Today is the first day of the Worldwide Developer’s Conference (WWDC), Apple’s annual effort to both inform and excite its ecosystem of third-party providers. As with any conference, it’s also a chance to get together with friends, old and new, particularly at parties thrown by companies that want to improve their visibility to the developer attendees.
I remember in 1988 going to my first WWDC in San Jose: our company was so poor that the two cofounders (Neil and I) had to split a single pass to be able to have any presence at all. My last WWDC was in 2003, as my company neared its end, and I went to meet with a former employee who was in town for the conference. The conference is capped at 5,000 developers, but rather than use price to discourage demand (as do most media companies), since 2014 Apple has used a lottery system to allocate seats to registered developers.
Since the early years of the Jobs II era (1997-2011), WWDC has been used to make important product and technology announcements for the broader public. As such, it also gives the business press to take another junket to San Francisco and write their annual (or quarterly) pontifications on the state of Apple, its products, market position, competitive advantage, business model, stock price or anything else.
One article caught my attention on Twitter this morning:
Apple's True Strengths Don't Lie in InnovationAs someone who’s studied the theory of standards wars for two decades — and Apple’s practice of standards wars for three decades, and wrote the most-cited paper on Apple’s iPhone strategy — this seemed somewhere between foolish and idiotic.
By Christopher Mims
Wall Street Journal, 13 June 2016, p. B.1.
…Apple's normally festive Worldwide Developers Conference begins Monday under something of a pall. The company's first quarterly sales decline in 13 years has many people asking whether it will grow again. They also want to know how Apple, with its healthy supply of cash, could make that happen.
The conventional answer is "create a totally new product line," or its cousin, "unveil something no one has done before." That is, Apple should try to out-innovate its competitors.
That is a terrible idea. It runs counter to Apple's strengths, as well as its growth trajectory.
Here is why: Apple's core strengths are the scale of its ecosystem -- the company says it has more than one billion active devices world-wide -- and the spending power of their owners.
But if you dig a little deeper, what the columnist (who seems prone to exaggerating for effect) really is doing is playing a semantic game. The language of "innovation is bad, no innovation is good” would be more accurately summarized as “risky radical innovation is bad, continuous incremental innovation is good.”
The author states
Apple is expert at offering a more polished, more accessible version of products and services that rivals have offered for years. And yet, it reaps over 90% of the smartphone industry's profit, and in 2015 its App Store delivered 75% more revenue to developers than Alphabet Inc.'s Google Play store.If you look up “innovation” in the Oxford English Dictionary, the very first definition is:
1a. The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.In other words, by offering a superior (and unique) version of a now standard product category, Apple is following the dictionary definition of “the introduction of new elements of forms.”
Meanwhile, any MBA who’s had a decent competitive strategy class can tell you that if you have a better product — and consistently superior profits — then you have successfully created some form of sustained competitive advantage that has survived efforts by your rivals to compete away that advantage and those superior margins.
Perhaps this confusion is because the author has an undergraduate neuroscience major but no business degree.
But once we get away from the terminology problems, I did find one paragraph that seemed both factual and prescient:
In any case, I think it will be many years before mobile is toppled as the dominant platform. The PC ruled for nearly 30 years, and we are less than a decade into the age of the iPhone.I don’t agree with the conclusion that Apple (or Google or Facebook) shouldn’t pursue related diversification. However, I do agree that it must feed and harvest its mobile “cash cow” (as BCG defined it 45 years ago) while continuing to search for new growth opportunities.
As an Apple shareholder, I’m disappointed at the loss in price and market cap over the past year as it lost its growth multiple. But I still think there’s enough of the company’s DNA (even after the loss of its visionary founder) to propel it to new growth as it finds a way to meet needs unmet by its many competitors and imitators.