Much of the commentary post-Apple’s September product launch event California Streaming was about what I expected. Most of it emphasized Apple’s iterative approach, and some went as far as to say Apple has lost its innovative touch just relying on small iterations year over year. I try to not let these approaches frustrate me because I get it, pundits are bored and desperate for the next big thing. In some ways, I’m craving what’s next technologically. Still, I also balance that desire with what I know about where most of that technology is today and how far away we are from seeing anything commercially viable in categories like AR, etc. I have written about how we are in a bit of a waiting period while some key technological breakthroughs can pave the way for what is next. Even though Samsung is on its third generation, categories like foldable phones are still way too early for mass-market consumers.
As I read much of the analysis of Apple’s event and the opining of how Apple just relies on iteration, I felt like I was back in 2016/2017 because that was also the commentary then. To quote my own analysis from that time frame, leaps of innovation happen maybe every 4-5 years, and in between then, iteration is what we can expect. That’s just how it works, and expecting something mind-blowing year over year is just not realistic.
But, Apple has a market challenge that no other tech company has. Understanding the dynamic Apple has with their customer base sheds more light on their strategy and why they will never be first to a market or technology.
Apple’s Customer Base
Apple is in the fascinatingly unique position of having one single product that spans the entire consumer adoption cycle spectrum. Apple has products that every category of the adopter (early adopter, early majority, mainstream, and late adopter) owns. I honestly can’t think of one single product in consumer technology that has this dynamic. That product is obviously iPhone.
Now you can rightly point out an operating system like Windows or Android similarly spans the adoption cycle. It is correct operating system accomplishes this, but no single product does since Windows and Android hardware has very different designs and specs that appeal to each type of consumer category.
And while it is impressive that Apple can appeal to early techies all the way to late adopters with the iPhone family, I would argue Apple’s eyes are always set on the mainstream and bringing the most technologically advanced hardware to as many people as possible.
I always find it entertaining when Apple critics cry out about a feature, in this case, ProMotion, that other companies had first. They like to make it sound like said other company is more innovative than Apple, and Apple is just playing catch up. But this critique misses perhaps one of the most important points about innovation. Is it better to be first or to be the company that gets that technology into the most hands so they can use it and benefit from it? I’d argue the latter is more important because what is the purpose of true innovation if it only gets into the hands of the few? Apple may not be first with a particular technology or innovation, but they will be the one who brings it to the most people. Technically speaking, it is easy to be first. It is much harder to package innovation in a way that is easy enough the masses can use it and benefit from it.
With that context in mind about Apple’s customer base, it is interesting how Apple continues to trickle down features that were specifically for “Pros” in last year’s models and down into the mainstream model iPhone 13. Lens technology on the front and back cameras there were exclusive to the Pro line iPhone 12 Pro now find itself in the iPhone 13.
Apple is also leveraging the strength of its silicon to bring its newest video feature, Cinematic Mode, to the iPhone 13 as well. In years past, this may have been a feature that was only reserved for the Pro line of devices, but this is just another example of Apple bringing a Pro/high-end feature to their flagship mainstream product of iPhone 13.
There are still features reserved for the Pro lineup like Macro and Macro video, ProMotion, Telephoto, etc., but from my standpoint, the iPhone 13 packs more formerly Pro features than previous years mainstream lineups. This is likely why most large investment banks are signaling year over year iPhone growth and suggesting the iPhone 13 cycle could be even stronger than the already very strong iPhone 12 cycle.
Making Pro mainstream, or more generally stated, bringing high-end innovation to the masses is one of Apple’s greatest strengths. Sophisticated technology requires simple solutions, or the masses can not take advantage of it. And in a world becoming dominated by user-generated media, it will be very interesting to see how creative content evolves over the next year.