The New Challenge for Apple's Tim Cook: Miracles of Insight

The Art of Simplifying Assumptions

One of the things scientists do when they're confronted by an intractable problem is to make simplifying mathematical assumptions to get at a sensible, useful answer. Then, the task is to compare that result to experiment and observations to gain some confidence that their analysis or model contains the essence of the solution.

It's a tricky business. Simplify too much, and you have nothing of value. Simplify too little and the problem remains too complex to deal with. And then, explaining what's been done to arrive at an answer has its own pitfalls. Others may disagree with the underlying assumptions, often based on physical intuition, gained from many years of experience as a scientist.

Apple CEO Tim Cook. Credit: AllThingsD

In today's technical marketplace, there are many complex forces. As the smartphone market expands, the nature of the customer changes. Product lines and strategies have to change. Then, as with the scientist, journalists are faced with the prospect of digesting the dynamics and explaining it all to the reader.

Combine that with some agenda, favoring one company for one reason or another, and throwing in some flawed, simplifying assumptions, and you can see some fascinating, confusing, conflicting results. In some analysis, Apple is failing. In other analysis, Apple is a brilliant success. It all depends on the validity of certain assumptions. It's like the fable of the blind men and the elephant.

The tough job of the CEO is to work through all this. Like a physics experiment that has observable results, the success of a business strategy also has observable results. If a company's product starts to fail, if it's not making any money, and customers dish out hate on Twitter, there is objective reality to set the CEO straight.

Certainly, it's a daily miracle that any one CEO or a small team of executives can wade their way through the analysis required to succeed in today's high tech market. And we have indeed witnessed abject failure with RIM/BlackBerry and Microsoft's Surface. In a previous Particle Debris, "How to Sink a Submarine, Apple, or the Tech Giant of Your Choice," I threw out the idea of supercomputer assistance to analyze those forces. Alternatively, sheer grandmaster genius can go a long way towards helping the modern CEO take his/her company into stellar success.

In the tech news debris below, I start off with several articles that provide a glimmer of all those rapidly changing forces that an insightful CEO has to deal with. It's a sight to behold.


Tech News Debris for the Week of May 27

One of the best analysis articles I've seen this week is by Dan Rowinski at RWW. He makes the case that the Mobile Revolution is far from over, and that has implications for the smartphone wars. Check it out: "Think Mobile Is Big Now? Here's Proof That It's Just Getting Started." I'll refer to this article below.

Is the way to beat Apple to flood the market with cheap imitations? Samsung thinks so. "How will Samsung Win against the iPad? By Flooding the Market with Super Cheap Tablets over the Next Two Years." For now, we can argue that quality, in the market as it exists now, carries weight, so profits are a priority, not market share. Will that ever be so?

However, and this is what makes it fun, there are multiple forces at work as the global market grows, as Dan Rowinski mentioned above. As a product, like the smartphone, becomes more popular and competitors catch up, devising new strategies, it's harder to create a value proposition with a "better" product as low priced, "good enough" products saturate the market. This may force Apple to create a down-market iPhone and/or diversify into something new. All this is discussed here: "Apple, Samsung and the 'profit share trap'"

To add even more delicious complexity, there is the issue of smartphone screen size and diversifying the iPhone line, as Apple did with the iPod. Horace Dediu explores that in "Tim Cook’s answer to my first question." But there's an additional wrinkle...

One of the reasons Android isn't making as much money for developers as iOS is the cost of dealing with the fragmented versions of Android and the hardware is accompanies. Jonny Evans points to the BBC's observation that, "...developing for Android was different from developing for iOS; while iOS provides a relatively homogenous environment, Android is fragmented with almost 4000 devices from around 600 manufacturers..." Check out his story: "Fragmented Android drives big dev to Apple." As Mr. Cook pointed out at AllThingsD recently, one measure of the health of a platform, in the long run, is how much money developers are making. That places constraints on how diverse your product line can be.

Are you gasping for breath yet?

Henry Blodget is no big fan of Apple, and he shows that with many misconceptions in his list of factors in his preamble. And yet. And yet. He has a point. Something must have gone very wrong for Apple to go 230 days without a new product announcement. Someday, we'll find out what that was. For now, it's worthwhile to contemplate the surface effects. "Something Clearly Went Wrong At Apple."

All these dynamics, and more, are what a modern, tech giant CEO has to deal with.

Moving on... It's no secret that I'm not a huge fan of Facebook. It interests me to see how other people respond to Facebook, and the story is usually filled with insights from a person who has thought deeply about what Facebook is all about. Here's one of those kinds of articles. Even if you use Facebook, this essay will get you thinking. "The Facebook experiment has failed. Let’s go back."

Earlier today I pondered how Apple conveys its dreams to millions of customers in: "It’s Okay Mr. Cook. Apple Customers Can Also Dream." There, I wrote: "[Apple] doesn't throw us bones and brilliant but haphazard experiments. When they're fully baked, Apple ships products that become so fundamental to a broad range of customers that it can expect to sell tens or even hundreds of millions of them." Jeff Porten at Tidbits expresses similar views but goes much deeper into the analysis. It's long, but very satisfying: "Pondering the Social Future of Wearable Computing."

Have I mentioned that I like the writing of Jonny Evans? Here's another article by him that has more substance to it than the title would suggest. "Don't expect an iPhone at WWDC: It's all about the software, stupid."

I do want to mention, however, that in my experience at WWDC, having attended for 17 years, that there is something to be gained by getting developers excited about the products Apple is going to put in the hands of customers. As I recall, Apple has introduced Macs before at WWDC, and the effect was impressive. However, as Mr. Evans points out, for strategic reasons, the iPhone and iPad get their own events.


Miracles via Shutterstock.

Particle Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event 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.