The Challenge of Rising Expectations

One of the biggest challenges that any highly regarded company faces is the difficulty of living up to the expectations that its previous successes create. No company in any industry faces this challenge as much as Apple. This company has provided absolutely incredible performance for its investors over the last decade or so, thanks to its hit-machine of great products and sticky ecosystems, and that, in turn, has created an enormous supply of happy customers who have come to expect the world from the Cupertino-based company.

Common logic will tell you that those kind of expectations can’t go on forever, and at some point, there’s bound to be some kind of let-down. I’d argue that yesterday’s WWDC (Worldwide Developer Conference) keynote in San Francisco could be the start of a return to earth that many have been predicting for Apple for quite some time.

Don’t get me wrong. It was still a good event, and there were several interesting new announcements from the company during yesterday’s keynote. The iOS 9 improvements around contextual intelligence, smarter search, and iPad multitasking were all quite nice—though I have to admit I was disappointed to learn that some of the coolest new iPad multitasking features require an iPad Air 2 (the most recent iPad, in case you haven’t been keeping score).

In fact, for many vendors, the kind of additions and enhancements that Apple announced yesterday would be perceived as being pretty impressive. But this is Apple, and rightly or wrongly, we have been trained by the company to aim our expectations generally much higher.

Thankfully—I guess—early rumors suggested that this year’s WWDC might be relatively light on major news developments, so I went into the event with relatively low expectations, and frankly, those expectations were met.[pullquote]I went into WWDC with relatively low expectations, and frankly, those expectations were met.”[/pullquote]

Part of the problem, quite honestly, is that it’s getting really hard to make major innovations in product categories that are already pretty good. In the case of Mac OS X El Capitan, for example, senior VP of software engineering, Craig Federighi, described and demonstrated a number of nice innovations, but nothing that’s going to dramatically change a typical Mac user’s experience. I see this as more of a reflection of the relative maturity and sophistication of Mac OS X than a problem with Apple. We’re reaching a point of diminishing returns.

Even many of the iOS 9 improvements, while definitely more impressive, essentially amounted to incorporating into the core OS (and its main apps) the kind of functionality you can already find in 3rd party apps. From the Transit information incorporated into Maps, to some of the recommendations that Siri now makes for locations you plan to visit, to the Flipbook-like capabilities of the new News app and the Evernote-like extensions to Notes, Apple is integrating some of the innovations we’ve seen other companies create into their core offerings. It seems to me there’s a software company in Redmond, WA that’s done similar things in the past and caught a fair amount of grief for it. But I digress….

I was also very disappointed at the almost complete lack of updates that Apple provided on HomeKit and CarPlay. Given the intense interest in IOT overall, and particularly connected homes and connected cars, I expected Apple to come out swinging and describe why their solutions are better and more robust than the growing competition in these fields. Unfortunately, we got nothing of the sort.

Apple Music looks interesting, but I really didn’t see anything that suggested Apple had cracked the code on how to do a killer streaming music service. The offerings certainly look better than what the company has done in the past, and given Apple’s brand and overall position in the digital music world, it’s bound to have a decent impact. However, if I’m a happy Spotify or Pandora user, I’m not sure I saw enough to get me to switch. Yes, the Beats1 radio station concept is intriguing, but it’s a single channel with a single genre of music, and that’s just not going to appeal to everyone. In the end, Apple Music could end up as yet another app on your phone or tablet that you just can’t delete.

You could argue that my criticisms of Apple’s latest offerings aren’t completely fair, and in a way, you might be right. However, I’d argue that the world of business isn’t about fairness, and Apple has managed to maintain a “reality distortion field” for an incredibly long time. Perhaps by failing to meet unrealistic expectations, the company may actually benefit, because, in the long run, doing a reality check can be a very good thing.

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Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

21 thoughts on “The Challenge of Rising Expectations”

  1. I think time around, Apple are addressing quality and optimization issues that have been creeping up on them for some time. It’s not sexy stuff to start with, and the issues haven’t been getting much coverage to start with (no headlines on 20% of iOS users still being on iOS 7 or less, nor on software reliability issues, nor on whether “users pay us to choose for them” is being discarded for featuritis, ie w/ 3rd-party keyboards instead of Apple actually making a good keyboard…), but I think users have been feeling the need.
    For example, the three-level “app thinning” detailed by Ars Technica (bytecode apps stored in the store w/ download-time targeted compile, targeted resources download, and as-needed features download) seems a nice and worthwhile endeavour, not sexy on the face of it but a smart way to keep selling low-storage devices as premium w/o bugging users about “not enough disk space” all the time.

    1. Yes, I think they are as well and obviously that’s not something they’re really going to talk about very much. Again, the key question for me is, as their products get more mature, how much can we realistically expect them to be able to achieve when it comes to new innovations. It’s a tough one…

      1. If the products get mature, then you branch out to new ones. New for you, I mean. Where you can bring your unique ideas and expertise to bear. I thought it’s pretty clear that Apple is seriously investigating crashing the auto industry.

  2. You are right some of these categories are quite mature, so we are into diminishing returns.

    The absence of real Apple TV/Homekit news makes me wonder if they’ve been having difficulties in signing up TV content partners. After all, the poster for the event was strongly suggesting news on that front.

    1. Yes, I think they have been having challenges with TV content owners. Many of them saw what happened in the music business and are a bit leery. Also, as Jan Dawson has written elsewhere on Techpinions, getting all the local station providers to agree to provide access to content is a logistical nightmare.

      1. The thing is, is that the Apple TV hardware & Apple TV service are two different things. There’s nothing stopping them from releasing a next-gen Apple TV box, unless of course it isn’t ready, and then releasing the TV service once content deals are in place.

        Knock on wood, we see in the Fall during the iPhone keynote.

      2. I have had high hopes for Apple TV for some time, so I could be way off here again. But, seems to me that the IOS 9 News app could be modified to be a video news aggregation app on the Apple TV puck.

    1. Would be nice if that were true, but not sensing anything major coming anytime soon. Maybe a bigger iPad and yes an iPhone 6S, but nothing dramatic….

      1. I think we’ll see some big announcements about Apple TV and HomeKit this fall that didn’t make the cut for WWDC. Apple TV app ecosystem + AirPlay has so much potential.

  3. Mostly agree. Strange that they went with ‘Epicenter of Change’ for such a change-lite show. Even if TV was dropped, that’s not a big product.

    My hope is the side-by-side/PiP feature is the beginning of a tablet variant of iOS that can unlock the inherent advantages of the tablet. Jobs nailed it at the launch of the iPad — for the tablet to have a reason to exist, it needs to sit between smart phone and laptop and do specific tasks better than either. Instead, Apple has been content to just deliver a big dumb iPhone in iPad clothing and facilitate scaled up iPhone apps. Even CarPlay has received more UI attention than the iPad, which is sad because that’s another pretty uninspired product.

    My other takeaway is Eddy Cue…Holy God this guy is a clown. Completely aimless presentation. Jobs would have blistered the skin off Eddy’s face. Shouldn’t be allowed to present anything at future events.

  4. “I was also very disappointed at the almost complete lack of updates that Apple provided on HomeKit and CarPlay.”

    First you lament the heavy burden of unreasonably high expectations then indulge in it a few paragraphs later. One thing at a time. It’s easier to upgrade the base platforms iOS and OS X first, then the extensions HomeKit and CarPlay afterwards rather than doing it all at the same time, yah?

    1. Tell me about it. Apple had a few homeruns and now every critic is expecting them to hit a homerun every time they make an announcement. Besides, this was a developers conference, not a product announcement. I tell you, the media is the worst, they leak everything a company is working on to sell us news, then complains when those companies make changes to those plans.

      Last I check, Apple never gave us notice about the Apple TV, it was got hyped up by the media and blogs alike to get clicks. Then those same folks turn around to say how disappointed they are of the lack of innovation. Whenever I read comments, and posts like this, I always ask, why don’t you go show us how it’s done. To quote someone much smarter then me, “Those who can’t create or do criticize.” Babe Ruth did not hit a homerun every at bat, he did so every 12 at bats.

      1. Darn the internet and its lack of being able to up-vote more than once!! I need to create a few dozen different identities just so I can up-vote this comment several times over!!

        I used to listen to 9to5Mac and Cult of Mac podcasts post-WWDC or Apple keynote but I couldn’t stand listening to them vilify Apple for not showing anything new or not having any real surprise announcements. Meanwhile the weeks and months leading up to keynotes they’re doing everything possible to leak the most insignificant news even within minutes of the keynote.

        Everyone is so jaded these days. Movies have lost their magic because we know CG from HG (human generated) so now when an already great OS or product gets a couple of nips and tucks it’s not enough to satiate our thirst for another “…an iPod, a phone and an internet communications device…an iPod, a phone… are you getting it?!!” moment.

        I for one still marvel at what technology is capable of. How much it’s changed our lives and how easy the wizards of Silicon Valley has made it for us to create, curate and share information.

        Just a short 8-years ago no one thought we’d be carrying the equivalent of a laptop in our back pocket but here we are.

        But I’m in the minority as most people expect a mind-blowing, revolution-setting announcement. Me, I’m pleased just to see the San Francisco font and if that’s all Apple did I wouldn’t complain in the slightest.

  5. @bobodonnell:disqus , with regards to Apple music – isn’t the low cost family plan, 3 months free, being default on the iPhone and a huge marketing push , enough to insure lots of users ? And once Apple has that , Maybe they could get unique deals or such stuff , and kill the competition ?

    We’ve already seen something similar happen with Apple maps.

  6. “Apple Music could end up as yet another app on your phone or tablet that you just can’t delete.”

    For most long-time iOS/Apple users we all have a respectable library of songs from the iTunes Store so you’ll never want to truly delete the Music app from your iOS device/Mac.

    As for the Beats 1 station, you’re probably not the audience they’re appealing to anyway. That’s definitely aimed towards the 20-something and under crowd but I believe it could bring back the days of must-see (or hear in this case), time sensitive events. Imagine a Timberlake, Taylor Swift, Imagine Dragons or Maroon 5 concert that takes place exactly at 8p EST. If you’re not tuned in you miss it and it’s gone forever. No DVR or YouTube stream. Maybe an encore but even that’ll be timed. I think that feature alone separates Apple Music from the competition and will cause trouble for Spotify, Rdio and others.

    Also, don’t underestimate Apple’s negotiation tactics. As much as Jay-Z thinks he has the market closed on getting exclusive artists those same artists could easily find a home on Apple’s platform even if it’s just to moonlight. Saying no to Iovine or Dre could be difficult.

    As for Apple’s “reality distortion field”, I agree. It’s so easy to be unimpressed with anything anyone’s doing these days. I try my best to stay humble and remember that there are people in the world that don’t have clean drinking water and couldn’t imagine a world where reverse osmosis water flows from our ice-making, internet connected refrigerators as we push Dash buttons that instantly order more Keurig coffee cups and detergent delivered by drones.

    I think the entire industry and its consumers are spoiled brats that have no idea how good they have it. As C.K. Louis said, “White people problems” or more politically correct “first world problems” where waiting 8-seconds for an app to load on the Apple Watch is and unbearable and un-Godly amount of time to point that people are “breaking up” with $400+ mini super computers that can pay for groceries, unlock hotel doors and track their heartbeat.

    1. Just in case you haven’t already seen it, search for “Louis C.K. everything is amazing”.

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