Apple after Jobs

Like many admirers of Apple, I hope that Steve Jobs can find strength and courage and some luck in his fight against cancer. I wish him well.

The incredible rise of Apple in the last 15 years of course has led to speculation about founder’s syndrome. The IT industry is littered with companies that have decayed after their founder’s departure. Friends of Apple argue that the company is in good hands and has talent at all levels. Others fret that without Steve Jobs’ guiding hand, the company will go south.

One feature of systematic futures work is that the field of vision should be broad enough to encompass what does turn out to happen. If events push the future outside the scope of a futures project, we are in the world of Taleb’s ‘Black Swans’. In my past, Apple is one such case. I’d like to share that with you, as many of the reviews of Apple after Jobs have missed out on an important part of the story, which I believe will determine the likely trajectory of Apple in the years ahead.

Back in the mid-90s, Apple was OK but looked strategically boxed-in and potentially a long-term ‘basket case’. I was asked to do a 10-year vision presentation among others on the future of the IT suppliers. Looking back on the set of presentations I saw and contributed to, Apple’s success since then has been outside the wildest projections of the futurists present. What was it that we missed?

We all spotted the devotion of the Apple faithful, but the consensus was that Apple’s future depended on who bought it and for what purpose! How wrong could we be?

Each generation of networked technology creates the potential for business model innovation and disruptive change to supply chains.

The iPod has been a great success, not just because of the slick design, but because Apple has from the start sought with great discipline, some would say ruthlessness, to change the whole of the music business. iTunes and the iPod together created an experience which showed that users would pay for music, when the doomsters were arguing that piracy would win.

From the perspective of the 1990s, Apple looked to have too small a market share to have that disruptive capability. In retrospect, that was true of its traditional markets.

Adding the iPhone and the iPad, the growth of the Apps platforms has been an amazing journey.

As a 10 year user of tablet technology, I am now wedded to my iPad2.

Many of the commentators in the media have focussed on Apple’s products and what comes next.

Looking back on the companies that have failed after their founder’s departure, it has often been business model innovation that has led to their downfall as much as product changes.

I remember friends at Digital complaining about having to compete with their traditional channel and the confusion it created.

Back in the 1990s, no-one doubted the capacity of Apple to come up with innovative, inspiring products. It just didn’t seem enough.

So, my suggestion is that Apple’s future triumph or failure will be determined less by a stream of innovative, high-design spec products than by its ability to ride the next wave of supply chain disruption.

In the past week, we have seen the FT move away from the app store for its digital edition to a native web app. Is this a one-off or a sign of things to come?

Jonathan Ive and the design team won’t suddenly be less competent because Steve Jobs is not around as much.

For me, it isn’t clear where that supply-chain leadership and vision comes from within Apple. The user experience of iTunes and the Mac app store are central to the user experience of the slickly designed user products.

A final anecdote from me, to finish. An Apple devotee recently wanted to show me this new clever app on his iPhone. He has several hundred apps on the iPad and iPhone that he cannot be separated from.

It took him over a minute to find it, showing all the confusion of 20 or 30 years ago about finding some feature deep in the menu structures.

How do you keep the user experience sleek and productive when you have 500 or more apps on an iPad?

There’s probably an app for that. Good luck Steve!

Comments (4)

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  • 1
    Bill French wrote on 13th Sep 2011


    Your comments are great. On my first read of this article, I was almost scanning it quickly in hopes of finding a detailed vision of the future of Apple. I am disappointed. ;-)

    In any case, it inspired these follow on comments.

    "... no-one doubted the capacity of Apple to come up with innovative, inspiring products. It just didn’t seem enough."

    And it wasn't enough. This seemingly magical ability to overcome the odds through design is actually the [only] cause for their success. In my view (inspired significantly by John Gruber), the secret sauce is the pairing of amazing design with precision operational excellence.

    It's easy to copy design; the latest judgement from Germany and the noticeable increase in aggressive legal activity from Apple is an indication that their designs are being copied, and this will likely continue for many years as competitors grope for the combination of features that they believe will create at least some degree of competitive parity.

    But what is far more difficult to copy is operational excellence - a framework for supply chain precision and business execution that has taken Apple a decade to put in place and master. This is the domain of Tim Cook. This is the sustainable advantage that Apple will use to be hyper-competitive for at least another decade, but more likely for a few decades.

    Steve tee's it up... Tim drives it 450 yards.

    So Steve is ostensibly out of the Steve + Tim equation, but it's clear that there are many good designers on the planet, many who work at Apple. Ivy and about a dozen or so incredibly talented people represent the Apple design trust. It remains to be seen if they can sustain the perfect pitch that Steve dialed into over the past ten years or so. I think they will continue to surprise us in the future.

    "Many of the commentators in the media have focused on Apple’s products and what comes next."

    Indeed, they are making the same mistake that Apple's competitors are making. Focusing on the products, which is easy to do, creates an incomplete version of reality from the competitive perspective. Like iPod and iPhone, few have realized that these are not products to begin with - they're something else. iPad is to the post-PC experience what iPod was to the post-media-player experience. Like iPod, iPad didn’t carve out sales from an existing market; it *is* the market.

    "It took him over a minute to find it, showing all the confusion of 20 or 30 years ago about finding some feature deep in the menu structures."

    This is a reflection of the huge success of the app market model as much as it is an indictment of a design flaw that emerged as a result of the atomization of monolithic [desktop] applications into discrete task-based processes.

    As you correctly intimate, through its consumer campaigns, Apple has cemented the idea that there’s an “app for that” and by “that”, Apple means just about anything you can imagine.

    This positioning is taking hold in business, government, religion and everyday lives of individuals across the globe as the popularity of iPhone, iPodTouch, and now iPad, has grown rapidly and pervasively since iPhone’s debut in mid-2007. iOS is clearly taking this idea to the extreme and its success has surprised even the most forward-thinking Apple engineers and executives.

    Conceptually and literally, this app-centric positioning has also spilled over to non-Apple environments such as Android-based phones and devices. Apps have become a meaningful abbreviation for technology that just works. Apps provide a common and easily understood idea that has been widely accepted as a solution – indeed a means to get stuff done quickly and effectively. Humans across the globe see apps as the pathway to achieving objectives, whether simple tasks or complex processes, and they’ve begun to vote on this model [literally] with gestures of resounding approval.

    Your friend's attempt to find an app in the iOS interface is evidence that the app-market model is a runaway success. We must accept that the app market model is triggering a second wave of IT consumerization that is just beginning to impact businesses globally.

    But even more telling about Apple's future is that the app market model is yet another example of operational and execution precision. This is the secret sauce that will provide a sustainable framework for Apple's designers to continue to thrive.

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  • 2
    Bill French wrote on 13th Sep 2011

    Ooops - typo in my comment - this sentence should actually read:

    "This seemingly magical ability to overcome the odds through design isn't actually the [only] cause for their success."

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  • 3
    Rhidian Thomas wrote on 19th Sep 2011

    Saldy, I think that what this article (and susequent comment) prove is that Apple's strength is in it's marketing; and that its products are the best example of style over substance.

    It will be interesting to see how they progress in the absence of Steve Jobs (to whom I wish the best of luck in the future), but Apple seem to be creating an ever-more-suffocating ecosystem that seems to be turning even long-time Apple devotees away. There may be an app for that, but can you do something as simple as print from it?

    I think the following years will be interesting, but I would advise people to refer back to the history during whih Steve Jobs left and came back; when he left, Apple lost its way and then rapidly regained ground on his return.

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  • 4
    Rhidian Thomas wrote on 19th Sep 2011

    As seems to be the way of these comments, I meant "Sadly", not "Saldy", and "which" not "whih"...

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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