Apple’s Achilles Heel Is Neither the Mac Nor the iPhone

2 minute read
| The Back Page

A couple of interesting pieces got me thinking about Apple. The first was by Neil Cybart, who wrote, “The Mac Is Turning into Apple’s Achilles’ Heel.” The second was John Gruber reacting to that, saying ” The Mac is not Apple’s Achilles heel. The iPhone is.” They’re both well written and insightful pieces, but they’re also both wrong.

Apple's Achilles Heel

Apple’s Achilles Heel

To be fair, between the two of them, Mr. Gruber has it right. Mr. Cybart’s position is that the Mac is becoming a $25 billion legacy business weighing down Apple’s future plans. Like I said, it’s a compelling read, but the piece misses the forest for the trees.

John Gruber got closer to the real issue, arguing that iPhone gets all the resources and regular iterative updates. In a narrow view, that makes iPhone the roadblock to Mac development. More specifically, he noted:

I’m not arguing that it’s a mistake for Apple to devote more attention to the iPhone than any other product. Smartphones are the greatest opportunity in the history of mass market consumer goods, and also the greatest opportunity in the history of personal computing. The iPhone epitomizes everything Apple stands for. But it’s a mistake to focus so much attention on the iPhone that other important products suffer.

Apple’s Achilles Heel

And that gets us closer to Apple’s real Achilles heel: Apple’s failure to scale. OK, that was my friend and Pop.0 cohost John Kheit’s take, but I can drill down even more to get to the real issue at the center of even that salient point.

Apple’s Achilles heel is the leadership team’s slavish devotion to maintaining a tiny executive inner circle. This is part and parcel of the late Steve Jobs’s belief that small teams operating like a startup can do more than huge teams drowning in bureaucracy and middle management.

That belief has been borne out by Apple’s phenomenal success, but we’re seeing its limits. Apple is so big and has such grand ambitions, the company has failed to expand its inner circle enough for its legacy businesses to get the attention they need.

John Kheit recently added to his original hypothesis, saying that Apple CEO Tim Cook doesn’t have the same ability as Steve Jobs to anoint rank and file employees to run with projects. That also seems likely, but I keep coming back to the executive team. It’s tiny for a company Apple’s size. The last few years demonstrates that more people need to be empowered to make decisions, especially on existing product lines like the Mac.

Apple Could Be Terrifyingly Good

A couple of notes. The first is that we discussed this in Tuesday’s staff meeting, where Adam Christianson (MacCast) noted that one area within Apple has expanded: Music. He’s right. We’ve seen a lot more faces clearly empowered to make decisions within Apple Music. The result has been a near-flawless execution of strategy for the service.

That’s the proof in my hypothesis pudding.

The second note is that we’re hopefully seeing some positive change. My gut feeling is that Tim Cook and his executive team realize they screwed up with the Mac. Considering how much Apple itself needs Mac computers, that’s a problem, and it seems like they understand that. Accordingly, I expect the Mac to get more love in the near future.

But that won’t solve the core problem of Apple expanding its leadership team to keep pace with its ambitions in new product categories. If Tim Cook can overcome that hurdle, Apple could become terrifyingly good.

Wouldn’t that be cool?

7 Comments Add a comment

  1. It is a failure of management. Tim Cook ought to _at least_ have the Mac on his radar, and have a manager with the authority to update computers. Apple might as well delegate the Pro computers to another computer maker that cares.

  2. jackadoodle

    It’s not a failure to scale, it’s just priorities. I have a friend who writes books, starts side businesses, invents gadgets, runs a company… and all of it is just so so. None of it ever really gets off the ground. But my hunch is that if he stuck with ONE, maybe two of these things, week in and week out, he’d get something cooking. Same with Apple. All the other companies “do it all.” Apple concentrates all their genius on a few things and makes them really well.

  3. Apple is big enough, it has enough resources, it has enough talented people, it should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Development of the iPhone should not stop the advancement of the Mac.

  4. The flaw in Apple’s business plans over the last few years is too much weight given to the Liberal Arts side of their philosophy. This has resulted in sacrificing the Technological side. They became infatuated with thin lite designs that force compromises in technology. They need a technology executive with at least as much power and voice as the executive leading industrial design. Someone that can convince the team that a Mac Pro is supposed to do certain things rather than look a certain way. This holds true with all product designs.

  5. Ok. So what leads to their failure to scale? A: their management and its fad chasing ways. I am of the opinion that Silicon Valley in general has lost the plot (and in some cases, their minds) over the past five or so years, the reasons for THAT are too numerous to list, but insularity, arrogance, in some cases ignorance, and greed are front and center. They have all translated the advice ‘give customers what they aren’t even aware they might want’, as saying, ‘we are superior in our understanding of everything, and will give them what we know is best for their personal needs. If they protest, they are just unenlightened or stupid’. it’s pretty simple: the entire business model, generally speaking, in technology (at least to some extent) has its basis in this kind of thinking. I thank my lucky stars that at Apple they have at least applied that hubris in the direction of protectecting privacy etc. rather than the exploitation of their users.

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