One of the roles of leadership is to instill and foster a culture that embraces change and empowers the team to improve. This call for change is also echoed in the Plan-Do-Check-Act or PDCA cycle that serves as a typical model for driving continuous improvement in many organizations. In this regard, Apple has clearly demonstrated their commitment to develop and improve their existing products.
As I’ve written many times before, “There’s always a better way and more than one solution.” From the outside looking in, Apple appears to embrace this thinking too, as evidenced by the unveiling of the new and much rumoured iPad Mini as well as announcing a number of significant upgrades to their existing product lines.
However, as the late great management guru Peter Drucker stated, “There is no business without a customer”. When we consider the numerous and diverse range of brand advocates a business may have, we also realize and understand that customers are very much a natural extension of the business itself. In this context, I contend that Apple’s best kept secrets may just be their own worst enemy.
Timing is Everything
From a leadership perspective, transparency, respect, accountability, integrity, and trust are just a few of the defining traits of a lean organization. The vision must be clear and understood to ensure that decisions, goals, objectives, and actions are aligned accordingly. Unfortunately, as customers, we can only rely on “leaks” and “rumours” to learn of Apple’s hidden agenda and attempt to plan our purchases accordingly.
While Apple may be lean at its core, I can only wonder how much waste is generated at the consumer level. Each new product introduction is met with a host of people ready to replace their existing devices with the latest and greatest technology Apple has to offer. It begs the question, “How many people can actually afford to keep pace with the current rate of change?”
In this regard, continuing to release new products at an ever-increasing frequency is quickly becoming a deterrent for people to “buy now.” The decision to purchase is offset by the potentially greater benefit of waiting just a little while longer. I contend that this is where Apple’s strategy may soon fall short. I’m not endorsing Samsung here, however, this Samsung Galaxy S3 ad has captured the point we’re making here:
Effective leadership understands that the timing for change is as critical as the change itself. If change occurs too frequently, people will abandon their efforts to embrace any of them knowing that another is already in the making.
Chasing the Dream
As a public company, Apple is subject to tremendous market pressures to maintain its record-setting trend of higher returns for shareholders and also serves to fuel a shorter cycle of new product introductions and upgrades. This rapid injection of perceived “new” technology is equally offset by higher rates of planned obsolescence.
While some of the changes announced were much-anticipated, especially the iPad Mini, the 4th generation iPad was a complete surprise – at least it was to me. Was the release date of the 4th Generation iPad so obscure that a 3rd generation product release was required only seven short months ago?
I have become increasingly concerned over the frequency that change occurs, especially when they directly affect my pocketbook. Frequent changes leave consumers little time to absorb them and their significance is rapidly diminished by the next generation of products that follow. From a lean perspective, the PDCA cycle encourages incremental improvements to – or within – an existing process or system and this is the consistent, fundamental flaw in Apple’s product development cycle:
Existing devices cannot be upgraded.
The majority of recent changes introduced by Apple are hardware related including the release of iOS6 as a necessity to support the new offerings. The new A6X chip, an integral part of the new iPhone 5 and the recently announced 4th generation iPad, offers twice the speed and twice the graphics performance over its predecessor, the A5X chip. Hardware changes of this nature are rarely an after thought and keeps me wondering why Apple was so compelled to release the 3rd generation iPad only a few short months ago.
Loyalty, Trust, and Making Amends
Many consumers are advocates of the Apple brand and their loyalty implies that a certain element or level of trust exists. With this in mind, the changes introduced by Apple carry an even greater significance as this trust is tested with each step that Apple takes. The decision to purchase an Apple device is as significant as the price tag it carries – they are expensive. Apple clearly understands this and created the new iPad Mini to bridge the price gap in kind, although it too carries a hefty price tag.
For Apple, change may be the norm but, for consumers it’s not always that simple. Apple clearly recognizes that consumers want the latest and greatest product offering available. The questions to be answered here are two-fold:
- How much are consumers willing to pay for a new device? and,
- How OFTEN (or how soon after) are they willing to purchase its successor?
In light of these recent announcements, a third and perhaps even more important question begs to be asked, “What is the relevant lifespan of my new device after purchase? The 3rd generation iPad’s core chip technology became obsolete in as little as 7 months from the date it was introduced and the relative value is sure to decrease even more rapidly with each generation that follows.
As mentioned earlier, the A6X chip was an integral part of the iPhone 5 and it is highly likely that integrating it into the 4th generation iPad was a known “next step”, long before the 3rd generation iPad was even released. I would suggest that the new iPad Mini, also built on the A5X platform, will also be short-lived as an A6X upgrade or even a retina display can’t be too far behind.
A company as large as Apple must have a product development plan and I challenge the ethics of a company that would knowingly lead consumers to purchase a “new” device that will become obsolete before they even take it out of the box. To make amends with recent buyers of the 3rd generation iPad, it has been suggested that Apple plans to offer free upgrades if their product was purchased within a certain time frame prior to the announcement of the 4th generation iPad.
I’m not opposed to any company that can make a profit, especially in today’s economy. However, Apple’s profits are borne by consumers who remain hopeful that Apple may actually provide a product that can deliver real value. It is peculiar and concerning that consumers are almost too anxious and willing to abandon their current devices for the “next best thing” as though their existing devices fell short of meeting expectations.
Now Serving … Shareholders
I am convinced that Apple’s primary interest is shareholder satisfaction at the expense of consumers by convincingly giving cause for consumers to part with their hard-earned dollars in pursuit of the “Next Big Thing.” In summary, the secret to Apple’s fortunes lies in ever shorter product cycles and even more frequent changes that give rise to increased product turnover, increased revenues, significantly higher profits, and ultimately higher returns for shareholders.
As we pursue our own lean efforts, we must be cognizant of the perception created when the need for change is driven by an agenda that is contrary to the vision of the company, namely, that of the shareholders themselves. You may recall the “noise” surrounding the valuation of Facebook’s IPO and shareholder concern over the process of creating and generating revenue. Even more profound (and to be applauded) was Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that Facebook intended to make money through the IPO to make Facebook even better – it was never Mark’s intention to make shareholders rich at the expense of FaceBook users.
I am always more than a little concerned when the influence of the stock market is greater than the vision that brought the company there in the first place. RIM serves as an excellent example of a company that has managed a fine line with shareholders to make leadership changes while still pursuing the release of the much-anticipated next generation BlackBerry 10 Operating System. While the changes announced by RIM were very well received, failing to provide a release date caused stocks to decline even further. Despite their announcements of cuts to the workforce, they have remained committed to pursue the next generation hardware and software. Time will tell how the market responds now that RIM has announced a January 30, 2013, product launch.
The Next Step
With many thanks to Steve Jobs, Apple certainly deserves credit for shaping how we use computers today and Apple’s ability to create consumer frenzy for “What’s Next” is to be admired. Though Apple cites rapidly changing technology as the reason for its frequent product changes, I would challenge this statement as evidenced by the seemingly lower rates of change from Apple’s competitors.
On the whole, I find Apple’s products to be of high quality – though not without flaws – and extremely overpriced. The new iPad Mini and protective cover retail at $330.00 and $45.00 respectively and serve as just one example where the price far exceeds that of it’s nearest competitor. To make matters worse, a power adapter that should cost only a few dollars to manufacture retails at almost $30.00. Apple’s sales are staggering, however, their margins on sales are even more so.
I fully appreciate the craftsmanship of the Apple product line. The machines at all levels are exceptionally crafted and the user interface – at least on “touch” devices – is to be commended. However, from a software perspective, I have yet to see a serious professional suite that rivals that of Microsoft Office (Home or Professional). The release of iOS6 did nothing to improve my experience with Apple’s existing hardware or software.
The number of available “apps” is literally overwhelming and continues to grow at a daunting rate. Although many are either free or relatively inexpensive, finding an app that meets your needs can be a real challenge. I find many apps are overrated, lacking depth beyond the simple and individual functionality they provide. As a result, I tend to gravitate toward those apps (Evernote, Dropbox) where the scope also extends to competitor products as opposed to Apple specifically. As the major players continue to define and refine available hardware platforms, the App market may still be too fresh to establish the real dominant players in certain core segments.
Rather than waiting for a truly significant product upgrade, Apple has been too fast with too many incremental product changes that may leave some consumers suffering buyer’s remorse, feeling alienated, or worse – betrayed. Although RIM may be too long in the making of its BlackBerry 10 Operating System, Microsoft’s major Operating System releases are typically far and few between too. Certainly Windows 8 has taken the market by storm with full touch screen integration for desk top, lap top, and ultrabook computers.
Perhaps the questions to be discerned are, “How soon is too soon?” and “How long is too long?” If it hasn’t been determined yet, there must be a “Goldilocks” cycle that’s just right: worth the wait and worth the money.
I contend that Apple has succumbed to a greater concern for shareholders to sustain market share at the expense of customer trust and cash. To maintain their share of the market, they have taken their suppliers and competitors, namely Samsung, to court and seem compelled to pre-empt any new product announcement from their competitors with an announcement of their own – ready or not.
Apple provides a high quality premium priced product. Yet, as I look at the tools I have at my disposal (no pun intended) – a Mac Mini, iPhone 4s, and a 3rd generation iPad – I am underwhelmed by each of them. With all of the attention to detail that Apple seems to mind, I can’t help but wonder why something like the on-screen keyboard doesn’t reflect the current shift state of the keys – like my PlayBook does.
I have already heard rumours that a new iPhone 5s may be available in the first quarter of 2013. If memory serves me correctly, that should be just in time for RIM’s launch of the new BlackBerry 10 Operating System and the launch of Microsoft’s Surface Pro. Of course, despite the rumours, who knows what or when the next surprise will be. I’m sure it will be sometime soon.
Only time will tell how long Apple can continue to keep customers “Chasing the Dream.” As for me, like a number of Apple’s recently resigned Apple executives, that chase is over.
Until Next Time – STAY lean
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- Don’t Buy An iPad Mini (Yet)! (AAPL) (businessinsider.com)
- Introducing: The iPad Mini (jaxov.com)
- Amazon Says Kindle Withstood iPad Mini Assault (allthingsd.com)
- iPad mini with Retina display reportedly in the works? [Rumor] (ubergizmo.com)
- Apple Announces iPad Mini, iPad 4 (misco.co.uk)
- iPad Mini Proves Major For Apple Shares (forbes.com)
- Samsung Claims the iPad Mini Infringes Its Patents (gizmodo.com)
- Five Apple turkeys in 2012 (cio.com)
- Apple iPad mini infringed patent, claims Samsung (thehindu.com)
- iOS 7 for 2013 plus iPhone 5S, iPad & iPad mini release forecasts (phonesreview.co.uk)