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.

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Walmart Discounting Apple Products: Gloom or Boom?

This past Friday, Walmart announced on its Facebook page that it was rolling back its iPhone and iPad pricing for a limited time. Within minutes, the announcement flew around tech blog circles, quickly reaching mainstream publications such as ABC and CNN.  

The discussion soon took a new direction as bloggers began to wonder if Walmart’s discounted pricing actually meant Apple was imploding; unable to sell supply due to lackluster demand.  One blogger summed up that attitude well, writing: 

"Apple has finally thrown in the towel on pretending there is a supply shortage and admitted there is simply not enough demand at the given price point, by proceeding to sell the margin flagship iPhone 5 at a third off the original price, at the bargain basement commodity expert Wal-Mart of all places….And just like that, the “niche premium” magic of the once uber-cool gizmo is gone, not to mention AAPL’s profit margins, very much as the stock price has been sensing over the past two months…”

The blog known as Reuters added additional fuel and mystery to the Apple bear argument, in their usual naive style:

"Apple has focused on high-priced, premium gadgets for many years and has strictly enforced its prices with retailers and other distributors. However, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman said on Friday that the discounts were arranged with Apple.

'We worked together with them on this,' the spokeswoman, Sarah Spencer, said. 'They are a great partner.'

Why is Walmart Discounting Apple Products? 

Third-party retailer discounts are nothing new.  Best Buy and RadioShack routinely sell entry-level iPhone 5 units for less than $199 (Best Buy is currently selling the 16 GB iPhone 5 for $149.99).  Apple’s wholesale pricing and margins remain intact as these third-party retailers eat the discount (ignoring differences between wholesale and retail prices). Similar campaigns are seen with iTunes gift card promotions, where retailers offer free iTunes gift cards when purchasing Apple products. Best Buy is also well known for promotions similar to “Buy $100 of iTunes gift cards for $75”  - where Best Buy (not Apple) is responsible for the discount.

Diving into Walmart’s latest iPhone and iPad price discount campaign sheds additional light.

1) The promotion is only valid in-store. For brick and mortar retailers, store traffic and same-store sales metrics are important. One of Walmart’s ultimate goals in discounting iPhones and iPads is having customers travel to a Walmart and make their way through the store before finally reaching the iPhones and iPads (conveniently not located near the store entrance). Walmart feels confident that it will be able to sell additional items to these customers, similar to placing milk and eggs at the back of a supermarket so that a customer has to walk through the entire store just to buy a few essentials. In addition, many consumers will narrow their holiday shopping destinations to a few stores over the next week and Walmart wouldn’t mind making that exclusive list - using discounted iPhones and iPads as the carrot for getting people into the stores.

2) The promotion is only good while supplies last.  Many consumers have flocked to Walmart’s Facebook wall to point out that quite a few Walmart locations don’t have iPhones or iPads in stock. Walmart receives good press coverage from discounting popular items, while not losing much money as product supply limits sales; sneaky, but efficient.

3) Brand awareness. By advertising discounted iPhones and iPads, Walmart is using the promotion as a marketing campaign to strengthen consumer’s association between Walmart and Apple. Many consumers don’t think of Walmart as the first place to visit for iPhones and iPads. I can only imagine how many people now have Walmart at the top of their destination list in search of that perfect Apple gift for the holidays. 

What about that little gem from Reuters indicating Apple was working with Walmart on this discount?  On the surface, it sounds somewhat damning for Apple, but in reality, it doesn’t mean much; only that Apple is okay with Walmart eating iPhone and iPad price discounts. Sounds like an iPhone and iPad boom to me. 

A New AAPL Era

Apple reported its most recent quarterly earnings this evening.  Impressive would be an understatement.  

Here are some talking points:

1) Emerging Market Growth.  Skewed perspective is making it hard to understand how fast Apple is growing. Many tech analysts are situated in developed countries and economies where the Apple brand is well established, and accordingly have a harder time conceptualizing how Apple can maintain dramatic growth rates.  The combination of rising standards of living and the increasing availability of lower-priced Apple products is a new trend for emerging markets, and it is reasonable to expect this scenario to drive Apple’s growth in the future. 

2) Product Line Diversification. Similar to the iPod, we are seeing the emergence of the iPhone product line: a series of iPhones with a sliding scale of features and capabilities. By the end of 2011, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and iPhone (4S or 5) will most likely round out Apple’s iPhone line. Importantly, each iPhone utilizes iOS apps and has access to the iTunes store.  I see the same trend happening with the iPad in due time; multiple versions sold simultaneous at different price points.  Apple will rely on this product line diversification to cater to different market segments using price as a key differentiator. Emerging markets will have iPhone 3GS, mainstream will be content with iPhone 4, and early adopters will go crazy over iPhone (4s or 5).  In addition, Apple’s overall margin benefits from the continued sale of “older” products as component pricing generally declines over time.  

3) Big Losers and Winners.  Apple management was very clear on the earnings conference call: iPads are eating away at Windows PC sales and iPhone continues to grow like a wild weed.  Companies focused on selling consumer hardware (Dell, HP, RIMM, Motorola, and Samsung) are in a very difficult position as each is starting to understand that having good software is just as important as selling sexy hardware. Big winners (besides Apple) include companies who luckily aren’t competing in the consumer market, and are instead focusing on selling enterprise services or infrastructure needed to foster commerce and further innovation (IBM and Oracle come to mind).  It is no coincidence that Dell, HP, RIMM, Motorola, and Samsung have indicated (or will indicate) an interest in entering the enterprise services market. 

Random Bytes:

-) Look for Android activation numbers to become less relevant as time goes on. I have this growing feeling that Google is nervous that Android is becoming nothing more than a large void, taking up mobile space, and is relying on activation numbers to impress app developers to dedicate resources to the platform. It’s not working. iOS reached critical mass a few quarters ago and Android will not stop iOS momentum. 

-) While I will keep AAPL stock thoughts to myself (at this time), it is important to remember that the large institutional holders control Apple stock and many of these entities are not interested in quick 5-10% stock moves, but instead the attractiveness of AAPL 5-10 years out.  Potential AAPL dividend payout ratios, cash flows, and cash holdings will begin to matter just as much as iOS market share, iOS user statistics, or other random Apple product data points.  The big boys will continue to support AAPL as long as they feel confident they will receive an annual return that beats other asset classes (fixed income, real estate, etc.) over an extended period of time.