Why Apple Had to Choose

Fifteen years ago, in perhaps the most important article on business strategy ever written, Michael Porter wrote that “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” He drew a critical distinction: many decisions lead to unambiguous improvement, but real strategy – the key to lasting competitive advantage – requires trade-offs: choosing to focus on doing A well, even if that requires you to sacrifice B. Porter’s idea is neither complex nor new, but it’s still hard-learned.

Apple recently released a completely redesigned version of its advanced video-editing software, Final Cut Pro X. Amateur movie-makers such as the New York Times’ David Pogue praised its ease of use, but the reaction among professional video editors was scathing. Missing features and other changes were slammed. With regard to the negative feedback he got following his review, Pogue said he’d “never encountered anything quite like this.” The pro crowd was so incensed with what was termed Apple’s “failure,” “worst launch,” and “biggest mistake in years” that speculation quickly turned to what Apple could have been thinking. Some suspected that it intentionally stripped away critical features to “dumb down” its product and appeal to the much larger amateur editing market – a theory that only angered the pros further. Pogue himself emphatically argued that Apple didn’t intentionally turn its back on the professional market – instead, Apple just “blew it.”

Pogue is wrong. As Sachin Agarwal (founder of Posterous and a former Final Cut Pro product designer at Apple) put it, they knew the Final Cut Pro X redesign would be controversial. He described the rationale for their decision bluntly: “Apple doesn’t care about the pro space.” Nor does it compete on features – it “doesn’t play that game.” Instead, Apple took a professional-grade product down-market by making it simpler, cheaper, and more intuitive – and to do this, they changed and eliminated functionality.

What’s funny is that this has always been Apple’s strategy. While IBM made faster and more powerful PCs for the technical elite in the 1980s, the Macintosh had less RAM but introduced a mouse and graphical interface that any user could understand. More recently, many critics thought the iPad would be dead on arrival because of the features it lacked, but a few, such as John Gruber, understood that Apple was making a conscious trade-off - ignoring the feature-seekers and tinkerers in order to create the world’s most intuitive computer, cheap and capable enough for the mass market.

Did Apple have to choose? If it tried to design software or devices for both laymen and the elite technical segment, it would be forced to make a thousand subtle sacrifices to pull off the straddle – on features, UI, price, marketing, etc. In the end, it might still have made great products, but not as good as those it has now.

The risks of failing to choose are all too apparent when you consider some of the biggest disasters in the high-tech industry recently. There are eerie parallels between last week’s anonymous Research in Motion open letter to the CEOs (“instead of chasing feature parity … [t]here is a serious need to consolidate our focus…. Strategy is often in the things you decide not to do”) and Yahoo’s infamous 2006 leaked “peanut butter” memo (“We want to do everything and be everything – to everyone…. The result: a thin layer of investment spread across everything we do and thus we focus on nothing in particular…. We need to boldly and definitively declare what we are and what we are not”).

Contrast these with Steve Jobs’ philosophy on strategy, repeated endlessly over the years: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully … We’re always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”

RIM’s share value is down ~33% over the last month. Yahoo’s is down ~60% over the last five years. By contrast, since Jobs returned to Apple, its share value is up almost 10,000%.

Michael Porter might say that the Final Cut Pro X debacle is exactly why Apple is the most successful company in the world.

It’s the Brand, Stupid

There’s a lot of discussion going on about whether – and why – consumers will choose to buy tablets (mostly running Android) other than the iPad, and, to a lesser extent, smartphones (mostly running Android) other than the iPhone. As usual, pundits and analysts predict that Apple’s dominance must inevitably erode, while John Gruber (@daringfireball) and a few others argue that they’re wrong. Gruber calls the debate “perhaps, the most polarizing topic of punditry in tech today.”

The pundits’ argument is based on sensible Econ and Strategy 101: Apple is making a killing now, but that’s because it was first out of the gate with these products, and without some kind of protective moat, all good things must pass, right? Apple doesn’t seem to have an insurmountable barrier or killer app (like iTunes with the iPod). Therefore, the fast followers will catch up on Apple’s hardware capabilities and apps, and price-compete their way to share. The only question is how long it will take.

One big counterargument, of course, is that Apple has core competencies that not only got it out of the gates first, but enable it to run faster too – particularly in innovation and design. By the time Samsung caught up to the iPad, the iPad 2 was already around the next corner.

In the tablet market, Gruber, John Paczkowski and others make a second argument too – that catching up to Apple isn’t good enough. To really win, a competitor like Samsung, RIM, or Dell has to provide a good answer to the question “why should somebody buy this instead of an iPad?” But this only hints at the much bigger moat Apple’s built around itself: its brand.

Many techies see a brand as an elaborate marketing ploy companies use to appeal to the emotional part of consumers’ minds, and a lagging indicator of success. In other words, you can fool consumers for a while, but your brand will stay strong only if the products are; either way, a brand doesn’t itself create lasting success.

This misapprehends what a brand really is: a promise in the mind of consumers. Unlike, say, five years ago, today most of the extremely high value of Apple’s brand doesn’t come from its ads, its fanboys, or even its retail stores. It comes from average consumers’ experiences.

Imagine a non-techie thinking about buying a new smartphone or a portable computer. Even if she’s never been in an Apple store, there’s a decent chance she got an iPod Nano as a present at one point. More importantly, she almost certainly knows many people who have bought an iMac, iPod, iPhone, MacBook, or iPad over the past decade, in various versions and combinations.

What impression of Apple has this given her? Almost certainly, it’s been overwhelmingly positive, because Apple hasn’t launched a crummy new product in a long time – and that includes both new-category (iPad 1) and next-gen (iPhone 3GS) devices. And here’s the key – when it comes to sales, it’s OK to have a bunch of misses, so long as you have a few big hits. But with a brand, misses hurt. People hate wasting money, and they know they’re taking a risk when they buy a major new piece of technology, same as when they go to a pricey new restaurant. If people talk about how a product kind of sucks, that won’t just hurt sales of that product – it hurts sales of the next one too. The opposite is also true.

Four or five years ago, even if you heard great things about Apple products, it was still acceptable to brush them off – sure, the iPod was cool, but I’m not sure about this new phone. But now, in consumers’ minds, Apple has been batting pretty close to a thousand for a decade. And that’s its best asset – the fact that you can’t sneeze without hitting five people who’ll tell you they love their iPad, will never switch from their iPhone, or that their Macbook “just works” – and zero who say otherwise. In other words, it’s the brand. We’ve been surrounded by great Apple experiences for so long now, we’ve been trained what to expect – if Apple announced it was coming out with a washer/dryer, we’d laugh, but we’d also immediately form some positive expectations about how it would look and function.

That’s why it’s getting harder to defend buying anything but an Apple product: simply because you can be confident you’ll like it. Tech mavens might always be willing to adopt the “best” product, but most consumers are more wary. If Samsung, RIM, Dell, or anyone else today announced a tablet that had 13 good reasons why everyone should buy it instead of an iPad, tomorrow most people would still buy iPads, because the one reason that really matters to the average Joe is risk. Technology is complicated and often disappointing, but Apple’s brand credibly promises people that they’ll love the next thing they buy that has a little bitten apple on it. Other tech brands can’t do that without sounding like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. And one great product won’t close the credibility gap – they’ll need a decade of great products, with almost no misses. The kind of trust Apple’s built up creates incredible momentum. That’s why the “tablet market” is Apple’s to lose.