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.


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.


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.

Receive my analysis and perspective on Apple throughout the week via exclusive daily updates (2-3 stories per day, 10-12 stories per week). Available to Above Avalon members. To sign up and for more information on membership, visit the membership page.

Marketing a Smaller iPad

Marketing is an art, not a science. We were fortunate to see this art first-hand on January 27, 2010 as Apple unveiled the iPad. Technological and engineering marvels aside, Apple faced the daunting task of marketing a disruptive product that had to grow into its role of replacing the modern-day PC. Jump ahead 33 months and it appears Apple has had some initial success, selling 84 million iPads. Within weeks, the world will see Apple’s second test marketing iPad, but this time it will be a new form factor, a smaller iPad.
Marketing; Portraying the Product
The most important aspect of marketing is the product; the look, feel, and sound (fortunately iPad’s smell and taste aren’t a major factor in this discussion). Apple eloquently marketed the iPad as a sexy device that could do a few things extremely well, all the while feeling great in your hand. The consumer was left focusing on iPad’s strengths, and not its short-comings, or mysteries, such as if its weight becomes an issue after extended use. In subsequent years, Apple began the task of marketing the iPad as a device capable of content creation, in an effort to begin cementing its path to replacing the modern-day PC. When unveiling a smaller iPad (7.85-inch screen) in October, Apple will be given 60 minutes to tell a story; why a smaller iPad should exist.
Apple may take two paths:
1)      Positioning a smaller iPad as a replacement to the current 9.7-inch iPad. Apple’s presentation will include all of the features a smaller iPad could do well, such as web surfing, content consumption and creation, but in a smaller form factor and at a lower price point. Consumers will have to decide between a small or large iPad.
2)      Positioning a smaller iPad as a companion to the current 9.7-inch iPad. Apple’s story will include the few things a smaller iPad could do extremely well, such as content consumption, in a more convenient form factor for extended passive use, such as reading or watching movies. Consumers will understand the differences between a small and large iPad and come away from the event wanting both, not one or the other.
Apple will most likely choose the second path, positioning the smaller iPad as a companion device to the current iPad line-up, and in doing so will not only sell a lot of small iPads, but keep the large 9.7-inch iPad as the powerhouse in the tablet market.
The Tablet Story
On January 27, 2010, Apple could have unveiled an iPad with a 7-inch screen, or 8 inches, or maybe even 12 inches, but settled on 9.7 inches. Apple knew there would be plenty of television commercials marketing iPad, but the biggest marketing ploy would be the product itself, a device capable of eventually replacing the modern-day PC as the primary form of computing. Apple wanted (or needed) consumers to begin thinking of an iPad as a possible laptop replacement from the start. The “iPad as your new laptop” thought didn’t need to be completely formed on Day 1, or even by Year 3, but Apple needed to plant the seed on Day 1 and a 9.7-inch device was an easier sell than a smaller 7-inch device.
Fast forward a few years, and the tablet market is now flooded with smaller 7-inch tablets. Besides not being given an adequate reason for their existence, consumers are confused by these 7-inch tablets labeled as a “full tablet” despite failing in comparison to a laptop’s immense feature list.  
So why should Apple introduce a smaller 7.85-inch tablet now? It is time because the 9.7-inch iPad is a success.
A Smaller iPad; Companion to the Current iPad
The iPad is now well established as a successful tablet and cornerstone to Apple’s product line-up. While many have fallen in love with iPad, the device does have some minor drawbacks, namely form factor for extended use and price. The device tends to feel heavy in hand after extended use, such as reading or movie watching, while the $499 entry price is still unattainable for a large swath of the population, including education and business, leaving wiggle room for competitors to try something at the bottom-end of the price ladder. Are these two factors (heavy form factor and price) enough for Apple to introduce a smaller iPad?
In October, Apple will address the space between an iPhone and a 9.7-inch iPad and most likely market a 7.85-inch iPad as a companion to the 9.7-inch iPad. Books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and games will be shown as more enjoyable given a smaller iPad form factor. Apple will need to walk a delicate line though positioning a smaller iPad as the best way to consume content, as many will continue to enjoy content on their large iPads (as well as on their iPhones).

More importantly, Apple needs to portray a small iPad not as a 9.7-inch iPad replacement, but as an iPad companion. If consumers begin to think of a smaller 7 to 8 inch device-great at content consumption but not so great at other aspects-as an iPad replacement, the effort of positioning iPad as the disruptive force will be in jeopardy since wide-spread adoption would come under pressure and laptops would continue to appear superior to the average 7-inch tablet.
For those who would buy a smaller iPad due to price, proper marketing will position the smaller iPad as a gateway drug to a larger iPad. If a consumer enjoys content on a small iPad, the thought of not only consuming the same content, but also creating content on a larger iPad will only be enhanced.
Other Musings
Price. If given three $5 casino chips and told to guess the small iPad’s price, the $199, $249, and $299 squares would be occupied with a chip. If given one $15 casino chip, the $249 price point would be occupied. Not only is the product itself a form of marketing, but a device’s price can say a lot. Priced too low, a small iPad may have a hard time losing the “just a content consumption” tagline, while priced too high and the small iPad becomes an iPad competitor as consumers assume the two devices must be similar in compatibility. A $249 price point would be the best of both worlds; a device $150 less expensive than the entry-level iPad 2, but still more expensive than other 7-inch tablets.
Future iPads. One could replace any mention of “small iPad” in this piece with “larger iPad” and the same overall thesis would apply. A larger iPad (greater than 9.7 inches) for content creators (movie makers, artists, designers, etc.) would certainly make an interesting proposition.
iPod touch. The updated 5th generation iPod touch (and all of its amazing features) is sold for just $299, which could very well be more expensive than a 7.8-inch iPad. Apple is positioning the iPod touch as that powerful guard, awake all night, preventing any Trojan horse from causing havoc.
Product Quality. It says a lot that throughout this entire discussion, the idea of Apple selling a small iPad with superior quality and craftsmanship is simply assumed to occur.  Anything else would be a disappointment. High expectations can be both a blessing and curse.

iPhone Can Still Beat Android in Smartphone Market Share

On smartphone battlefields where iPhone hasn’t yet arrived, Android is winning the battle. 

It is premature to declare Android the eventual winner in the smartphone market share race, even with Google now activating 300,000 Android units/day. Steve Jobs noted on Apple’s recent quarterly earnings call that there is "no solid data" on Android phone shipments. For this argument, let me assume Google is actually selling 300,000 Android units/day (27 million/quarter). Apple sold 14.1 million iPhones in the most recent quarter and is on track to sell 15-16 million iPhones/quarter.  

How can iPhone outsell Android if these sales numbers are correct? Here are the reasons why I think iOS can still beat Android in terms of smartphone unit market share:

1) iPhone (4 and 3GS) is outselling Android (dozens of models) in markets where both iPhone and Android are competing face-to-face on the same carrier.

iPhone dominates European mobile ad market

Mobile OS usage; iOS #1 in North America, Europe, and Australia

When a customer has the choice between iPhone and Android, side by side, they are choosing iPhone. 

(I recognize that these links rely on data that carries a number of disclaimers and is often based on some sort of survey, to which I say, show me clearer evidence. With Google, mobile carriers, and phone manufactures not releasing actual Android unit sales figures, what other type of evidence can be obtained on a regional basis? The only surveys and evidence that even try to depict OS mobile market share continuously point to iOS leading Android in regions where both are sold on the same carriers)

2) Verizon. Android has received a ton of attention and mind share due to its strong hold on Verizon’s 90 million customers. While a few million Verizon subscribers have jumped ship over the past three years to buy iPhone on AT&T, the majority haven’t due to high carrier switching costs, including termination fees, sticky family plans, and differing coverage areas.

Why are Verizon customers buying Android phones?

A) Coming from a feature phone, any Android phone will appear amazing. The ability to use the internet or check email on a touchscreen is truly amazing for someone coming from a basic phone. 

B) Android phones are in front of Verizon customers.  Most Verizon subscribers pick a phone from the selection that they see in a Verizon store or kiosk. If the only thing a customer sees is Android, chances are good that they will buy an Android phone. 

C) Verizon customers have few options: stay with a feature phone, buy Android, or leave Verizon and buy iPhone on a network that doesn’t support phone calls due to their awful coverage and service.  Which option would you choose?

In addition, with Sprint and T-Mobile not selling the iPhone, Android has the perfect incubator to flourish - a market of about 180 million subscribers with no access to iPhone (AT&T has 90 million subscribers).  

3) Interesting Android developments in recent weeks have actually supported my thinking that iOS isn’t in as bad shape as some may say. For example, the Samsung Galaxy Tab has sold 1 million units in its first 28 days - nearly as fast as the iPad - pretty remarkable.

Although the Galaxy Tab is a tablet computer and not a smartphone, I think there is an interesting development to be seen from this data. The Galaxy Tab has done well thanks in part to its sales in South Korea, a country where android has 80% market share, a country where Samsung is a source of national pride. Reports indicate that approximately 50,000 - 70,000 Galaxy Tabs were sold in South Korea in the first 28 days (the Galaxy Tab went on sale in a total of 30 countries). What about iPad? In South Korea, the the iPad just went on sale three weeks ago and initial sales are already on par with Galaxy Tab and I imagine iPad sales will soon exceed the Galaxy Tab. The Galaxy Tab entered a market that was void of iPads, with people eagerly wanting to get their hands on iOS. 

Google VP of Engineering Andy Rubin recently said, “After the US, (Android) saw Asia go crazy” with sales in South Korea going “berserk” in the past four months. Once again, it’s funny how Android is doing so well in South Korea. How about iPhone? Well, South Korea recently decided to allow iPhone sales in South Korea.  So Android was doing great in South Korea, a country where iPhone was banned.  A true battle is one where both sides are present.

China is another interesting story. China Unicom, China’s second largest mobile carrier with approximately 175 million customers, is the exclusive provider of iPhone in China. Last year, the iPhone unveiling was a disaster in China due to restrictions imposed on the device by the Chinese Government. In 2010, iPhone 4 is a complete success with over 200,000 pre-orders being taken for the device and curbs having to be put in place to control the buying frenzy in Apple stores.  Overall though, Apple still has a small presence in China with only four retail stores and the largest mobile carrier, China Mobile and its 570 million customers, still not carrying the iPhone.  A true battle is one where both sides are present. 

My thesis will be validated, or disproven, by Verizon iPhone data in 2011 (and possibly by China Mobile carrying iPhone in 2011). If Verizon sells the same number of iPhones as AT&T (somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15 million in the first year), my thesis will most likely hold true and iOS will be the top selling smartphone platform in the U.S.