Apple: Be First or Fail?

March 18th, 2016

One sure way to criticize Apple, even if it’s of questionable validity, is to complain when they aren’t first to market with a new product category. The theory goes that the originator of a market must be destined to succeed and dominate, but those who come later have no chance. They might as well give up. Maybe that means that only Mercedes-Benz should be selling cars, since they introduced the first gasoline-powered auto in the late 1890s. Forget that Ford delivered what is regarded as the first car that was affordable by the masses in 1908 with the Model T.

So does Ford deserve the honor to dominate the market since they made cars affordable?

Remember that Apple didn’t make the first personal computer with a graphical user interface, nor did Microsoft develop the first text-based PC operating system. What about the Xerox Alto and the Xerox Star developed in 1973? Nowadays, I think of Xerox as a manufacturer of printers and printing presses, although the first Xerox product I ever owned (or leased) was a copier back in the 1970s. They first announced a plain-paper copying machine in 1959, and to this very day, people still refer to making copies as Xeroxing.

So the Mac wasn’t the first computer with a GUI by any means, and a relative latecomer, Microsoft, ultimately dominated the operating system world with Windows after dominating the command line world with MS-DOS. So that defeats this oft-repeated contention that only first movers can succeed.

Indeed, I could go on with lots of example, but I’ll cite just a few. Even where the originator might have overwhelmed a market at first, keeping that status is not guaranteed. Market forces, failure to innovate, poor promotion and other reasons may conspire to lead another manufacturer to take over a market.

So look at the first iPod, which was launched in 2001. You could put 1,000 songs in your pocket for a “mere” $399, and some felt this was just a silly indulgence on the part of Apple. The real magic occurred not with regular iPod updates that offered more capacity and lower prices, but when Apple decided to release a Windows version of iTunes. Legend has it that Steve Jobs first opposed that move, but was finally shown the logic. Indeed, there were soon more iPod owners using Windows than Macs, and the same is true for the iPhone and the iPad.

But the iPod could not have succeeded if it didn’t improve on the user experience. Existing digital music players were clumsy to use, with arcane interfaces, and were dead slow about downloading tracks to the device. Some used their own licensed versions of music player apps too, so the iTunes advantage wasn’t part of the process.

With the iPhone, the situation was somewhat similar. Existing smartphones, such as the BlackBerry, were great tech toys for power users and businesspeople. The physical keyboard and the user interface were both awkward, but you could get used to it. Well, maybe you could. I never felt comfortable with that gadget.

Regardless, Apple rethought the smartphone, and went all touchscreen except for a lone Home button. They basically made it a miniature personal computer. There was plenty of skepticism. What business did Apple have trying to enter a market where there were already well-entrenched players? Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer was among the key detractors, but how often has he ever been correct about much of anything anyway? Microsoft’s mobile market share is barely a blip these days.

So, despite being late to the party, the iPhone became one of the most popular tech gadgets in the world. Yes, Samsung sells more units, but most are in the lower-priced tiers. Apple pretty much owns the profits for mobile handsets despite being the latecomer to the market.

One of the most blatant examples is the iPad. Microsoft had been touting the arrival of tablets for years. But the first Windows tablets were very much like the convertible PC notebooks now, only heavier. They’d work as normal notebooks, but featured touchscreens, sometimes movable, sometimes detachable. They went nowhere except in so-called vertical markets. The current crop is more popular, they are much lighter and thinner, and the OS is better able to manage the two functions. But they aren’t overwhelming the market.

Apple’s iPad solution was essentially a large iPod touch. The iPad used iOS, but lacked a cell phone. There are some models that do handle cellular data, however. After some pretty rapid growth, sales flattened and have fallen in recent quarters. Not that the rest of the industry, other than the really cheap models, has done much better. Still Apple was years “late” to embracing tablets, and they are still doing extremely well.

With the Apple Watch, it’s the same old story. You had the Pebble and Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatches first, among others. But the Apple Watch sucked the air out of the room. While Apple doesn’t admit to actual sales, the estimates put the Apple Watch into the number one spot.

So what other market will Apple enter, late as usual, and conquer? While there aren’t any predictions about any major new product initiative for the March 21st media event, it’s foolish to believe they aren’t working on lots of great stuff.

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4 Responses to “Apple: Be First or Fail?”

  1. Peter says:

    One word: Marketing.

    It isn’t about being first to market, it’s about being first to the public consciousness.

    The iPod is a great example. There were plenty of digital music players before the iPod–heck, Apple used to sell them in the Apple Store! Of course, this stopped when Apple came out with their own, which is a rant for a different day…

    Why did the iPod wildly succeed? Apple fans will talk about how the interface was better, how you could store more songs, etc. But the reality is that the iPod was the first digital music player to actually be marketed to everyone. We’re not talking about a half-page ad in a computer magazine, we’re talking about catchy 30 second TV spots aired nationwide.

    Apple’s music efforts definitely show this off. Consider “Rip, Mix, Burn.” Now, burning CDs on a computer was hardly a new thing. PCs had been doing that for years. But nobody was really marketing the idea, for fear of torquing off the music industry. Remember, the “legality” of ripping music and making a mix CD was considered questionable at the time. PC companies didn’t want to market this capability for fear they’d be dragged into a giant lawsuit.

    Apple was the first to jump in and publicly say, “You can do this! You can make mix-CDs on your Mac! It’s okay!” Yes, they took heat for it, but common sense ultimately won out.

    While the fans will talk about how Apple takes someone else’s idea and improves it (and I won’t necessarily argue that), the big difference is that Apple will put it’s marketing muscle behind an idea. While the technorati may praise the pioneers of a market–and deservedly so–what dooms many of these small companies is that they can’t reach the public consciousness the way that Apple can.

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