Apple product strategy

Apple's Product Strategy Is Changing

This year’s WWDC felt different. While every WWDC keynote is filled to the brim with new features, this year’s announcements included highly anticipated items like a new Mac Pro and differentiated iPad software features. In addition, there were some genuine surprises such as SwiftUI (a big deal with wide-ranging implications for Apple’s ecosystem). Despite there being no discernible change to the grand vision behind Apple’s product development, there does appear to be a noteworthy change to strategy.

The Past

Apple had been following a product strategy that can be thought of as a pull system. The company was most aggressive with the products capable of making technology more relevant and personal.

One way of conceptualizing this product strategy is to think of every major Apple product category being attached to a rope. The order in which these products were attached to the rope was determined by the degree to which technology was made more personal via new workflows and processes for getting work done. Accordingly, Apple Watch and iPhone were located on the end of the rope held by Apple management. Meanwhile, Mac desktops were located at the other end of the rope while iPads and Mac portables were somewhere in the middle.

As Apple management pulled on the rope, the Apple Watch and iPhone received much of the attention while the Mac increasingly resembled dead weight.

The preceding exhibit may make it seem like all of Apple’s product categories moved in sync with each other as Apple management pulled on the product “rope.” In reality, the quicker Apple pulled on the rope, the more chaotic the end of the rope moved. The following exhibit does a better job of demonstrating the chaos found at the end of the rope.

The Apple Watch and iPhone were Apple’s clear priorities while the iPad, Mac portables, and Mac desktops ended up facing a battle for management attention. The iPad seemed to have the clear advantage in that battle, at least when it came to capturing mindshare among Apple’s senior ranks. Recall Tim Cook’s comment about the iPad being the clearest expression of Apple’s vision of the future of personal computing.

Today

Over the past two years, we received clues that a major change was beginning to take hold in Apple’s product strategy. This change was on display during this year’s WWDC. Consider the following announcements:

  • The Apple Watch continues to gradually gain independence from iOS and the iPhone with its own App Store and the ability to create watchOS apps without an iPhone app.

  • iPadOS is a promise from Apple that iPad will be given unique software features versus iPhone. Features like multitasking and Apple Pencil support give iPad differentiation from its more popular sibling (iPhone).

  • The new Mac Pro is clear evidence of Apple industrial design, along with the engineering and product design teams, attempting to come up with a long-term solution for the most powerful computer in the product line.

  • SwiftUI is the kind of foundation Apple needs to properly leverage a thriving iOS developer ecosystem in order to benefit other product categories.

Apple no longer appears to be relying so much on a pull system when it comes to advancing its product line. Instead, a push system is being utilized, and every major product category is being pushed forward simultaneously. The change was designed to reduce the amount of chaos found at the end of the “rope” that Apple was pulling. Accordingly, the primary benefactors arising from this new strategy are the iPad and Mac. This explains why this year’s WWDC announcements felt more overwhelming than those of previous years. Apple was able to move its entire product category forward at the same time.

This revised strategy ends up supporting a core tenet of my Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products - a product category's design is tied to the role it is meant to play relative to other Apple products. (A deep dive into Apple’s product vision and the Grand Unified Theory of Apple Products is available here for Above Avalon members.) By pushing the products geared towards handling the most demanding workflows, Apple has a greater incentive to push the products capable of making technology more personal and relevant.

It’s not that every product category in Apple’s line is now on equal footing in terms of importance and focus. Some products will receive updates every few years while others require more attention due to needing annual updates. In addition, Apple’s revised product strategy likely won’t change the sales ratios between product categories (iPhone outselling iPad by four times while iPad outsells Mac by more than two to one). Instead, the change from a pull to push system manifests itself with each product category being given a defined and unique role to handle within the Apple ecosystem.

  • Wearables are tasked with handling entirely new workflows in addition to a growing number of workflows that had been given to iPhones and iPads.

  • The iPhone is the most powerful camera and video player in our lives.

  • iPads and Macs are content creation tools.

Implications

There are a number of product-related implications arising from Apple’s revised strategy:

Mac Desktops. Despite being in the post-PC era, desktops are experiencing some kind of renaissance. Some of this isn’t entirely surprising given how the desktop has always been viewed as an antidote to some of the ideals found with mobile. However, what is new is the realization of the desktop’s role in the AR era. Mac desktops are niche in terms of the number of users relative to other Apple product categories, albeit a very powerful and crucial niche.

Mac Portables. It is time to take Apple management at its word when it says the Mac is important to Apple’s future. Mac portables will likely retain a place in Apple’s product line for the foreseeable future. A few years ago, low-end Mac portables seemed to be on a dead-end path thanks to iPads. There is no longer any evidence that such thinking is widely held in Apple’s senior ranks. An ARM-based Mac portable seems inevitable at this point.

iPad. Just a few years ago, some in the tech pundit world thought the iPad lacked a future. Such thinking was due to slowing iPad sales combined with larger iPhones being able to handle many of the use cases originally given to iPad. While the iPad has always been viewed as the future of computing within Apple, we are starting to see that vision materialize. iPad sales are now routinely surprising to the upside as Apple adds a “pro” layer to the iPad category in terms of powerful hardware and software.

iPhone. The iPhone as a product category continues to mature, as seen with a longer upgrade cycle. Going forward, the iPhone will primarily be known as the most powerful camera in our lives and a video consumption device. Many of the less intensive use cases and workflows currently given to the iPhone will naturally flow to wearables over time.

Wearables. Apple is the wearables leader. Fitbit would arguably be the closest from the perspective of unit sales but even then, the company is quickly losing momentum. Lessons that Apple learned with iPhone and iPad are now giving the company a wearables advantage that is likely at least five years. An independent Apple Watch not requiring an iPhone to set up is inevitable. The move would increase Apple Watch’s addressable market by three times overnight. In addition, Apple is well on its way to establishing a wearables platform as it competes for prime real estate on our wrists, in our ears, and in front of our eyes.

Will It Work?

Is Apple making the right product strategy decision moving from a pull to push system? It’s too early to tell. At first, the revised strategy may seem like a no brainer as each product category ends up benefitting from more attention. However, it’s not a given that such a dynamic is in Apple’s best long-term interests.

The source of my hesitation in Apple’s new product strategy is that the company’s long-term success is dependent on one item: making technology more personal. Anything that takes away from that goal ends up being a hurdle. Is Apple supporting legacy workflows to the detriment of Apple’s long-standing mission of making technology more personal and relevant?

One reason Apple decided to change product strategies in the first place was to avoid an all-out uprising among the 1% of the user base creating content consumed by the other 99%. The mistake Apple made over the past few years was pulling the product “rope” too fast and in the process, leaving many of its pro users, defined by the workflows needed to be supported, behind.

For a company that is resource constrained when it comes to time and attention, there is no guarantee that Apple’s functional organizational structure and design-led culture can realistically scale to push an endless number of product categories at the same time. This was the key benefit found with Apple’s pull system. The focus was to advance the products capable of making technology more personal and relevant while trying to bring as much of the broader product portfolio along for the ride. The move to a push system is inherently more complex. Apple finds itself doing a whole lot more that it did just a few years ago.

Some will push back at the claim that Apple is resource constrained considering the company has $113 billion of net cash on the balance sheet. However, such a view doesn’t take into account how Apple functions. Apple could have thrown together some components in a big box and shipped a new Mac Pro shortly after realizing that the previous Mac Pro design was a dead end. Instead, Apple’s industrial designers, working in close collaboration with various teams, took a little over two and a half years to come up with what is marketed as a long-term solution for handling the most demanding content creation workflows. Similar questions now plague Apple pertaining to its approach to “pro” Mac portables.

My concerns regarding Apple’s revised product strategy would be alleviated if Apple came up with a plan to push legacy platforms forward by doubling down on future initiatives involving making technology more personal. This is why SwiftUI is intriguing. Apple is positioning SwiftUI as a way to improve a developer's productivity by requiring less code, resulting in better code. What if that is only scratching the surface as to Apple’s ultimate objective? What if the Mac is being repositioned as an AR creation platform while iOS is gradually positioned as a platform for developing wearables apps? Using a billion iPhones to develop apps consumed on billions of wearable devices is the type of goal that would require years of work, foundation building, and periodic changes to product strategy.

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