For anyone who thinks that Apple releasing a car is all but a sure thing, the lessons from Apple’s now-abandoned efforts at developing an HDTV should not be ignored. The Wall Street Journal this week detailed how Apple spent nearly a decade researching and prototyping HDTV sets before opting to abandon the idea altogether. While Apple could have undoubtedly released a branded HDTV if it wanted to, it decided not to after struggling to come up with compelling features that would have differentiated its own HDTV from rival sets.
The arc of this story is not wholly surprising or even unique; Apple spent a few years and a whole lot of money researching a product before realizing it wasn’t worth pursuing. As Steve Jobs once said, ” I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
And yet, people still seem to be looking at the mythical Apple Car as all but a sure thing, all the while ignoring the fact that Apple constantly researches new technologies and products that, more often than not, never see the light of day.
The chasm between research and development and mass market manufacturing is huge. Merely exploring an idea doesn’t in any way shape or form indicate that a shipping product is on the horizon.
So is Apple perhaps a bit curious about developing a car? Sure. Has the company hired battery experts and other auto industry veterans to assist in this exploration? They sure have. Did Tim Cook approve the creation of a large team tasked with exploring the creation of an electric car? By all accounts, yes.
But is this unequivocal proof that an Apple Car is coming? Not even close.
Bloomberg’s assertion that Apple car production might begin in 2020 is about as spurious, if not downright laughable, as the innumerable research notes from Gene Munster who, for years on end, incessantly proclaimed that an Apple HDTV was imminent.
Again, Apple researches new products and technologies all the time. It’s R&D budget has grown tremendously over the last few years, yet the company’s modus operandi remains the same — they only enter new product categories where they can add something new to an existing product category.
Consequently, I believe Apple’s car project will suffer from the same problem that plagued Apple’s HDTV initiative — the lack of a sufficiently compelling and differentiating feature set.
The problem here isn’t that Apple isn’t capable of developing a nice car, but rather that the premium end of the auto industry, where Apple would presumably compete, doesn’t suffer from a lack of innovation. Like clockwork, companies like BMW and Porsche churn out incredible new cars year after year, both from a design and performance perspective. In short, the auto industry is not a market where Apple can just swoop in and take over an industry beleaguered by laziness and a dearth of innovation. The smartphone market of 2007 this is not.
Of course, the most obvious car company to bring up as part of the discussion is Tesla, especially given that all of the Apple Car rumors we’ve seen suggest that Apple has its eyes set on an electric car. But as noted in a previous piece, the incredible work Tesla is doing leaves little room for Apple to come in and turn the auto industry on its head.
Tesla’s current flagship car, the Model S, is effectively an advanced computer on wheels. A universally praised vehicle, the Model S is an unabashed gem of engineering prowess and ingenuity. With its large 17-inch display, unrivaled safety record, and jaw dropping driving performance, the Model S is arguably the car of the future today. Hardly a unique opinion, the Model S has won innumerable accolades for its design, safety, and performance.
Point being, what gap in the auto industry is there as to make room for Apple to come in and innovate? Where’s the disruption going to come from?
Proponents of an Apple Car are quick to toss around words like “revolutionize” and “disrupt” without ever providing specific details as to what such improvements would entail.
So sure, Apple has some battery experts hard at work, but Tesla has been researching battery technology for years on end. And they’re pretty damn good at it too. When you factor in metrics such as design, performance, nationwide charging stations, the challenges in getting an electric car to market and succeeding are immense.
It’s important to remember that Apple isn’t a magical company capable of skirting around the laws of physics and chemistry. Despite what some analysts and hardcore Apple enthusiasts may want to believe, Apple can’t just snap its fingers and magically come up with a game changing product in the blink of an eye. Sometimes Apple just can’t figure something out, despite its best efforts. Apple’s abandoned HDTV initiative is obviously the most recent example, but Apple’s mythical car, sad to say, may ultimately suffer the same fate.
As a final point, it’s worth highlighting this quote from Jason Snell as it pertains to Apple’s car plans.
The next step in this process isn’t hiring a thousand people and planning a release date. It’s probably setting up a team to investigate all the issues involved in entering this field. Is there something here? What are the issues with entering a new industry? What do we need to create ourselves and what do we buy from suppliers? Do we do this ourselves or with partners? Should we buy someone or invest in someone? Are we really building a car, or just subsystems for a car? And is this all a bad idea that we should forget ever happened?
The lesson to take away from Apple’s abandoned HDTV initiative is clear: Apple will gladly throw a whole lot of resources at new product ideas. And sometimes, such research and accompanying prototyping efforts will persist for years on end. Yet through it all, Apple remains level-headed and has absolutely no qualms about axing a research initiative that doesn’t meet its high standards.
So instead of counting down the days until an Apple Car is introduced, a more instructive discussion would be to focus on how Apple, if at all, might be able to introduce auto-oriented innovations that the industry hasn’t yet seen before.