For Apple, Making the Best May No Longer be Good Enough

There is a method to the madness of specsmanship and a broad product line. The process of continuously challenging a leader on specs and availability is valuable because it can begin to break down the sales momentum of a market leader. For the leader, declining to compete on specs starts as a strength, but at a certain point can transition to weakness.

I was wrestling this week with the idea of how a company that touts quality and always making the best products can be attacked by competitors. Some thoughts were forming in my mind, and one of them was how the psyche of the quality leader can lead to a bit of complacence disguised as the patience of those who make the best.

I wrote a draft editorial about it, but I held it because I didn't see a specific event in the Apple world to tie it to. And then, this morning, I read a fantastic column by the increasingly awesome Jonny Evans at Computerworld. The article is long, but required reading for all Particle Debris readers: "Smartphone wars: 'We're only dancing' as Samsung v Apple share the floor."

In that article, Mr. Evans laid the technical foundation for what I was mulling over this week. In fact, Mr. Evan's article is so good, I'll wait while you read it. Seriously.

Let's start with the idea that while Apple wants to maintain its tradition of quality products—those that we savor and love, those that meet our deepest needs—Apple does not want to be freight-trained by Samsung while it does so.

And with that, I'll transition into what I had written earlier in the week.

How to Train Your (Dragon) Competitor

The relentless challenge to Apple by its competitors is not without malice and foresight. Every business strategy has compromises and some weaknesses. It's the competition's job to find the critical weakness, in military-speak, the cascade failure mode, of the competition.

So far, smart Apple observers have noted that for Apple's opponents to compete on specs alone is not a winning strategy. However, the next step is the perilous part. Apple, by believing that it always builds the best could fall into a subtle kind of arrogance that suggests that the specs game is run by impostors, competitors without merit. I know that Apple keeps its guard up on this, but customers are known to get false impressions. Or to become contrarian. 

For example, on the surface, the traditional Apple logic looks like this:

Apple makes great products. I can afford them, and I buy them. Therefore, I love Apple.

That works and sells products. But there is another, more complex line of reasoning, and it may explain why some customers fall into the arms of the competition.

Apple makes great products. I can barely afford them. I always have to wait too long to get what I want. Apple seems in no hurry to compete with aggressive competitors who give me a lot of freedom and technology for affordable prices. I perceive this as arrogance. Therefore, I don't like Apple.

It is wise for any technology leader to view aggressive competitors with alarm and anxiety instead of smug disdain, even if the sales numbers appear satisfactory.

At some point customers can sense the disconnect between the pleasant arrogance of always making the best and the actual delivery in the market. When a endless stream of competing products come along that look better, at some point, customers stop rationalizing in their minds that they're getting the best value from from the leader. And then, the tide turns, as it has so often in American business.

This happened to Cadillac when the Infiniti and Lexus brands came along to challenge. It happend to IBM, the originator of the original, and best, IBM PC. (IBM had to eventually sell its PC division to Lenovo.) It happend to Silicon Graphics, all too arrogant in its awesome but overly expensive UNIX workstations. It happened to RIM/BlackBerry, a company whose connection to and belief in the business world looked unassailable. It happend to Microsoft, asleep at the wheel when the tablet revolution came along, and still apparently in no great hurry to catch up. Eventually, customers stop listening to the marketing and head off, in an unpredictable stampede, into the arms of the competition. Then it's too late.

Traditionally, for any American company, it's been a deceptively easy slide into an indifferent arrogance unless there's someone inside who can, euphemistically, throw some chairs around the room, pointing out that the company is building "leading" products with inferior specs. Or good specs but increasingly late to market. You can write your own Dilbert cartoon here.

There's a very fine line between a passion to build the best and a self-satisfied state of mind fueled by the faith in a permanent state of customer acceptance. One way way to attack that routine customer acceptance is with a flood of competing products of all sizes, for all people, and with the very best technology, world-wide, at all costs. It looks like an empty strategy at first. That is, until the incessant body blows in the market start to take their toll, and customers, with changed mindset, begin to defect.

Could this ever happen to Apple? I hope not. It's a frightening thought.

Back to the Evans Article

So that's where I was when Jonny Evans punctuated it all with his chart showing the global smartphone shipments comparing 2012 and 2013. Despite Apple's excellent performance of 31.2 million smartphones sold in 2013's calendar Q2, Samsung sold 76 million. Apple's market share dropped to 13.6 percent; Samsung's increased to 33.1 percent. Mr. Evans pointed out, "The big take away from the analysts is that Apple has not kept pace with industry growth within the smartphone sector..."

At this point, it is customary to become defensive and point out that Apple doesn't need to be the market leader. As Mr. Evans reminded us, "Samsung shifts boxes. Apple (at its best) sells dreams."

And I agree with that. Completely. We don't want Apple to compete on the terms of the wannabes. But what worries me is when executives focus relentlessly on building the best, who is there to shake them up from time to time? Who is there besides the ghost of Steve Jobs to say, "This one isn't good enough. That one should have shipped months ago."

I think Apple's customers not only want the best, they want to side with a visibly aggressive winner. Not a company that's being steam-rollered.


Tech News Debris for the Week of July 22

There was more this week on Microsoft's Surface and Windows debacles. The first is from Business Insider. "Microsoft's Big Problem In One Chart." The next is "Did we all just witness Windows start to die?" That last, and it's a doozy, "Steve Ballmer Admits Microsoft’s iPad-Killer Is A Flop." The problem is that when Steve Ballmer throws chairs in the office in response to some Microsoft setback, the result is seldom a fresh and vigorous renewal resulting in competitive products. The result is just furniture repair bills.

What sets followers of Apple, acolytes, apart from the customers of Android? Linus Edwards thinks it's because Google's Android product has no central philosophy, no core principle that arouses passions. And we all know that great writers are passionate. Here it is: "Where is the Android John Gruber?"

I have been of the mind that, eventually, we'll see larger tablets. It'll be the natural evolution of the product. I'd like to see them sooner, rather than later, and we've finally heard some rumors about Apple testing iPads with larger displays. Chris Maxcer has some thoughts on how a larger display could help. "The Case for a Bigger, Badder iPad."

Google Maps is almost perfect, right? Then how did Google Maps lose four entire countries?

Finally, I've written about the Dish Network Hopper DVR in the past because it has some relevance to Apple's areas of TV "interest." (For those newbies, here's a recap.) And so, here's the latest good news on the Hopper. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has upheld a lower court's ruling in favor of Dish. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. This is a good win.


Dragon via Shutterstock.

Particle Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event or article of the week combined with a summary of articles that didn't make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holidays.