In June, we will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the release of the iPhone. In recognition of this signature date, there’s more than the average amount of speculation on what the 2017 edition of the iPhone will sport and hope it might revitalize the smartphone sector, which is experiencing somewhat of a slowdown.
I have no doubt the iPhone 8, X, or whatever it might be called, will be terrific – as nearly all high-end phones are today. Samsung, with its launch of the Galaxy S8 line last week, pushed the envelope even further, particularly with respect to screen size/display, and innovative features such as DeX.
But what has historically given Apple that cachet and ability to charge a premium for its products is the “ecosystem”. When at the top of its game, Apple’s hardware, software, apps, and media all work magically and seamlessly together. However, even more than the commoditization of the smartphone category, there has been a slow and steady erosion of the vaunted ‘Apple Experience’. This mainly has to do with Apple’s software and services, where the company has lost some of its edge. iTunes, which is now 16 years old, has become bloated– more of a turn-off than a turn-on. Apple’s signature applications such as e-mail/contacts/calendar, photos, music, and TV are all OK, but they’re not great. iCloud has not completely fulfilled its mission and an increasing number of Apple users see the whole iTunes/iCloud/Music blend as sort of a hot mess.
All the while, Google has steadily gained. I’d argue devices and software in the Google/Android/Chrome world now work and sync more seamlessly than in the Apple/iOS/macOS world. Amazon has become the high beta company in tech, with keen innovations and successful products in hardware and software, while exploring new frontiers in areas such as AI. And Microsoft has staged a comeback of sorts, with successful transitions in cloud and a better reimagining of the ‘post-PC’ world, even without a smartphone product.
Apple’s recent hires and actions signal a new recognition and urgency. The company hired Shiva Rajaraman from Spotify to help reshape the music and video experience, new Apple TV executive Timothy D. Twerdahl was hired away from Amazon, and it appears the Mac Pro and iMac line will be getting more love. Reshaping the software and services experience seems to have become a priority.
So, what would a reimagined Apple experience look like? I suggest five pillars:
1. Revamp or Ditch iTunes. This product has had pile after pile of updates and refreshes but seems outdated and disjointed from Apple’s music, video, TV, and photo offerings. What, really, is the role of iTunes in a world of App Store, Apple Music, Apple TV, and iCloud? It should be renamed since today it’s mostly a store and ‘control center’ for settings and management of multiple devices (though some of that has been subsumed by iCloud). The user interface needs to be re-imagined and navigation/synchronization made simpler and more intuitive.
2. Improve iCloud. I feel like iCloud has changed from something as the place all content is shared and safely stored to something that must be managed and is needlessly complex. Many consumers still aren’t fully comfortable with ‘cloud everything’ and how content moves on and off the device. Apple isn’t doing itself any favors here. Example: when you enable ‘family sharing’ for music, you are then told to “delete” your music and then “turn on iCloud” which will ‘restore’ your content. For any consumer who, at some point has lost a hard drive, failed to do a backup, or somehow hasn’t gotten this cloud thing right (i.e. most of us), this is a moment fraught with anxiety.
3. Determine What’s Next with Mail, Contacts, Calendar. These are signature productivity apps but Apple’s versions now seem more workmanlike. Is there something here that could revitalize the category and ‘delight’ rather than merely ‘satisfy’? Despite all the messaging alternatives, it still looks like email is here to stay.
4. Continue to Invest in the PC. Stagnant tablet sales, innovative new combo products on the Windows side, and growing success of Chrombeooks show the ‘post-PC’ world has not evolved in quite the way the late Steve Jobs imagined. The PC will still be the anchor productivity device for the foreseeable future, as shown in a recent survey by Creative Strategies, Inc on Millennials’ device preferences. Apple has work to do in figuring out how the PC and macOS fits into its world going forward. I’ll also go out on a limb and argue this is one category where Apple should consider relinquishing its insistence on having premium products at super-premium prices. One, because in the current product line, it’s not justified. And two, because they don’t want to cede the entire under-30 generation to other platforms. It might not be such a bad idea to have a solid but more affordable Mac product to keep folks fully bought into the Apple ecosystem.
5. Regain the Service Halo. This is harder to quantify but my sense is Apple’s size, and intense pressure to grow, has created the perception the company tries to extract one’s dollar at nearly every opportunity. There was a time when you could get customer service help on the phone without having Apple Care (if you asked nicely). Or, if you brought in a cracked screen a month after you bought the latest iPhone, a ponytailed Apple Store employee would wink and hand you a new one, no questions asked. You felt like Apple had your back, in a way that felt different than other companies and justified, in part, the premium price for their products.
Ten years after the launch of the iPhone, the core of Apple is still very much there. But Silicon Valley’s other biggies – Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Netflix – are all now more significant forces in software, content, and services, making it more challenging for Apple to be in a class by itself as it was for a few years. Which makes me hope that Apple’s tenth anniversary iPhone is about more than just the phone.