Beats on iPhone

Experience Shows Why Apple Music Has Been Just a Little Problem

Beats on iPhoneThe fight between Apple and music star Taylor Swift was clear knockout for the singer in her challenge to the not-quite-started Apple Music and one of the big stories of the week. It showed Apple is somewhat confused, especially given the fact the project has been going on for a long time. But what has gotten less attention is just how clever, effective, and flexible Apple is in its corporate success.

The Apple Music development, extensively written about by others, has been an unusual mess by a company that usually keeps its work very neat externally. Apple has been in the music business one way or another since the invention of the iPod and you’d think it would be better at dealing with an industry going through difficulties. They screwed it up, spreading confusion among multiple participants at WWDC (I have to confess to finding Beats’ Jimmy Iovine particularly complicated). But after giving in to Taylor Swift and signing a bunch of other agreements for the inclusion in the June 30 launch of the music service, things seem much better.

Which means this is a somewhat extreme example of Apple’s very smart way of moving forward with products. If we look at the two leading competitors, Microsoft, at least until the last year or so, has been extremely cautious in its entry. It finds it very hard to reject old ideas from existing programs, often getting less than ideal new products.

Google is the opposite. It will seemingly try next to anything. Consider Google Glass. It was an interesting but expensive and truly strange device for internet access. Google went through its usual approach of throwing it out there for the interested. The drill got it a lot of coverage (featured in Vogue, no less) but little in the way of sales. It faded from interest and was eventually discontinued with vague but seemingly meaningless plans to come up with something similar in the future. The fact is that Google’s history is a long list of ideas begun, then abandoned.

But the Apple path is between the two approaches, at least going back to the 1997 recreation of the company and the elimination of struggling projects such as the Newton that were outside the main effort of time. Going way back, the iPod was a good indication of how Apple actually built its world.

iPodApple started back in early 2001 with the iTunes music playing application for the Mac, followed later that year by the release of the first iPod. The iPod was superior to the many recorded music players, but worked only with the Mac at a time when Apple was still far, far behind Windows PCs. It wasn’t until 2004 that, after a bit of Windows dabbling, Apple came out with a real version for Windows, including getting rid of a FireWire connection, and it took off as the critical builder of the portable music market. A constantly growing offering of devices kept the iPod in charge, through the changes in music marketing, before the iPhone captured the role.

Apple has done this over and over again. It works on a project until it has development ready at least for the most interested customers. Sometimes, as in the case of the iPhone, it starts well short of what is ultimately good enough for the up-front customers. Then, with each case, designing a product that is more and more appealing to a growing market, offering something a bit better—and almost always at least a bit better than the competition—with each cycle.

The best I think is the Apple Watch. Apple spent lots and lots of time, with much of the effort going to Jony Ives, whose own role goes back to the birth of the iPod. This time, Apple knew that the Watch had to be a lot better than not-quite-ready projects—it’s not interested in the half-ready watch of competitors. The Watch is not perfect yet, but it is good. It can stand software improvements (it may be some time and need before we see new hardware) and it needs both additional apps and improvement of those already issued. But it will get them and its appeal will grow with them.

Apple Music will likewise be something that gets better over time. The kick-off was uncommonly sloppy at WWDC. But it has already improved dramatically. Apple definitely knows how to do this.

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

4 thoughts on “Experience Shows Why Apple Music Has Been Just a Little Problem”

  1. Apple does a fantastic job of fixing other people’s mistakes, rewrapping them as their own, and using their clout to establish popularity of a feature or product. This is commendable.

    I do wonder, if MS had the foresight, and were allowed to (especially at the time) pull an “Apple move” and forbid iTunes on WIndows. It would be totally contemptible, but where would Apple be today?

    1. Doing better than what the competition did in new products is the way things get better. Apple has historically been very good at it, the iPod being as I said a good example. But Microsoft;s problem is you have to be fast.

  2. I’m not so sure the whole payment/Taylor Swift issue wasn’t staged. It’s a great way to highlight the issue of payments to artists, as well as great PR. Note that Apple was already in talks about this very issue of paying artists during the free trial period. I see Apple moving towards the disintermediation of labels, but this has to happen in small steps, and more importantly who holds the rights to the music has to also slowly change.

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