true. By doubling down on design, Apple is placing a rather large bet. Apple executives think design will continue to allow Apple to remain focused on the customer experience. It is this customer experience focus that will then keep Apple relevant and able to ride the technology waves like no one has done before. It all comes back to Jony and the ID philosophy that is guiding Apple. If you have doubts about Apple, you probably are uncomfortable with Jony's vision for the company.

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The Art of Simplicity

Apple Watch and Apple Music shared something in common with each other in the beginning. They lacked simplicity. In an effort to give each product the best chance of success, Apple focused too much on telling a compelling story and not enough on letting the product tell its own story. This lack of simplicity explains how Apple Watch and Apple Music were called both resounding successes and utter failures during their first year. 

Early Criticism

At each step along the way, Apple Watch and Apple Music had their critics. Many claimed the initial Apple Watch keynote lacked direction, others thought the Watch didn't seem to do enough, and some claimed that the Watch's interface was too confusing. 

After just a few weeks on the market, it would have been an understatement to say that Apple Watch had become a polarizing product. While some people loved it, others thought it lacked the finish and attention to detail found in other Apple products. As Wall Street slashed Apple Watch sales expectations, what was once deemed the next big thing after iPhone quickly turned into nothing more than a footnote on Apple's quarterly earnings calls.

The Apple Music unveiling wasn't too different from the unveiling of Apple Watch. The introduction during the WWDC 2015 keynote was not good. In the following months, the press turned against the service with some referring to Apple Music as "cluttered," "awful," and even "broken." Reports of a confusing user interface and a list of random problems plagued Apple Music for most of its first year. 

Given how expectations turned sour for both Apple Watch and Apple Music soon after launch, one would have assumed each would end up being massive flops in the market. However, the opposite occurred. 

Successes

During the first 15 months on the market, Apple sold 14.5 million Apple Watches at an average selling price of $435 each. In addition, Apple sold at least five million extra Watch bands as Watch wearers embraced the idea of owning multiple bands. The Apple Watch is already a $10 billion business. It's difficult to describe this as anything other than a success. 

Apple Watch has become not just the best selling smartwatch, but one of the single-best selling devices worn on the wrist in history. In addition, there is growing evidence that Apple Watch has already begun to impact the Swiss Watch industry (evidence herehere, and here). It may be a distant memory now, but the wrist watch had been deemed mortally wounded by the smartphone as recently as a year ago. The percentage of people going around without a watch on their wrist was hitting multi-generational highs. The Apple Watch changed everything. 

Meanwhile, Apple Music garnered 15 million paying subscribers in its first year, a pace six times faster than that of Spotify. Even though music can be consumed for free at Spotify, YouTube, and Pandora, Apple was able to get 15 million people to pay as much as $120 per year to lease music. This is nearly twice the average amount spent per user per year in iTunes. More impressively, Apple Music's 15 million subscribers represents about 15% of all paid music streaming users in the world

Lack of Simplicity

How can Apple Watch and Apple Music appeal to millions of people yet be considered flops or failures by others? While high expectations and never-ending comparisons to iPhone success may have contributed to this unique dynamic, neither reason gets to the heart of the issue. 

Apple Watch and Apple Music lacked simplicity. This produced a situation in which the product's key attributes and value propositions resonated with some customers while others saw nothing more than unfinished products.

Simplicity allows a product to communicate with users. The result is a clear understanding of that product's perceived functionality and purpose. One way of accomplishing this is to develop a product in such a way as to allow that product's design to tell a story. Design isn't just about a product's physical attributes. It also involves how the product works. Apple has had success in the past when it comes to selling simplicity. 

  • iPod simplicity. The iPod was designed for one task: listening to 1,000 songs in your pocket. Everything about the device was geared toward making it easy to accomplish that one task. It would be incorrect to say that the device's functionality was limited due to its simplicity. Instead, the iPod became one of the most loved ways to consume music thanks to its click wheel and accompanying user interface.  
  • iPhone simplicity. The iPhone was designed to play music, surf the web, and make phone calls. As with the iPod, simplicity didn't lead the iPhone to be a comprised device with a lack of features. Instead, the iPhone became the most versatile, personal computer in history thanks to the new multi-touch user interface. 

The problem facing Apple Watch and Apple Music wasn't that their launch presentations weren't good enough or that they relied on ineffective marketing campaigns. Those items weren't able to explain the response these products received in the marketplace. Instead, Apple tried too hard during product development to tell a story in order to give each product a strong sales pitch at launch. 

With Apple Watch, Apple pushed the idea that third party apps would transform the device into a versatile gadget with lots of use cases. The thinking was that this would have the Watch appeal to a wide range of consumers. The app revolution had led to much success for iPhone and iPad, so Apple figured this would rub off on Apple Watch. The Watch's user interface was built around the idea of using apps on the Watch as if it was an iPhone or iPad. A honeycomb pattern of app icons was given nearly as much prominence as Watch faces. 

In essence, Apple tried too hard selling the Watch as a mini iPhone on the wrist with which users rely on lots of apps to get through their day. Much more problematic was that Apple never explained how apps would help Apple Watch tell its story. This dynamic made it difficult for consumers to understand the Watch's purpose. Was the Watch supposed to be used like an iPhone or was it some kind of fitness tracker with apps? 

With Apple Music, Apple's problem was more straightforward. Instead of launching Apple Music as an easy to use streaming service that placed an emphasis on music discovery through human curated playlists, Apple tried to make Apple Music a one-stop shop appealing to everyone. It suffered from a lack of purpose. One example of this was the Connect feature with which Apple Music users could follow their favorite music artists. As apps on the Watch may have made sense on paper, something like Connect seemed to initially make sense for Apple Music. However, adding an entirely new social layer within an already crowded app just didn't do much to convey Apple Music's fundamental purpose of making it easy to listen to music.

Solutions

One way to validate the claim that Apple Watch and Apple Music lacked simplicity is to look at this year's WWDC keynote (my full analysis from WWDC is available here and here). WatchOS 3 and the new Apple Music highlight that Apple was aware of a lack of simplicity and had been working for months on removing friction points.  

Apple Watch. After using the Watch for just a few days back in April 2015, it became clear that the device wasn't a regular watch. It was also obvious that it wasn't a mini iPhone. Instead, the Apple Watch was something different. A watch case containing a rectangular face, digital crown meant for scrolling, and sensors used to record data suggests the device had been designed to be a monitoring device. Users could monitor their health/fitness activity, incoming notifications, and other types of information including calendar items, directions, and mobile payments. The changes found in watchOS 3 are meant to allow Apple Watch to better tell its story as a monitoring device. 

Apple is now de-emphasizing apps in the new user interface, instead focusing on complications and Watch faces. Instead of selecting apps from dozens of small icons arranged in a honeycomb pattern, with watchOS 3, we primarily consume information through complications on Watch faces. This is why Apple made it much easier to switch Watch faces in watchOS 3. Even the Watch's side button functionality was altered to make it easier to consume information.

Apple Music. In the revamped Apple Music app announced at WWDC, Apple went back to the basics with the focus being on adding simplicity to the app. Refined tabs, including a more accessible music library as well as rethought "For You" and "Browse" tabs, make it easier to access the most important items. In addition, the Connect tab was removed and instead the functionality associated with Connect was positioned as more of a background item to the app. While there are still some questions as to font sizes and other design elements, it's difficult to argue that Apple didn't make it easier to discover new music daily. 

Simplicity Is an Art

The primary takeaway from Apple Watch and Apple Music lacking simplicity is that simplicity is an art. Simplicity could only be added to Apple Watch if the product had a design capable of telling a story in the first place. If the product is truly flawed, trying to add simplicity in later revisions or versions will lead to disappointment. Similarly, with Apple Music, Apple can only add simplicity to the service if Apple truly believes in using human curation to allow users to discover new music. 

It is easy to say that Apple should have done this or that differently with Apple Watch during the first year. Could Apple have highlighted different use cases? Would skipping third-party apps have led to much of a sales difference? These questions are irrelevant if the underlying product is not capable of conveying purpose in the first place. 

Looking ahead, when it is time for Apple to introduce new products and services, management will likely look at Apple Watch and Apple Music and remember that a product's value is derived much more from the story told through design than by the narrative created with a certain feature set. Without good design, simplicity is unattainable. 

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The iPad's Dark Days Are Over

After a tumultuous multi-year stretch that included massive unit sales declines, declining average selling prices (ASPs), and deteriorating margin trends, the iPad business has turned a corner. The combination of improving upgrade fundamentals, less severe iPad mini sales declines, and a stronger iPad lineup with the iPad Pro and accompanying accessories have positioned the iPad category that much closer to stabilization. The worst is likely over.  

The iPad's Early Potential

The iPad shot out of the gate like a rocket in 2010, instantly becoming the best-selling new Apple product in history. Considering that the iPad was an entirely new category positioned between an iPhone and MacBook, many were caught off guard by how consumers embraced the new form factor. As seen in Exhibit 1, initial iPad sales were nearly three times as strong as initial iPhone sales. Consensus even began to think the iPad would end up outselling the iPhone over time. Needless to say, iPad optimism was riding high. In just 10 quarters on the market, Apple sold 100 million iPads. It took Apple 16 quarters to hit the same milestone with iPhone.

Exhibit 1: iPad and iPhone Unit Sales Post Launch

The Turning Point and Dark Days

In November 2012, just two and a half years after launching the original iPad, Apple unveiled the lower-cost 7.9-inch iPad mini. The goal was simple: Prevent Android competitors from gaining traction under the iPad's price umbrella. Apple did not want to see a repeat of the 1990s all over again. This time it would be in the tablet space where Android would become the new Windows. 

While the iPad mini was well received with many in the press calling it the "real" iPad, the device ended up representing a turning point for the iPad business. After what appeared to be a very successful 1Q13 holiday season for the iPad thanks to the mini, Apple reported its first decline in iPad unit sales just two quarters later. Since then, the iPad business has experienced a brutal three-year stretch. 

The iPad's dark days had arrived. Heading into 2015, the iPad line consisting of iPad mini and iPad Air looked dated and out of place within Apple's evolving product line. This led many to conclude that the tablet may simply be a less attractive product category going forward in a world dominated by large-screen smartphones. In addition, iPad marketing just didn't seem to contain much of a punch. Many of the iPad use cases profiled could be handled just as well, if not better, with an iPhone. Unsurprisingly, iPad expectations turned remarkably low.

In 2013, Apple sold 71M iPads. Apple's 3Q16 marked the 10th consecutive quarter of iPad sales declines. Apple is now on track to report 46M iPad unit sales in FY16. As shown in Exhibit 2, this significant 35% drop in sales, spread out over number of years, has given the iPad a very ominous sales trajectory. 

Exhibit 2: iPad and iPhone Unit Sales Trajectories Post Launch

iPad Problems

There have been a number of factors put forth to explain the iPad's troubles. I suspect much of the iPad's difficult stretch over the past three years has been due to two overarching reasons:

1) Peak iPad Mini. As shown in Exhibit 3, the iPad mini form factor has experienced a more significant sales decline than its larger 9.7-inch sibling. According to my estimates, the iPad mini is responsible for approximately 70% of the iPad's overall sales decline since 2013.

The iPad mini form factor bore all of the competitive headwinds associated with larger screen smartphones, much more so than its 9.7-inch screen iPad sibling. I suspect the iPad mini initially benefited from interest in and curiosity for an iOS device that was bigger than the 3.5-inch and 4-inch iPhones at the time but smaller than the 9.7-inch iPad 2 and 3. Meanwhile, the iPad mini's low price and feature set positioned basic video consumption as a leading use case. This distinction meant that the iPad mini upgrade cycle was basically a myth. When an iPad is used for nothing more than video watching, there is little to no incentive to upgrade. 

Exhibit 3: 7.9-Inch iPad vs. 9.7-Inch iPad Unit Sales (TTM)

2) Longer Upgrade Cycle for 9.7-inch iPad. If 70% of the iPad's decline is due to the iPad mini, the remaining 30% relates to 9.7-inch iPad owners holding on to their iPads for more than two or three years. The iPad upgrade cycle is more like four to five years. The iPad 2, released in 2011, still represents 15% of iPads in use today. This elongated upgrade cycle meant that the 9.7-inch iPad would not follow in the steps of the iPhone, a device that saw sales benefit from a very short two-year upgrade cycle for years. Apple continued to do fine selling iPads to new customers. However, the lack of iPad upgraders meant it was that much harder for Apple to report year-over-year iPad sales growth. 

Signs of Improvement

Just as it seems like people have completely written off the iPad business for good, signs are beginning to appear that point to improving iPad fundamentals. In fact, I suspect the iPad's dark days are already over.  

Better Upgrade Fundamentals. The average age of iPads in use now exceeds three and a half years, as shown in Exhibit 4. This is one of the best developments for the iPad business in years. At the current rate, the iPad business is close to hitting its natural upgrade cycle cadence, likely in mid-2017 to early 2018. I estimate there are approximately 225 million iPad users out in the wild. Assuming the average iPad upgrade cycle extends out to five years, this means that Apple would have approximately 45M iPad unit sales per year just due to existing iPad owners upgrading their devices. Meanwhile, Apple is on track to report annual iPad sales of 45M units for 2016. This number includes both iPad upgraders and customers new to iPad. This suggests that Apple's iPad business is very close to approaching a natural sales run rate at which the combination of upgrades and sales to new users will lead to roughly flat sales growth year-over-year. 

Exhibit 4: Average Age of iPads in Use

One announcement from WWDC provided much credibility to the theory that the iPad upgrade cycle will top out around five years. iOS 10 will not be compatible with the original iPad, iPad 2, iPad 3, and iPad mini, iPad models that are six, five, four, and four years old, respectively. This means there will be approximately 65M iPads that will not get the latest iOS release. That is a very significant number of iPads. While it's wrong to conclude owners of those iPad models will rush out and buy a new iPad as a result of not getting iOS 10, it does provide a few clues as to how Apple is thinking about an iPad's useful life before turning into an inferior experience: between four and five years. 

Less Severe iPad Mini Headwinds. With the iPad mini contributing to 70% of the iPad's overall sales decline in recent years, there is evidence that the period of massive iPad mini sales declines is coming to an end. Given current iPad mini sales, there is simply less room for the device to register the same kind of sale declines seen in the past. Accordingly, overall iPad sales will benefit from no longer having a massive iPad mini sales headwind. For example, in 3Q16, the iPad mini likely represented less than 20% of total quarterly iPad sales. While I remain confident that we have seen Peak iPad Mini, I do not expect iPad mini sales to go to zero. The device represents one of the low-cost entry-level devices for the iOS ecosystem, which will appeal to millions of consumers each year. 

Stronger iPad Lineup. The 9.7-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro and accompanying Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard accessories represent the iPad's future. One consequence of iPhones becoming larger and MacBooks becoming smaller was that the old iPad line felt stale and out of place. Apple needed to shift its iPad strategy to the high-end, as detailed in my article, "Finding iPad's Future," from August 2015. This would be the opposite of the iPad strategy kicked off with the iPad mini at the end of 2012. Not only do the Pros serve as the first genuine iPads worth upgrading to for existing 9.7-inch iPad users, but they also give Apple a much better story to tell in terms of marketing. Apple's latest iPad commercial demonstrates this as Apple is explaining the iPad in a whole new way. The iPad is no longer the product that exists between a smartphone and laptop. Instead, the iPad is a computer. 

iPad Sales Stabilization Is Near

As a very early sign that all of these positive developments are coming together, Apple just reported the best quarter for iPad unit sales growth in 10 quarters, highlighted in Exhibit 5. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro launch certainly played its role. While sales are still declining, on a revenue basis, the iPad business registered its first year-over-year increase in 10 quarters. This is the clearest sign in years that iPad is approaching stabilization.

Exhibit 5: iPad Unit Sales Growth

Even though iPad sales declines will likely continue for a few more quarters, the probability that the iPad business will see significant sales declines from current levels has been reduced. Meanwhile, ASP and margin trends look to have long-term tailwinds as well. Looking ahead, the 40M sales milestone is the leading candidate for a natural sales run rate for the iPad business. This means that iPad sales would have to fall another 10% before reaching that level. To put that decline in perspective, Mac sales have declined more than 10% for the past two quarters. While the days of strong 30-40% unit sales growth will likely never make a return with iPad, it's clear that the iPad will soon enter a new stabilization phase. The dark days for the iPad are over. 

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