When Apple was the underdog in the tech space they knew that they had to release some insanely great products to fight the competition. Apple took risks. Some of those risks didn’t pan out, while others took the company to new heights.
Today’s Apple doesn’t really have to take risks to be successful. Besides the slip in revenue guidance, Apple continues to push out new products that sell insanely well. I know, because I’ll buy them.
I was reading this post on 9to5Mac today about an interview with former Apple head of iOS development Scott Forestall. He spoke about how they kept creativity in the workplace in a place so driven. I began to wonder when was the last time Apple really took a risk?
Seriously, think about it. What was the last risk that Apple took?
Steve Jobs’ Apple Took Risks
Under Steve Jobs, Apple wasn’t nearly in the place it is now. Jobs came in and saved a company from bankruptcy. He saved the company when he came back and continued to push the company forward. When he passed away, Apple had launched 4 version of the iPhone and had claimed the top tech spot in the world.
iPod Mini to Nano
Forestall mentions in his interview about a time when Apple canceled the iPod Mini – one of the best selling versions of the iPod at the time.
“I think you’re always taking risks. At Apple one time, we had been close to bankruptcy, we come out with the iPod and the iPod had been selling ok, we had the best-selling product unit-wise in the history of the company. Then we come out with the iPod nano. We knew we were going to develop it, and we canceled the entire iPod mini line before we even shipped the new product and it could have devastated the company. But we did it because we believed in it and we took risks.”Scott Forestall
With the grace of hindsight, we see that Apple made the right call. The iPod Nano went on the become the best selling iPod ever. But it made me compare this move to the company now. Would the Apple of today put a product like the Apple Watch to rest if they had something better coming out? Would they risk losing money now to make more later?
I would think that Apple would just keep iterating on the Apple Watch. They would keep adding new things to it and push it forward as they have with the iPhone and all of their other product lines. Still is really canceling the iPod Mini really that much of a risk?
So if that wasn’t a risk, what is?
The MacBook Air
I feel that Apple took a risk with the MacBook Air. When it first was released, the MacBook Air induced awe and ire with people. It was the first sleek and portable laptop. The Air led laptop design for years. Even today, many of the advancements of the Air still inspire laptop design.
But when it was first released, it wasn’t really that great of a computer unless you wanted to put way more money into it than many other laptops. The MacBook had a great trade-off. You could have a thin and light, but complete computer that was great for traveling, but it wasn’t that great for everything.
The MacBook Air was so cool though. I mean, Jobs revealed the computer by taking it out of an envelope. I’m sure they thought the Air would sell, but I’m not sure they realized how good of a computer it would become.
Sure, the first iteration of the computer didn’t sell as well as it would later. Apple innovated on the design and continued to make it better. The Risk was in introducing the product in the first place.
But announcing a computer like this when every other company released netbooks seemed crazy. Netbooks were compromised and cheap, but they were selling like hotcakes. The Air combined with the iPad later all but killed the netbook.
While I’m not a video editor, I vividly remember the reaction when Apple launched Final Cut X.
They radically redesigned how things work and even cut out some aspects of the previous Final Cut had for the sake of pushing things forward.
The transition was bumpy sure, but in the long run I think everyone was more happy with what Final Cut X turned out to be.
Today’s Apple is still the same Apple it was when Steve Jobs passed really. They have released new products like the Apple Watch and AirPods, but I argue that the one thing missing is risk.
Both of the Apple Watch and the AirPods supplement the iPhone. They aren’t pillars upon which the company rest. They are just add-ons to the iPhone. Sure, any company out there would probably kill to have a product sell like the Apple Watch or AirPods but that’s not the point.
Tim’s evolution not revolution
Unlike many, I like Tim Cook. I think he has done great things steering Apple. But it’s hard to argue that Apple still has that magic it had with Jobs. Cook seems less likely to risk the bottom line. He doesn’t want to rock the boat, and he likes to play with a safety net. None of those are bad things, but they don’t drive innovation either.
There’s nothing like fear and desperation to really bring out the best in someone. While being the leader can take your eye off of the future.
I’m not sure where I would even say there’s a lack of risk right now. They are following the playbook pretty well. Apple releases a product and every version they refine and improve it.
But where is the MacBook Air styles risk? The iPhone is making stacks upon stacks of bills even with a missed guidance. Still, there hasn’t been any type of risk with the progression of the device since it came out. Apple followed trends that worked when they increased the size of the device – even when they were almost forced by the users to create a larger phone. Security has been added and advanced but that doesn’t seem like a risk to me.
With the iPhone X, Apple “redesigned” the phone for the years to come. They got rid of the bezels and added a facial recognition system. It’s a great phone and one of my favorites. It will lead the design for years to come.
But what was risked?
Where did Apple stop selling something to make a better phone? There wasn’t one. Instead of taking a risk, they hedged their bets and continued to make an iPhone that was just like the one before. The iPhone 8 helped keep the price down for many, but it also showed that Apple wasn’t ready to risk the money maker.
The Headphone Jack
Apple has never been shy about killing off a piece of a computer. The Floppy Drive, DVD drive, and more all were killed.
A couple of years ago, Apple took one of it’s biggest risks in a long time – explaining why they are getting rid of something. The risk did not really pay off. They explained that they were getting rid of the headphone jack because of… courage?! Courage?
That’s not a risk. You don’t take a risk because you are courageous, you take a risk because it’s the right thing to do. Getting rid of the headphone jack wasn’t courage, it was pragmatism. The port needed to go to make room for the next weave of phones. The iPhone 7 was prepping us for that wave.
The New MacBook line
In 2015 Apple announced a new line of laptop computers: The MacBook.
It was a take on the MacBook Air line but even slimmer. Everything was smaller in everyway including the ports.
I thought this was going to be the new MacBook Air type line, they even used the same playbook here. The MacBooks are great little portable computers, but they didn’t do anything new compared to the MacBook Air. It was the same thing just smaller. It even made concessions like the original MacBook Air did. But the product hasn’t evolved since then.
It didn’t enter a new market, it didn’t improve on the specs, and it didn’t drop in price.
When Apple announced the new MacBook Air this year, everyone was excited. We once again had a stylish laptop that wasn’t as crippled as the MacBook.
But it also didn’t do anything new. It didn’t even improve on the MacBook line that much. Sure it has thunderbolt 3 (and 2 ports) but it’s still just a slim notebook.
What Risks to Take
I think right now, the place where they might could take some real risks would be in the software.
It would be crazy to do it, but they could be working on another operating system that could replace iOS or even macOS. I’m not talking about the work Apple has done to bring iOS apps to the Mac, but a real shake up to to the Operating system.
I would love for the iPad to be pushed further software wise. I think it is time for Apple to risk the breaking up of iOS. It could be for the good of the platform.
I’m not a hardware designer, and I currently like just about everything that Apple has done this year with hardware. Still, I didn’t know that I wanted something like the MacBook Air until the MacBook Air came out.
I would like to see them challenge the hardware design of computers as we know it. I like what Microsoft (something I never thought I’d ever say again) did with the Surface Studio desktop. I’d love Apple to make something in that vein. Something that no one has thought of before.
I’m not asking for the next big thing. I know that stuff is in the works at every company. I know that Apple will take its time to create this next big thing and make it easy to use.
What I would really like though is for some risk, or even some competition inside Apple. When the Mac was being developed the team was competing against the Lisa team. When the iPhone was developed they had competing operating systems being worked on. Maybe that could be brought back to Apple. Maybe it never left, and I just don’t know about it.
I want to see Apple act more like the small rebel company that it was in the past. Apple needs to take some risks if they are to survive. If they do that, if they let a little risk in, I think they could keep the products insanely great.
I think Apple is a great company. I think they are still pushing technology forward and they are still creating great products. Are they creating the same exciting and risk taking products they were under Steve Jobs? No. But they were also worth a trillion dollars last summer.
I don’t think Tim needs to leave office as many are calling for, and while I’m not trying to compare Apple of today against Apple of yesterday I still think that the company can focus on taking a little bit more risk.
They are playing with house money right now. Take the chance to blow out socks off and push the company even further.
Bottom line, if they want to be as insanely great as they were, Apple needs to take some risks.