I often argue that what drives a company is a product strategy that is far seeing. In other words, a 10 to 20 years product roadmap that represents what a company wants to be, how it wants to be perceived in the market and what market position it wants to enjoy through execution of the product strategy. Most likely, however, in 10 or 20 years the company would be a different beast than what we can imagine today. I do not suggest that today we set in stone what products would be developed in 10 years, but I am indeed suggesting that a well documented plan needs to be in place. A well-documented plan drives overall company strategy and it allows, with a good process, change to meet the market in a very non-disruptive manner to the company.
For start-ups, on the other hand, they need to remain nimble, so a product plan should probably be 6 to 9 months worth; and as the company develops, the plan should expand. And eventually, if the company resolves the question of survivability, the product road map extends to encompass a wider more strategic scope.
So, here comes Apple with the iPhone. I think it is a great product. And on June 29th I got one. I was probably one of the first ones to get it in Los Angeles. But as great a product it is, it has problems. But those problems don’t really matter, what matters is that Apple took a pretty sizable risk. And if you think I am talking about going into the cellular telephony market, then you are mistaken.
There is a user-machine-interface paradigm change happening before our very eyes. New computing devices are appearing in the market that will forever change how users interact with computers and workstations. Microsoft Surface, a tabletop computing device is a good example. But it will not be available to consumers at home for a while. Multi-touch interfaces (go to this URL for a cool video of an application: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/65) is another good example of this paradigm change. Again, this technology will not make it to consumers for a while … but … wait a minute, the iPhone.
The iPhone is the first such device that has gotten massive consumer distribution; massive not because a lot of consumers bought it, but massive because it was targeted with a mass-market message.
For Apple, the iPhone was a well-calculated risk and there is nothing to loose from it. First of all, it was subsidized with an exclusive with AT&T. So, the R&D cost and probably a good chunk of the production cost is covered. Second, it is a great market research tool: deliver to consumers a product that they are used to, the iPod, but with a new interface and see how the market reacts. If the reaction is good, then the same interface can be deployed in more mainstream products, laptops or desktops, and we can say that the reaction has been very good for the most part. Third, it is clear that mobility in computing is core to their product road map. A mobile computing device, however incomplete, is also a step in the right direction and helps Apple morph its market position. It totally leapfrogged Microsoft.
With the iPhone, Apple is ushering and hastening the adoption on the new paradigm. There is no stopping the change, but whoever gets it right first, or at least almost right, will be in a great market position. And Apple is getting many things right to boot. But right does not mean success and the iPhone not making it huge is probably not too much of a concern for Apple.
A question that follows is whether Apple is the right company to bring this change. The answer, at least to me, is a resounding “YES”. Why?
If you look at Apple’s history of innovation you will get the answer to why I think it is indeed the right company. Apple brought most of the form and function changes that we enjoy today to market. Starting with the mouse, following with the Lisa, the Newton, workstation designs, Mac OSX (yes, I know, it is NeXTOS, I used to own one), the iPod and finally the iPhone; and in between all these, a bunch of incremental or leaping innovations and changes. Even within a product line, the iPod, the click wheel was significant change.
Does Apple care if the iPhone fails? Of course it does, what company would not? But probably what Apple cares the most is what the next 10 to 20 years will bring. The iPhone is a foray into those cares. A foray into deciding what kind of a company Apple wants to be in 10 to 20 years; into what products it will be offering and how it wants users to interact with its products. It is probably safe to say that the “hardware” keyboard is soon to be in our past. The thinner keyboards Apple is offering right now are just a calculated step into a software keyboard.
But what comes next?
I try to imagine how I would “write” in my Blog if there was no keyboard. To be honest, the only answer to that is dictation, and that has existed for a long time. So, I am sorry to disappoint you with, at least for the moment, with my lack of imagination. The change is coming, that is for sure.
The latest updates on Apple’s product line support some of my assumption in this post. They are using touch screen as a way to shift user-machine-interfaces paradigm.