Analyzing Apple from the Sidelines

December 1st, 2016

You’ve heard all this before: There’s an article in a certain online publication that pretends to analyze Apple under Tim Cook and Jonathan Ive and reach conclusions about the company’s future. There’s a lot nuance as to what they believe Apple is doing or not doing, but, obviously, real facts are scarce. It’s not as if Apple gives very much information about its future plans.

True, when new products are released, there may be some carefully curated background information. So we know that it took two years to create the Touch Bar for the new MacBook Pro. On the other hand, that may be, in whole or part, very much about corporate spin, to tell a good story in order to make the product seem more attractive. Or just to create an air of magic around the design process. But since nothing can be verified, how are we to know what really happened? It’s not as if selected members of the media were allowed to document the process with video on the promise not to talk about it till the products were released.

And, of course, you do not expect Apple to do any such thing. A key attraction about the company’s creative process is that it’s mostly done in secret. You don’t know about what’s coming until a few months before it arrives, where supply chain leaks might provide some telltale hints. So, months before it was launched, you knew the iPhone 7 wouldn’t have a headphone jack and probably would look very close to the iPhone 6s, its predecessor. Weeks before the MacBook Pro arrived, there were reports that the function keys would be replaced with some sort of OLED-based touchscreen. The actual brand name, Touch Bar, wasn’t mentioned, or at least I didn’t see it.

The article in question raises concerns over the fact that Jonny Ive has had a small team around him for up to 20 years, largely unchanged. Very likely some of those team members will be ready to retire before long, or move elsewhere, and that might signify a potential creative crisis. I suppose that might be true, and the article presents concerns over the apparent lack of young hires to replace the experienced staffers. Again, that’s almost impossible to know, unless someone is promoted — or hired — as an executive and has their name posted somewhere, such as in a LinkedIn profile.

True, some new blood in a department is a good thing, especially one where personnel changes have been few over a number of years. The participants in that article try hard to seem knowledgeable, but it’s clear they are making things up along the way, or just speculating without real information.

One positive, I suppose, is that they rate Tim Cook better able to handle Apple as it grew into the stratosphere. Perhaps because Cook was more open to changes, such as giving stockholders dividends. But Jobs was anything if predictable, and he did change his views more frequently than not. So this is just the sort of unfounded speculation that may seem credible, but lacks facts with which to back it up.

Unless they have ouija boards in use and they imagine they are communicating with Jobs from the “other side.”

Now one more tidbit from the article may be worth a comment. It’s nothing new. It’s the usual fear-mongering that Apple cannot afford for any product or service to fail. It would be ruinous to the company. Products that haven’t soared allegedly include Apple Pay, which remains the top mobile payment platform, and the Apple Watch, which is early in is lifecycle.

The assumption here is that Apple should not be preparing for the long-term, giving a new service or product time to grow and find its potential. There has to be immediate gratification. But remember that the iPhone didn’t just enter the market with sales of tens of millions of units a year. It took several years to really grow. When the iPhone was launched in 2007, there wasn’t even an App Store, and the story goes that Jobs had to be convinced to allow it to happen rather than rely on web apps.

The iPad grew faster. But it was, in part, an extension of the iPhone ecosystem, an already established market. And after a few years, it appeared to have reached a saturation point. But sales aren’t dropping as much as they used to, and average sale prices are higher. So the iPad’s future potential is not at all certain, although you can see where the critics will count it out.

I suppose the same can be said for the Mac, where sales are off from their peaks, but Apple is still making lots of money from them. The Late 2016 MacBook Pro clearly represents a big investment in the future. Apple didn’t refresh the design and invent the Touch Bar with the expectation that traditional personal computers were about to disappear.

Now I enjoy speculation about Apple as much as anyone. But I also hope the speculation is informed, and that’s rarely true.

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