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Should Apple take a page from Google’s playbook and try more moonshots?

May 6th, 2016 at 10:28 AM
Apple Innovation

Given all of the bizarre advice that analysts and pundits seem to be throwing at Apple these days, you might be forgiven for thinking that the company was in dire straits. From calls to acquire Netflix to pleas to snatch up Tesla and bring Elon Musk on board, the level of panic surrounding Apple’s future might have you believe that the company is losing money and, in the span of just one quarter, has lost its ability to innovate.

That sentiment, however, couldn’t be farther from the truth. Apple’s most recent quarter admittedly didn’t measure up to last year’s earnings report, but the company still managed to post $50 billion in revenue and $10 billion in profits, more than Google, Facebook and Microsoft combined. Furthermore, with the iPhone 7 release looming, we’d all be well advised to perhaps be patient, at least for a few months, and see what type of innovations Apple has in store for us when it releases its next-gen iPhone.

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But because the fast-moving tech world has never been a realm one associates with patience, the chorus of industry analysts arguing that Apple needs to shake things up only continues to grow louder with each passing day.

Most recently, Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times published a piece arguing that Apple should try more moonshots. Moonshots, in case you’re unfamiliar, is a term popularized by Google that refers to bold and brazen initiatives that almost seem too crazy, outlandish and too risky to actually pay off. Google of course prides itself on its penchant for moonshots, whether it’s the work it’s doing on advanced robotics, self driving cars, or the healthcare and disease prevention research it conducts via its Verily subsidiary.

With that as a backdrop, Manjoo effectively argues that Apple should take a page out of Google’s playbook and perhaps dream a bit bigger than it has been in recent years.

To thrive in the next era of tech, Apple needs to take a series of bigger, bolder risks. Apple’s last decade and a half, mostly under Mr. Jobs, has been defined by perfectionist focus… That attitude was perfectly suited to a particular era in tech…

But the next moment in tech is likely to be dominated by data-driven online services — more products like Siri and Apple Pay, fewer stand-alone hardware innovations like the iPhone.

In that environment, the slow search for precision and perfection might no longer be in Apple’s best interest. Mr. Cook’s goal, now, should be to alter Apple’s governing ethos to induce a small measure of chaos into his company.

It is likely that Apple is already working on some bold plans in secret (a car and a pay TV service are among several that have long been reported). The shift I’m calling for would not be radical, just evolutionary. It should be more nimble and slightly more public with its experiments, and push more of them out sooner. When it releases stuff, it should move faster to fix and improve what is wrong. Above all, it should take more risks; it should say yes more often.

Manjoo’s position is interesting and fair, but there are a few points worth noting.

One of the first things Steve Jobs did upon returning to Apple in 1997 was completely decimate a product line that had grown unwieldy. With Jobs at the helm, Apple focused on releasing far fewer products while ensuring that the products they did release were incredibly polished. That being the case, imploring Apple to completely turn around a business structure that helped them become one of the most valuable companies on the planet might reasonably be viewed with a fair share of skepticism.

Second, I’m all for crazy and bold ideas (or moonshots if you will) but if we look at Google, for example, it’s plainly evident that none of their moonshots have paid off from a profit perspective. Not only does the company still make the vast majority of their money from advertising, but they’ve recently started to scale back some of their more ambitious projects because of monetization concerns.

Third, and Manjoo addresses this issue as well, is the fact that Apple is seemingly held to a double standard as far as their products go, which is to say they’re not really afforded any room for failure. Even the Apple Watch, a product that outsold the iPhone in its first year, has largely been derided as a flop. Apple just sold 50.1 million iPhones last quarter and people have already been calling the iPhone 6s a dud.

That being the case, big and bold bets from Apple also run the risk of tarnishing the company’s pristine brand. Nonetheless, Manjoo speculates that the risk might be well worth it.

We’re in an odd time in tech. There are lots of new technologies pegged as potential next big things — artificial intelligence, virtual reality, drones, wearables, the Internet of Things — but figuring out how all these pieces should fit together to create experiences people love necessarily involves experimentation.

In this environment, the best new products are not likely to be obvious. They will most likely be ridiculed at first and they may actually be kind of useless in early versions. But over time, with brainstorming and updates based on consumer feedback, you might discover something precious.

Again, these are fair and well-reasoned points. But Apple almost seems programmed to avoid this type of strategy at all costs. The company routinely works on projects and products that never see the light of day. And even products that function well are scrapped if they’re not sufficiently unique. To wit, Apple for years researched an HDTV but ultimately abandoned plans to release such a product because they couldn’t figure out how to sufficiently differentiate it in an already crowded marketplace. Similarly, if Apple ever does release a car – something I’m skeptical of – it stands to reason it will be completely unique and will stand apart from anything else on the market, Tesla included.

All that said, the technological landscape is never stagnant, and the  business principles that governed the world of tech in 2003 are markedly different from the ones in play in 2016. Consequently, perhaps it’s not entirely outlandish to expect Apple to adjust to the changing times and, maybe, heed some of Manjoo’s advice.

Manjoo also clarifies that Apple’s new strategy doesn’t necessarily need to involve radical new products like a car; even evolutionary ideas would be a welcome change of pace.

What it doesn’t have quite yet is enough of an appetite for the speed and risks that come with creating and maintaining new services. Some of its sins here have been unforgivable. Siri was one of the earliest voice-recognition technologies released to the public. It wasn’t perfect when it came out and Apple has made slow improvements over time. Today’s Siri is vastly more powerful than yesterday’s.

But it still feels like a missed opportunity. There is so much Siri should be able to do that it cannot. Why can’t Siri plug into more parts of my phone? Why can’t it tap into the Uber app to call a car for me, or start up HBO Now when I say, “Hey, show me last week’s ‘Game of Thrones’?”

I’m certainly inclined to agree. Siri is much better than it was even 2 years ago, but it still seems like there is a boatload of untapped potential lurking beneath its surface.

And perhaps that sentiment, in a broad sense, lies at the heart of Manjoo’s piece; Apple, with a tremendous ecosystem bolstered by untold millions of loyal users and billions in cash, appears to be moving much more slowly than rival companies with far fewer resources at their disposal.

Make sure to hit the source link below for Manjoo’s full take on the state of Apple innovation. In a time where ridiculous ideas reign supreme, it’s refreshing to see a well thought out take on what Apple can do to take its business and technologies to the next level.

A life long Mac user and Apple enthusiast, Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large for over 6 years. His writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and most recently, TUAW. When not writing about and analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions, the most recent examples being The Walking Dead and Broad City.

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