Apple CEO, Tim Cook walks on stage, amidst a crowd of cheering tech superfans. The stage has lighting that some professional bands only dream of, and the crowd has an electric buzz reserved for only the juiciest of StuPol general meetings. He holds up his hands to tame the applause and the crowd quiets, ready to hang off his every word.
But each year the hype gets a little more tame, the lines outside the Apple store get a little more reasonable, and the diehard Apple evangelists get a little less preachy. Each year, I find it a little harder to justify upgrading to the latest iPhone.
So what’s Apple preparing to blow us away with this year? More colours apparently, two of which are black. An additional rear camera, more battery life, water resistance. No more headphone ports, so say goodbye to playing your music on anything made before the dawn of Bluetooth. A small model, and the iPhone 7 Plus for those with deeper pockets.
But wait, there’s more! A new Apple Watch with different coloured bands, and some new clock faces. And last but not least, some wireless earbuds to complement the jackless iPhone.
Lackluster implies that it had some to begin with. This year’s offering was devoid of luster, a barren wasteland with not a speck of luster in sight. It was the tech equivalent of an aircraft stalling as it hits maximum altitude, entering a nose spin, and plummeting back to earth.
Some people are calling this the death rattle of a company that’s lost its identity and direction, whilst the diehard fans are yelling muffled cries of joy with their heads buried deep in the sand. The price of APPL shares dropped 3% the day after the announcement, and the company lost an estimated $15.4 billion market value in a single day.
At the risk of sounding like the Turnbull Government PR department, I’m willing to put this down to the boom and bust cycle of Disruptive Innovation. Disruptive Innovation is the business hypothesis that has underpinned the advances of every industry since the dawn of industrialisation.
The basic premise of Disruptive Innovation is this: The status quo is established with competitors making products that are basically the same, specializing further and further into different niches in a desperate bid to differentiate themselves. Tiny iterative changes are made and features created which do very little to improve how people use the product overall.
Then one day a competitor comes out of left field with a product that’s fundamentally different, does only one thing better, but at a fraction of the cost. This new concept then rapidly improves in ways that the older products could only dream of, and before long, the majority of customers have switched sides. This new concept then spawns competitors, progress slows down, niches are created to differentiate products, and the cycle continues. Hakuna matata.
A great current example of this is cars. I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Ford, a Toyota or a Holden. They all turn on when you twist the key, they’re all fast enough to break any speed limit, and there’s no huge difference in road safety between them. And there’s niches too, that fulfill oddly specific needs: if you need to go off-road, buy a Jeep; if you can’t live without heated seats, buy a Mercedes; if you desperately need to overcompensate for your penis size, buy a Hummer.
And then came the Prius in 1997. It was horrifically ugly. A tin can rolling down a hill had better acceleration. It handled like a brick. But it had a hybrid electric engine, it was fairly economical, and people loved it. Fast-forward two decades and electric engines are quickly becoming the accepted norm because of the rapid advances they allow. A Tesla Model S does away with expensive mechanics and mounts the engine between the two wheels because it’s so much smaller. Batteries are packed into the floor of the car so it can have a front and rear boot. And it can beat a drag car in race whilst staying as quiet as a Friday 9am lecture.
So how does this relate to the iPhone 7? I think we’re seeing the end of an era, as smartphones move from disruptors to the status quo. When iPhones first came out, there were two colours and one model to keep prices down; now there’s a spectrum of colours and a model for every budget. Competitors have wrestled the smartphone market from Apple and are gaining every day. Smartphones haven’t done anything new or special in years, and the most innovative app in last 3 years is Tinder. Think about that.
The question now is what’s coming round the corner to disrupt the iPhone? Apple evangelists are imagining a top-secret lab in Palo Alto, working day and night to crack the problem. Others think that predator might become prey as Apple is undercut by a young upstart. All I know is that for the foreseeable future, Apple will continue to release more models in more shades of black, continuing the grind into specialisation until the future comes knocking.