“Big companies are like marching bands. Even if half the band is playing random notes, it still sounds kind of like music. The concealment of failure is built into them." -- Douglas Coupland
Apple is indeed an awesome and wealthy company, on track to become the first one valued at a trillion dollars. But the heritage of Apple is also concentrated power in a small executive team, and that means too much falls through the cracks.
Being big and rich and famous company like Apple doesn't make it perfect. How well we know. Just remember iOS 8.0.1.
On the other hand, when Apple executives consciously make certain decisions to concentrate power, it means that their mental bandwidth is always limited. Only the hottest issues are on their radars.
In turn, when a corporation reaches Apple's size and reach, it means that many more customers are affected by its decisions. That means that when things drop through the cracks, there is an increasing number of people who suffer the impact.
This is a fact of life for large companies, but our constant hope is that Apple will figure out how to deal with it better than other companies that have failed.
There's an old saying...
An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.
Apple seems to be in the same boat. When the decision makers find that, because their attentions are consumed by (for now) the iPhone, they can't attend satisfactorily to other things. The reaction, in my experience, is then to rationalize and say, "why are we even doing that?" That, in turn, backs Apple into a corner.
Here are some recent examples of Apple's attentions, seemingly diverted.
1. The Mac Mini. After a long wait for an update, we were granted a less than stellar product. Jim Tanous, in "The New Mac mini is Quickly Turning into a Disaster" writes:
Some users may indeed value the 2014 Mac mini’s advantages over the 2012 model, even if those advantages are relatively minor. But questions over the new model’s underpowered components and the timing of its release remain. Apple waited almost two years — 723 days — to update the Mac mini, and there are no fundamental changes to to the product that justify the delay. So, why did it take so long to produce an arguably mediocre product?
Perhaps, Mr. Tanous goes on to surmise, "the Mac mini is simply not a priority for Apple." Indeed.
2. The Thunderbolt Display. The Apple Thunderbolt Display (27-inch) was introduced in July of 2011. It's really just a minor refresh of the LED Cinema Display from July of 2010. This product is intended as a companion product to Apple's headless Macs like the Mac mini but more notably the Mac Pro.
Even Apple's official product image shows, incredibly, OS X Lion.
Image credit: Apple
Now, here we are on the eve of 2015, and the display hasn't been refreshed. I was in an Apple store recently and had a chat with a salesman. We noted that it's a first generation IPS display, still only has USB 2.0 and FireWire 800 ports, and looks annoying thick at the edges. In fact, I remember reading somewhere about how the new 27-inch iMac looks like a svelte display only and the Thunderbolt display, thick as it is, looks more like an older iMac. In my estimate, this is no longer a US$1,000 value.
Given Apple's enthusiasm for its new 5K iMac, leaving the Thunderbolt in the stores is really a public embarrassment. Worse, just what display does Apple think is appropriate for use with its awesome 2013 Mac Pro? Shouldn't a new display have been released to accompany it? To still offer the current Thunderbolt display rocks one into spasms of incredulity.
Next: Apple's TV ads, professional communities and summary.
Page 2: Apple's TV ads, Professional Communities and Summary
3. Apple's TV ads. These ads with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake leave one feeling like Apple could be doing more. Here's an example to ponder.
An expert in the field of marketing, someone who worked with Apple in the past, Ken Segall, has some sobering remarks to make about these ads and describes them as "resoundingly 'okay'." Merely "okay?"
Even after watching the whole bunch over and over, I still find myself on the fence. And I think I know why. This whole campaign is on the fence. It teeters on the edge between the good and the bad.... All things considered — talent, scripts, concept, production values — it’s a campaign that’s absolutely, perfectly … okay. Which, given Apple’s illustrious history of advertising, isn’t okay at all."
After all, when you're on top, why spend a lot of money on TV ads? There's a corrupt mentality that says, "Hey, we didn't get rich by blowing our money. Now that we're top dog, why should we blow a ton of money on first-class ads?" I hope that's not the mentality of Apple these days. When Tim Cook says that his company is dedicated to making only the best of everything, then he should let that mentality shine through by producing TV ads that are only the very best. According to Ken Segall, they're merely okay. Again, like the two issues cited above, we are uncomfortably aware of the disconnect.
4. Abandonment of Professional Communities. When Apple was a needier company in the past, it catered to and cultivated several crucial UNIX-oriented communities: scientific, video and photography professionals. The abandonment of apple.com/science, the Final Cut Pro debacle and the end of life of Aperture have left many professionals wondering about Apple's ability to gracefully engage and commit for the long term, sporadic initiatives in the enterprise notwithstanding.
Turning on a dime isn't all it's cracked up to be when customers surmise that Apple, by its nature, can and should be depended upon for mission critical operations in the long run.
Regrettably, it's all too easy to conclude that when your corporation has become rich beyond words, you must be doing all the right things all the right ways. The opening quote by Douglas Coupland reminds us that the logic fails.
What to Do?
Apple is a company that's famous for being insular. However, given these examples above, it's time for Apple to figure out how to look at itself with the fresh eyes of an outsider's perspective. The four examples above strongly suggest that in certain areas Apple just doesn't care. That's a slippery slide towards the days of old when we made fun of the the Bell Telephone Company for just not caring anymore.
Large corporations have large pockets of customers who are committed to certain product categories. It's a fact of life that Apple leadership has never been comfortable with. To abandon them over and over again because over-extended executives can't be bothered contradicts Apple's own publicly proclaimed charter of only being the best.
That means the best of everything. Not just what Apple feels like it can pick and chose for the sake of trends and cash. These are the realities: not of a boutique UNIX company from the 1990s, but rather a modern (almost) trillion dollar giant.
Some writers ridiculously suggest that Apple should squander its enormous cash on mergers and acquisitions—like Tesla. I submit, with love, that Apple should, instead, figure out how to use its cash to, at least, look like it cares about everything.
Apple image in teaser via Shutterstock.