The Apple Walled Garden is Grounded in Old Fashioned Product Superiority

on March 4, 2013

The value attributed to ecosystem “lock in”, such as the value Apple derives through tightly integrating its devices with its proprietary AirPlay, and the iTunes and App Store platforms, for example, is overstated both by industry analysts and by Apple’s competition. Counter-intuitively, I believe this is a win for Apple, as its competitors focus their efforts on a false equation. Even if switching costs were reduced to zero, few would leave Apple’s ‘walled garden’.

iTunes, App Store and accessories are a significant business for Apple. Recently, Horace Dediu of Asymco noted that these revenues are greater even than the Mac business line. Equally surprising, Apple’s content, software and accessories business generates more revenues than any mobile phone vendor is generating in total, excepting Samsung:

iTunes revenues surpasses mobile phone competition

Users have clearly invested a great deal in Apple-backed apps, content and accessories. I am just not convinced, however, that their intent — or effect — is to appreciably increase user “switching costs”. The real switching costs are more elusive to define but of far greater value. Competitors, such as Amazon and Google, appear convinced that app freebies, lower-priced music, below-cost streaming video and near-zero margin hardware will enable them to snare current and potential Apple customers away, hopefully forever. This is a strategy that I believe is doomed to failure.

The fundamental difference between Apple and its competitors lies not at the margins but in the totality of sterling hardware, comprehensive and ongoing support, usability assurances, unequaled product integration and unmatched reliability. To effectively compete with Apple, companies must tackle all of these. Be forewarned: these are costly, take years to achieve, demand a relentless focus and are hard to sustain.

Ready to Switch

Google’s Android platform has rapidly overtaken Apple to capture the lion’s share of the smartphone market. Numerous vendors offer Android phones at a variety of price points and form factors. Android – the OS – and Android the line of smartphones, has no doubt steadily improved over the past three years. In the mind of many analysts these improvements, when combined with relentless, price-sensitive competition will deeply cut into Apple sales and/or margins. Except, this continues to be proven false. The view which perpetuates the industry is that marketing and high switching costs are preventing many from leaving Apple’s ecosystem. This is false.

Consider some of the mission-critical and more commonly used smartphone applications across all major platforms. Phone, email, text, mapping and GPS. Skype, web browser and search. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. Angry Birds. Words with Friends. Are all these or any of these truly so much better on iPhone than on any competitive Android product?

The fact is, for most users and for most user activities, the bulk of their interactions with their smartphone and tablet has a negligible switching cost.

There are numerous other examples. Your Kindle account can easily transfer to a different device. Same with your Netflix and Hulu+ services. YouTube plays just as well on Android as iPhone, maybe better. Yet in their last quarter, Apple sold a record number of iPhones and iPads. Their rather conservative guidance for the following quarter included gross margins between 37.5% and 38.5%.

Apple’s success is not due to switching costs. Rather, Apple products, systems and service is simply superior.

I do not want to suggest there is no financial cost whatsoever to switching. Your apps and accessories, for example, may become worthless if you move from iPad, say, to the Nexus 7. Plus, there are ‘costs’ borne through the often tedious process of switching to something new. Additionally, moving your music collection from one platform to the next, for example, or across multiple machines, takes time and patience. These cost. Such costs are real. But, most analysts appear to be overestimating such costs. They operate under the assumption that if only Google or Samsung, for example, can offer viable alternatives to iTunes, then Apple can be beat. This strikes me as a strategic misstep. Instead, these companies need to undertake the long, hard, costly effort of building a truly better product; one that is reliably serviced, simple to operate and fully supported for years to come. To date, who else is doing this?

Apple Assurances

We can get nearly anything we want, from anywhere, at any time. This has led to reduced prices, more competition and often to greater innovation. It has also created massive uncertainty. Where, exactly, do I go to service my Google Android Nexus LG phone? From my carrier? Who will guarantee it is updated regularly? How well will the newest HTC Android phone work with my Samsung Google Chromebook? What of the content I purchased from the Android Market, which was fully revamped as Google Play?

The real switching cost is manifested through the massive uncertainty that other users face on a regular basis, which Apple users do not.

Anyone remember Google Television? Why are there several Android phones by Google’s Motorola division yet for the true “Google experience” I should purchase a Nexus phone made, this year, by LG? Or a Nexus 7 tablet by Asus. Or a Nexus 10 tablet by Samsung.

The Apple premium is earned not through high switching costs but by the assurances Apple delivers, day after day, and across the millions of customers it sells to and services. Moving me off Paypal and iTunes, for example, and over to Google Play and Google Checkout, is a minor hassle, nothing more. Kill off any iTunes and App Store advantage. Wait for Google, or Amazon or Samsung to have as many active credit cards on file. Assume Apple’s accessories products become universal standards – including for Windows Phone, Blackberry, Nexus tablets, even competitor notebooks. Reduce “switching” costs to nearly zero. How many will leave the Apple fold? I suspect very few.

The User is the Buyer

One of the revolutionary aspects of this new age of personal computing, where we have rapidly transitioned from PCs and laptops to smartphones and tablets is not only the rise of mobility, nor the rise of the touchscreen nor even the slow, inexorable rise of the voice UI. Rather, this new age of computing has aligned the actual product user with the actual product buyer. This is a clear advantage for Apple. As Steve Jobs noted in 2010:

What I love about the consumer market, that I always hated about the enterprise market, is that we come up with a product, we try to tell everybody about it, and every person votes for themselves. They go ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and if enough of them say ‘yes,’ we get to come to work tomorrow. That’s how it works. It’s really simple. With the enterprise market, it’s not so simple. The people that use the products don’t decide for themselves, and the people that make those decisions sometimes are confused. We love just trying to make the best products in the world for people and having them tell us by how they vote with their wallets whether we’re on track or not.

I am the buyer. I am the user. I am prepared to switch. Neither my apps, my downloads, nor my music collection is holding me back. Apple’s competitors have simply failed to offer me equivalent or better value.

Apple competitors are actively copying the parts of Apple that are easiest to copy. Instead, they need to do the hard work of building a superior product, offering superior customer service, committing their company to improving its product, bit by bit, year after year. Like Apple, they need to do everything they can to assure their customers that everything will be exactly the same next year – only better. This is hard. This is why Apple is rewarded. This is why so few switch.