Apple Isn't a Tech Company

Apple continues to be misunderstood. With the company's cash cows showing signs of maturity, Apple's interest in new industries is growing. Questions are swirling as to where Apple may be headed next. The answer is found by assessing how Apple views itself and the role it has to play in the world. Apple isn't a tech company, but rather it's a design company betting that consumers want something more than just technology in their lives. 

Defining Apple

Over the years, Apple has been given a number of labels: 

  • Computer company
  • Technology company
  • Product company
  • Consumer electronics provider
  • Mac company
  • iPod company
  • iPhone company
  • Luxury retailer
  • Consumer discretionary company
  • Consumer staples company

Some of these labels were more valid than others. In some cases, the label was meant to represent Apple's relationship with customers. Other labels went a bit further in an attempt to describe some aspect of Apple's culture or product philosophy.

Even Apple contributed to a few labels. In January 2007, Steve Jobs announced that Apple would drop the "Computer" from its name and become just "Apple Inc." to reflect the changing product line. The name change led some to believe that Apple now viewed itself as a consumer electronics company or even an iPhone company. However, a corporate name change doesn't tell us much about how best to define a company.

A more interesting clue about how Apple views itself came three years later, at the end of the iPad unveiling keynote, when Jobs talked about how Apple was able to make a device like the iPad. Here's Jobs: 

"The reason that Apple is able to create products like the iPad is because we've always tried to be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. To be able to get the best of both. To make extremely advanced products from a technology point of view but also have them be intuitive, easy to use, fun to use, so that they really fit the users and users don't have to come to them, they come to the user. And it's the combination of these two things that I think let us make the kind of creative products like the iPad."

 
 

Clues

This location at the intersection of technology and liberal arts explained why competitors had such a difficult time competing against iPad (as they still do today). There was something more to the iPad than just technology. However, this still doesn't tell us how best to define Apple going forward. Instead, a closer examination of Apple's business provides more valuable clues. 

Power Structure. In the late 1990s, Steve Jobs shifted the power structure within Apple so that designers had control and influence over engineers. The logic in turning Apple into a design-led company was that design is the item that leads to great products. The iMac was the first product to be born out of this new power structure. 

Since becoming CEO in 2011, Tim Cook has made a number of leadership and managerial changes that amount to giving even more power to Apple designers. My theory is that these changes have reinforced a structure that splits Apple leadership into two groups:

  • Operations and corporate strategy
  • Product

An inner circle comprised of Tim Cook, Eddy Cue, Phil Schiller, and Jeff Williams oversees Apple's day-to-day operations and broader corporate strategy. This inner circle is supported by a number of SVPs and VPs. In addition, Cook increased the number of direct reports to the CEO while expanding the managerial reach of those making up the inner circle.

Meanwhile, the Apple Industrial Design group is positioned as the overseer of Apple's product direction. Christopher Stringer is a veteran Apple industrial designer who recently was reported to be leaving Apple. A few years ago, during Apple's Samsung trial, he explained that the job of an Apple industrial designer is "to imagine objects that don’t exist and to guide the process that brings them to life."

As seen in the following diagram, which was published in my "Grading Tim Cook" article, Apple leadership is split into two groups: operations/corporate strategy and product. This structure doesn't resemble that of a technology company. The Industrial Designers have continued to consolidate power during the Tim Cook era. 

Organizational Structure. It is logical to assume that the significant amount of change in power structure has resulted in cracks forming elsewhere within Apple. While some of this has manifested itself in certain groups losing influence or sway with management, the broader culture at Apple doesn't appear to have been jeopardized. The company's functional organizational structure has played a significant role in keeping corporate politics somewhat at bay. The focus, by design, remains on the product. 

In managing the Industrial Design group, Howarth isn't simply overseeing a team of 17 industrial designers. Instead, he is managing Apple's in-house design studio. Even after including the Human Interface team, Apple's core group of designers is remarkably small. This creates a contrast with tech companies employing hundreds of designers or utilizing various outside design consultants. Today, Apple handles all of its design internally.  

By rearranging the Apple leadership structure diagram shown above, we obtain a different look at Apple. The company is comprised of a nimble design studio supported by one of the largest technology arms in the world. It would be incorrect to classify Apple as just a design studio. The technology arm allows Apple to develop the technologies powering products created by the Industrial Design group. This dynamic is made possible by close collaboration between the designers and Apple's significant engineering resources. 

 
 

Storytelling. The next big clue as to how best to define Apple comes from observing how management has tried to tell the Apple story through the press. Consider some of the recent articles and interviews published in cooperation with Apple executives.

  • Jony Ive profile in The New Yorker (February 2015). The 16,000-word profile had Apple's full support and was one of the defining pieces written about the company this decade. Ian Parker used the Apple Watch as a prism to show how today's Apple is Jony's Apple. The messaging was clear: Apple's product strategy was now led by an industrial designer. Jony now had the role formerly held by Steve Jobs. 
  • Charlie Rose's exclusive look inside Apple (December 2015). Rose was given unprecedented excess inside Apple for a 60 Minutes report. The tour included the world's first genuine look inside Apple's Industrial Design studio. While a few photos of the studio were released in the past, Rose's access was unprecedented. In one scene, Rose and Jony talk about how few people get to be in the lab. Jony laughed and said "We don't like people in this room, period," in an obvious recognition of how unusual it was to have Rose and his entire entourage sitting in the studio. This raised the question of why Apple gave Rose such access in the first place. Apple felt that a look inside the design studio would help explain itself to the world.
  • Charlie Rose interview with Jony Ive (March 2016). The 72-minute interview aired in March 2016 and was aimed at figuring out what drives Apple. The interview went into detail as to how products are developed at Apple. It also addressed various topics pertaining to Jony and his design philosophies. 

In each of the preceding examples, Apple had one goal in mind: Shape its public image. Apple wanted to be known as more than just a technology company. Instead, Apple viewed itself as a company that puts the product above everything else. 

Products. Given that the product plays such a prominent role at Apple, the clue that best helps us define Apple is found in its products. Last month, Apple unveiled a number of new products through a series of press releases. (My complete review of Apple's new products is available for members here.) The new Apple products that contained the most intrigue were Apple Watch bands. There were a number of new Woven Nylon bands as well as Classic Buckle, Sport Band, and Hermès band options. The changes amounted to Apple unveiling its spring 2017 Watch band collection.

While Apple Watch bands remain a source of mockery within some Apple user circles, the product is incredibly important for Apple. Watch bands are the primary reason Apple has been able to sell close to 25M Apple Watches to date and become the wearables leader in the process. While there is value and convenience found with having a small screen positioned on the top of one's wrist, the only reason people are willing to wear that screen in the first place is because of Watch bands. It is not a coincidence that Apple Watch bands are the most frequently updated product at Apple.

With Watch bands, Apple is shipping a product that isn't powered by any software or technology. Instead, Watch bands are judged by tangibles and intangibles more likely to be found in the fashion world than in Silicon Valley. Watch bands end up serving as a big clue for the kind of company Apple is striving to be. It's certainly not to be just a tech company. 

The Mac provides another clue as to how best to define Apple. While we can point to a number of red flags appearing in the Mac business, the major trend taking place with the Mac is that the product is changing in an iOS world. What was once geared toward the liberal arts mindset is now finding itself more appealing to those in fields such as engineering. This transition coincides with the Mac becoming a bigger headache for management. The company knows how to make technology more personal, as with the iPad. However, when the same goal is attempted with the Mac, Apple receives pushback from a small but influential segment of the Mac user base. The struggles Apple is having with Mac end up showing that Apple isn't just a tech company. There is something else at play. 

Not Tech, but Design

All of the preceding clues for how best to define Apple contain a similarity: They revolve around some element of design.

  1. Apple is a company in which designers hold the most power and influence.
  2. Apple is structured to position the product above anything else.
  3. Apple management is eager to use design to tell its story.
  4. Apple's product line embodies the principle of technology not being enough.

At every turn, Apple is quick to discuss how something more than technology is needed. Even Apple's WWDC 2017 announcement reiterates this point, saying "Technology alone is not enough." That is a powerful statement to define what is arguably Apple's most tech-focused event of the year. 

 
 

Apple isn't a tech company, but rather it's a design company. 

By being defined as a design company, Apple is positioning the user experience  - how consumers interact with technology - as more important than focusing on the sheer power found with technology. This goal permeates throughout Apple. The company isn't just a design studio with a technology arm. Instead, every group at Apple is in one way or another focused on design. Apple is betting that design is the ingredient that will continue to put the product above anything else. 

Design vs. Technology

There is a way to differentiate a design company from a tech company: Observe how the company approaches technology. In every case, Apple views core technologies not as products themselves, but as ingredients for something else. Instead of wanting to chase after technology's raw capability, Apple is more interested in technology's functionality as it relates to the user experience. This brings up Jobs' reference to Apple being at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. By looking at the world through this lens, we receive a clearer roadmap as to where Apple is headed in terms of product strategy. 

Augmented Reality (AR). Apple has been investing significantly in AR for the past few years. Instead of acting like a tech company and positioning AR as a standalone product, Apple's primary focus is to incorporate the technology into products we already use (smartphones, tablets) and products we will begin to use in the future (entirely new wearable form factors). Apple views AR as a core technology that will transform products into a new breed of navigation tools. This will add a new dimension to the technology. The way we will interact with AR is often the part of the equation not discussed much by tech companies. Apple will attempt to figure it out. 

Autonomous Driving. Contrary to reports, Apple still wants to design its own car. Apple recently was granted a permit to begin testing autonomous driving technology on California public roads. Apple is researching autonomous driving technology because it will be a core ingredient powering a range of Apple products in the transportation space. Instead of partnering with legacy auto companies, Apple will look to do everything on its own. The motivation and ambition in such a move is born from Apple's adherence to design and the quest to control the entire user experience. 

Health Monitoring. There is a reason why Apple Watch bands are the most frequently updated product in Apple's line. The best way to get people to wear health monitoring technology is to have people want to wear health monitoring technology. Today, health monitoring primarily describes simple fitness and health tracking. Apple is actively researching different technologies, including those for possible blood sugar monitoring. If successful, the technology will play a vital role in Apple's wearables products. 

Voice. A tech company positions a voice assistant as the product. Cheap standalone speakers would be positioned as a way to get people to use the voice assistant as much as possible. Apple sees voice playing a different role in computing. Voice assistants can add value to products we already use and wear throughout the day. Instead of making the voice assistant the focus, Apple is interested in how we can use our voice to make technology more manageable. 

TV. Apple's decision to not ship a television set provides an example of not enough core technology resulting in a product receiving a "no" from the company. According to reports, Apple was not able to figure out a way to differentiate itself from the competition. This is another way of saying there was little found with a television set that could lead to an entirely new user experience. Television sets are stationary, large pieces of glasses positioned a few feet in front of us. While new technology in the form of a few front-facing cameras and sensors may add a few new twists to the equation, Apple didn't think the final offering would be compelling enough. Instead, Apple focused on the piece of the television experience we do interact with - the remote control and tvOS user interface. As it turned out, Apple ended up selling more than 255M "television sets" in 2016 anyway. They are called iPhones and iPads. 

Criticism

Much of the criticism directed at Apple can be traced back to how the company is defined. Because it is not a tech company, some have questioned Apple's ability to grasp future technology waves. These critics don't give Apple enough credit for the large technology arm connected to its design studio. Suggestions that Apple's services will remain inferior to those of its peers are becoming common occurrences. However, the progress Apple has made with Apple Maps suggests this is not the case. Apple's ability to excel at machine learning is routinely questioned. The criticism boils down to Apple focusing too much on functionality (how we use the technology) and not enough on capability (what the technology can do). 

At the same time, Apple receives pushback from being a design company. The significant backlash Apple is receiving from a portion of its pro Mac user base boils down to a broader dissatisfaction with the company betting too much on design. There are some Apple users who don't want the version of technology Apple is selling. In addition, there is no sign of this dissatisfaction going away.

In reality, Apple's largest risk isn't found in being a design company or not being a technology company. Instead, it's in becoming a tech company. If Apple finds itself moving away from being design-led, the product will be put into jeopardy. This is likely one reason why Cook continues to bet so heavily on design. 

The Apple Design Book

AirPods wasn't the surprise product of 2016. Rather, Apple's $199 design book came as a shock to the Apple community.

 
 

While many looked the book as Apple designers getting intoxicated by nostalgia, the book ends up being the clearest expression of what makes Apple a design company. Apple is focused on creating products that can change the world. The secret to accomplishing this goal is to place a bet that technology alone is not enough. 

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