Thursday, August 25, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Future of Consumer Technology

Steve Jobs resigned.  At least he turned over his CEO duties to Tim Cook.  He's still there, still in charge.  And people everywhere are buzzing with two questions.  First, why now.  I think that's an easy one, and everybody knows it.  They just are loathe to say it.  I'm not - I'm nobody, so it's easy for me.  He has an expiration date.  His docs have told him the clock is running, and even given him a number of options for how long it has to run.  So he pulls the trigger on the transition strategy, occupies the Chairman position to cement the business strategy and moves up the publication of his biography to make sure he has control of his legacy.  For a Cancer and transplant survivor beginning to show his age, this doesn't seem to be a great leap.

The second question concerns the future of Apple in a post-Jobs world.  But when people ask this question, they're not asking about Apple, not really.  For Apple defines the arc and trajectory of consumer technology, and consumer technology defines this century, from culture to lifestyle, from creation to consumption, from books and music to movies and teevee,  how we gather information, entertain ourselves, work, date and learn  What Apple does, and what Apple doesn't do, will be seen as describing and defining the way digital content is created, distributed and consumed in the twenty first century.  Apple's plans are usually regarded as a great mystery, an untold future as well analyzed by prophesy as by analysis, a fuzzy portal to a black box behind the legendary Jobs Distortion Field.  But is this really the case?

MP3 players, SmartPhones and Tablets were well known long before Apple defined their final form.  We were not shocked by the capabilities of the iPod, just it's size and the way it worked.  We had digital music, Jobs just gave us the right way to consume it.  Likewise iTunes.  We'd known for years we would eventually be buying our music this way.  Jobs was the one with the power, wealth and vision to create it.  The iPhone didn't signify any great technological breakthrough - it was really nothing more that what RIM SHOULD have done with the BlackBerry, the handheld digital communications device updated with readily available technologies.  But Jobs did it better than they might have, with bulletproof software and a genuinely usable interface.  And Tablets?  Tablets have been around in various forms for literally decades.  What Apple did was wait until all the pieces of technology were ready for prime time, from displays to processors to batteries and all the little bits that make them so broadly useful, like GPS and accelerometers.  Then, when they knew they could produce something people would want to buy, they took the iPad to market.  Again, no real breakthrough, just good design and a finely honed sense of market demand.

In that light, we shouldn't have trouble discerning what the future of digital consumer technology might look like.  It is increasingly evolving to an "always connected" model with minimal demands for local storage.  That leads to a complete transition to the "streaming" consumption model, where we have access, either paid or free, to books, music, movies and teevee shows.  We have a pretty good idea of what the devices we consume this media will look like - HDTV, Notebook computers, tablet computers and SmartPhones - So the battle comes down to efficiently and effectively delivering that content, and delivering the broadest variety.  That essentially leaves the market to a few Datacenter powerhouses with the resources to fight that battle: Apple, Netflix, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Comcast, those sorts of players.

There's really nothing new to deliver, and no new way to consume it, so the breakthroughs will have to come from the other end of the wire -  mostly invisible, except that they'll be easier, faster and, perhaps, cheaper.  The extent to which these content delivery services are actually cheaper will be entirely dependent upon the existence of real competition - and the barriers to entry are gigantic.

One area where there IS substantial space for innovation and development is in content development.  As we naively complained decades ago, there were "a thousand channels and nothing on".  Now there are infinite channels - and millions of consumers beginning to see the value in paying for content.  Sometimes.  Under some circumstances.  There might be a number of new form factors that people will want.  Short non-fiction e-books, 10-20,000 words.  Episodic series in the 10 to 15 minute-per-episode range, whether animated, CGI or real actors.  Participatory entertainment, with HD Webcams and real-time networks.  The system supports a myriad different ways to inform and entertain, and people will find new ones they like.  Whether they represent a viable market remains to be seen.

What we can recognize at this point was the perfect timing of Steve Jobs.  Just as the technologies became available, he oversaw the infrastructure buildout, from the consumer consumption devices to the global marketplace to the delivery mechanisms.  Apple may continue to dominate this market, but there are challenges ahead for Cook and the people at post-Jobs Apple.  The consumer hardware is in a purely evolutionary mode, with the rest of the industry starting to catch up with Apple in both hardware and software.  And we learned something critical over the weekend, when people rushed out to buy a Tablet they had already rejected merely because it reached a critical price point - the storied $99.  Apple has to know that they cannot maintain market dominance if they are confronted with a significant price disadvantage - and you can bet that this phenomena did not go un-noticed by some of the larger global manufacturers of consumer electronics.  Also, the next big steps in the evolution of these technologies will not be at the consumer end, but will be in the datacenter, and with the telcos and ISP that provide the access.  And these backend technologies have not traditionally been Apple's strength, although the Cupertino braintrust has not shirked their recognition of this reality, building one of the largest state-of-the-art datacenters in the world in North Carolina.

My guess is Apple will do just fine in the Post Jobs environment.  They are a mature company, steeped in the Jobs ethos of building excellent products and controlling every bit of the user experience.  They have a passionate base of consumers who are the opposite of price sensitive, and they still enjoy a one to two year hardware development advantage over the competition, even as the software gap (between iOS and Android) closes rapidly.    For everything I've always found annoying about Jobs and Apple, we as consumers are better off for what they built, even if we don't own a single Apple product.  And that should be enough legacy for anyone...


  1. Is this a picture of an Orb Weaver, or is it Mandos?

  2. Mostly nodding in agreement so I feel bad about mentioning these two niggling points.

    1. Nothing new to deliver and no new way to consume it. That shows a lack of imagination. No wait - it's actually a lack of belief in the imaginations of others. At a minimum, there's room for innovation in user interface (my perspective as a gamer. see motion controls, Kinect, &c.) - it can only be touchpads and buttons from here on out.

    2. Price point. Apple has always competed with a price disadvantage - or from their perspective, sold their products at a premium. That premium is part of their identity - an implication of quality.

    But other than those two nitpicks, which vanish to irrelevancy in context of the post - I totally agree. Apple has been the prime mover in terms of shaping everything since forever. On the same scale as how the combined auto companies shaped the forever before that.

    Also the cancer thing too. That truly sucks.

  3. I have a lot of boring opinions about Jobs and Apple.

    But mainly, I find it cute that mikey thinks there are going to be 'consumers' for much longer. We will all be far to busy welding random steel pieces to dune buggies and roaming the countryside scavenging gasoline.

  4. Oh, there'll be consumers. They might be found in Brazil, India, China, Kenya and UpsideDownie Land instead of here, is all. Here in America we'll call them "looters".

    DKW, I absolutely agree on the Apple brand and price point. The thing that I find fascinating is this discovery via HP and the $99 Touchpad is that a global company with deep pockets and integrated manufacturing can at this point BUY market leadership at an affordable price. That's an interesting condition...