WWDC Clues Hint at Apple's Post-iPhone Era

This year's WWDC felt different. While Apple's annual developer conference still showcased the company's software strategy for the coming year, last week's keynote also contained an unusual number of clues related to Apple's hardware ambitions. Apple's strategy for eventually moving beyond the iPhone is coming into focus.

Previous Apple Product Eras

One way to see where Apple is headed is to look at Apple through the rearview mirror. The Mac as Digital Hub era was Apple's first genuine product philosophy following Steve Jobs' return to Apple. The idea was simple. Instead of worrying about a growing number of dedicated peripheral electronic devices, Apple would focus its resources on positioning the Mac at the center of the universe. Users would then connect their growing collections of accessory devices to their Macs. 


As mobile devices became more powerful and occupied larger roles in our lives, Apple dedicated resources to designing Mac peripherals that had the most potential to be consumer blockbusters. First came the iPod, and this was followed by the iPhone. Selling more than just a few Mac models, Apple began thinking of its product strategy in terms of a stool on which each leg represented a different product category, as shown in the diagram below. At the same time, Apple continued to build out its services and cloud offerings to serve as the glue keeping the stool together.


At this year's WWDC, Tim Cook's message to developers was that Apple's current product strategy revolved around four "category defining and world changing" platforms: watchOS, tvOS, macOS, and iOS. While it may sound like these four platforms have replaced the old product categories found with the Apple Stool strategy, in reality, Apple's current product strategy looks very different. 

As shown in the diagram below, not all software platforms are viewed equally. iOS remains at the center of the universe given the iPhone's sheer dominance and is supplemented by continued iPad popularity. Meanwhile, watchOS is for a product that is still dependent on the iPhone while macOS and tvOS are much smaller platforms with cloudier long-term outlooks. 


When taking a look at nearly every financial metric, it's clear that we are still firmly in the iPhone as Hub era at Apple. There are nearly twice as many iPhones in the wild as every other Apple product combined. Despite slowing iPhone sales, Apple will still sell nearly five times as many iPhones as iPads in 2016. On a revenue basis, the iPhone is responsible for 65% of Apple's annual revenue and 75% of Apple's annual operating income.

WWDC Clues

Given such lopsided financial metrics, it has been very difficult to envision how Apple will eventually move beyond the iPhone. Some think Apple's only choice is to monetize the iPhone business using services. Others don't think Apple will actually be able to successfully come up with a post-iPhone strategy.

Fortunately, Apple's WWDC keynote last week contained clues as to where Apple's product strategy is headed. One theme found throughout management's slides was a focus on the user experience. Whether it was rethinking the iPhone lock screen or opening up additional iOS services to third-party developers, many of Apple's software changes were done with the user experience in mind. (I reviewed additional themes and observations from the keynote here and here). However, much more intriguing were the two fundamental shifts underpinning this focus on the user experience. Each shift portends an era in which the iPhone is no longer at the center of Apple's product strategy.

App Evolution. We are starting to use apps differently. Apple sees an era in which instead of downloading dozens of apps and arranging them in a grid pattern on our iOS devices, we rely on a number of services to handle our daily tasks. Apple's motivation for funneling developers into Siri, Maps, and Messages will end up making it that much easier for users to consume content and data across a number of hardware form factors. As a prime example of how this shift from an app-centric model to a service-centric framework changes Apple's product strategy, consider the Apple Watch. Apple has said that the Apple Watch is positioned within Apple's product line to handle tasks formerly given to the iPhone. In a world where content formerly found on third-party apps is eventually found within Apple services, while it may have made sense to use an app on our iPhone, it will now make just as much sense to use Siri or Messages on our wrist.

Services. Given the movement of third-party app functionality into services, Google is half-right when saying that it is time to move beyond the device. Services are becoming smarter as we give our devices additional tasks and data. This immense level of data ends up placing more value and capabilities with the glue that has traditionally held Apple's collection of gadgets together. However, Google and other services-oriented companies don't have it completely right. When services become more valuable, one consequence is the altering of how we use different form factors. Hardware does not lose relevancy. Rather, a world in which services are much more useful and valuable ends up elevating new hardware form factors that have access to these services. For example, tasks that may have traditionally been given to the Mac, iPad, or iPhone we will eventually be able to do on wearable devices because of more valuable and capable services. It is difficult to think of a form factor that is unable to utilize Siri in one way or another. 

The Apple Experience Era

Apple will look to move beyond the iPhone by offering users the ability to create custom Apple experiences. These experiences will involve a range of hardware form factors, the software platforms running on those form factors, and the Apple services connecting each form factor. The following diagram depicts this new Apple Experience era. Depending on the user, each form factor will hold varying levels of importance as depicted by the blue circle's size. The dotted lines represent the Apple services connecting all of the form factors. The solid lines represent situations in which there may be a greater level of dependency between form factors. 

Users will then choose which form factors make the most sense for their daily schedules and lifestyles. For some, an Apple Watch equipped with Siri, Messages, and Maps combined with a pair of not-yet announced wireless Apple EarPods will handle most of the tasks formerly given to an iPhone. For others, it may continue to make the most sense for an iPhone to be at center of their digital lives. It is not a stretch to think of more unusual combinations such as an Apple Watch and iPad as someone's two primary computing devices. Meanwhile, an eventual Apple Car will represent another point of contact for customers interacting with the Apple experience and range of Apple services. 

The key aspect of this new Apple Experience era will be Apple's ability to sell an experience tailored to the user. Instead of having a static web of devices in which the iPhone is at the center and everyone uses the other form factors in a similar fashion, this web of Apple products will change depending on the user. In the diagram below, notice how User A places much more value on an Apple Watch and wireless EarPods (depicted by larger circles). However, for User B, the iPhone and iPad hold a greater amount of importance.

Key Tenets of the Apple Experience Era

There are three major tenets of this new Apple product era. 

Hardware plays a crucial role. While nearly every Apple peer wants customers to begin thinking beyond the device and instead focus on the data-rich services connecting various types of hardware, Apple's future will contain plenty of hardware. We need hardware to record and then consume data. In addition, there will always be a human desire to interact with products. Apple will likely position hardware as the variable that makes its services that much more attractive than competing services. Look no further than Apple's decision to locally do all facial recognition as well as object and scene recognition processing in Photos on the device. Being able to use a service on a range of well-designed devices is something that Apple can excel at while other companies would need to rely on partners or others to make this happen. 

Services represent the glue. Apple will position products such as Siri, Messages, Maps, Apple Music and an eventual Apple Video service as the glue that holds various form factors together. 

Experience matters. From Apple's perspective, the key to moving beyond the iPhone is to offer users the option to personalize their technology needs with hardware and services. Apple will use certain criteria such as mass-market appeal to pick and choose which product categories and services end up getting precious Apple resources.

Apple's Challenges

At first glance, it would appear that Apple has all the ingredients in place to move beyond the iPhone. Apple's industrial design capabilities continue to be industry-leading, and WWDC began to peel away some of the mystery surrounding Apple's path for incorporating deep learning into its services. However, there are two big risk factors that need to be monitored very closely. 

Apple remains a resource-strained company. The most valuable resource is time and energy. Given the company's functional organizational structure, management has tangible limitations as to the number of projects that can be undertaken at any one time. As seen in the Apple Experience era diagrams, it would not be a stretch to see the number of blue circles, representing Apple hardware form factors, to increase. However, at a certain point, Apple will begin to find that it is unable to expand in new areas while still supporting legacy industries or products. Management is quite vocal that Apple says "no" much more than "yes" when it comes to new products. In addition, the company is not afraid to cannibalize its own products. These statements will likely be tested in the coming years.

The second risk factor involves Apple being able to learn how to add chaos to new industries. Apple has no experience in the transportation industry. Yet, the company will need to not only place a bet as to where the industry is headed, but also be prepared to pivot in order to potentially use different business models, including different ownership models

Moving Beyond the iPhone

Apple's plan to move beyond the iPhone won't be to come out with another pocket-sized computer that is capable of bringing in $200 of profit per device. Instead, Apple will look to build an Apple ecosystem containing various form factors and services that are well positioned to take advantage of the evolving app ecosystem. As the company enters new industries and sectors with new hardware form factors and services, the company will need to embrace new business models and ways of doing business. However, despite this tall order, the focus on the product and user experience will be the guiding light for Apple's goal of establishing a new product era after that of the iPhone.

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