Above Avalon Turns Two

Today marks the second-year anniversary of Above Avalon's launch.

This past year has been a busy one. Above Avalon reached sustainability and continues to be 100% supported by members. Along with weekly articles and podcast episodes, there were 192 daily updates focused exclusively on Apple that were sent to members over the past year. In addition, an Above Avalon group in Slack was established for members this past January and is now home to a thriving, daily discussion about Apple.  

As I prepare for the next year, I would like to share a few observations and lessons that I've learned about Apple and the dramatically changing media landscape since starting Above Avalon in 2014. 

Apple Observations

1) Apple is changing. Apple is not an opaque object, unable to be analyzed and studied. The company's intense product-driven culture is reflected in most of management's decisions and actions. The key to understanding how Apple views the world is to approach the particular topic at hand with this product-driven culture in mind. While Apple remains unpredictable, especially when it comes to items such as product marketing, the company's broader strategy has displayed a pattern of rationality.

With that in mind, there are clear signs that Apple is changing. While Apple still values product secrecy, the company has become much more open in terms of using the press and social media to weave a narrative. In addition, Apple management has become more straightforward when discussing Apple's product direction. Apple is not afraid to try new things, even if it means the company will look differently in the future. 

2) Jony Ive is Apple's product visionary. Over the past year, I published 38 weekly articles. The one that surprised me the most in terms of reader feedback was "Jony Ive Is Making People Uneasy." The article's premise was that under Tim Cook's leadership, Apple's industrial design group has continued to consolidate power within Apple. With Jony Ive positioned as overseer of Apple design, his influence on Apple's product direction cannot be overstated.

However, much of the reaction I received questioned not only Jony's power, but also the fundamentals that underpin Apple's design-led culture. Tim Cook is not Apple's product visionary. More importantly, Cook was never expected or groomed to be Apple's product visionary. Instead, Apple's industrial design group is in full control of the user experience, and by extension, the product. This structure was put in place more than 15 years ago to ensure that the product is always placed ahead of everything else. Despite other tech giants increasingly dipping their toes into hardware, no other company has Apple's design-led culture. 

3) Apple continues to think differently. It may be cliché, but when it comes to nearly every major topic that Apple faces criticism over, whether it is machine learning, AI, AR, VR, or voice, such criticism is misplaced. The old adage of "think different" is being turned on its head. While consensus remains focused on figuring out when these technologies will hit the mainstream, Apple is dedicating resources to better understand how these new technologies can be used to make technology more personal and improve the user experience. The question isn't when Apple will embrace these new ideas, but rather how Apple will approach these new technologies. 

4) Transportation and wearables represent Apple's future. One of the more intriguing topics over the past two years has been Apple's transportation ambitions with Project Titan. While the project has seen significant changes in recent months (my current thoughts on where things stand with Project Titan are available here and here), it would be incorrect to conclude that Apple's interest in transportation is waning. The same can be said about Apple's long-term plans for Apple Watch and the broader wearables category.

Despite a number of recent head fakes across the industry, the transportation industry will see more change in the next 10 years than seen in the past 100 years. The fact that such a statement doesn't actually say much given the lack of prior change demonstrates why a company like Apple will ultimately enter the industry. As for wearables, Apple's growing interest with health will end up being positioned as a key factor for driving wearables adoption. The wearables category likely contains the most potential to have a product that reaches smartphone-like penetration in the marketplace. 

5) Apple's biggest risk is losing focus. Over the past two years, I have periodically received a variation of the question, "What is Apple's biggest risk?" The usual answers passed around the web involve Apple missing some type of technology wave or being unable to adapt to the changing tech landscape. In reality, the one item that has the potential of threatening Apple's product-led design is management choosing to do too much.  

Thoughts on the Changing Media Landscape

1) Changing consumption patterns. The shift to mobile continues to impact how we are consuming content. Curated versions of the web, also known as Facebook and Twitter, are gaining even more power in terms of news and research dissemination. However, drawbacks to this development are beginning to appear. Interestingly, email has become a very powerful antidote to these drawbacks. People are using email as a way to build an ad-free curated stream of written content. The company to watch going forward is Slack and whether or not it can better position itself as a destination for content consumption. Judging by the Above Avalon team in Slack, there is much promise. 

2) Rise of the independents. One byproduct of this shift in content consumption has been a schism when it comes to media publications. This has led to a rise of the independents, a new breed of sites built on lean, low cost structures and scalable business models based on various forms of paid subscriptions. These sites are focused not on chasing page views or unique visitors, but instead on building high-quality relationships with readers. The reason these sites are able to compete against much larger peers with additional resources is that they are in a better position to build communication channels with readers. Along with Above Avalon, sites such as Stratechery and The Information have found a core audience. I expect this list of sites to expand and diversify as we move forward.   

3) Apple news industry. The cottage industry consisting of a few dozen sites focused on Apple rumors, news, and analysis is undergoing some changes. Ad-based rumor sites are experiencing consolidation while the leaders diversify into video, podcasting, and email newsletters to maintain mindshare. Ad-based indie blogs are increasingly turning to podcasting and different types of memberships/patron support for more attractive monetization opportunities. Although a few publications are ramping up their Apple coverage while others dial back efforts, the news portion of the Apple blog sphere remains disjointed. Going forward, I would not be surprised if several of the larger news publications dip their toe deeper into the Apple rumor sphere. This will lead to ad-based rumor sites experimenting with memberships and doubling down on forums/communities. 

Above Avalon

I launched Above Avalon on November 10, 2014 with the goal of studying Apple at the intersection of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The main takeaway from these past two years is that while I have learned a great deal about Apple, there is much more to discover. I look forward to watching Above Avalon grow and welcoming new faces as Above Avalon members. (To sign up, visit the membership page.) 

Thank you for a great two years. 

Neil Cybart