The ‘Age of Apple’ will end

First, a little disclosure. I never really wanted to like Apple, or use any of its products. Sure, the allure was there, all the cool kids sitting at the street-side cafes were using Apple products after all, but I managed to resist throughout. The iPhone 4 changed all that.

Now with that out of the way…

Apple will disappear. We’ll talk about the glory days, arguably the period we’re living through now, where it defined entire product categories out of thin air. At the time, it was the leader, the innovator, the best-designed, the most coherent platform.

Remember when the iPad was a far-fetched fantasy which led to the puzzled look and inevitable: “Yes, but who’s going to use/want that?”

Ditto with the iPhone, which took a few iterations to get right. Ditto with the iPod. And don’t forget the “hobby”, by Cupertino-standards, the Apple TV.

Apple will be gone one day. Get comfortable with that. It’s like the too-good-to-be-true relationship with that girl who is completely out of your league. It will end some day.

History is our guide. And the changes we have seen over the past decade have happened at ferocious pace.

Remember Palm, the inventor of the smartphone (which went by the moniker PDA back then)? We’ve seen this movie play out before. Who had an Alcatel or an Erricsson phone just over a decade ago? A Compaq computer?

It’s not just in the handset/computing/platform space. The examples are everywhere and because of the acceleration in the pace of change, are piling up quickly.

Entire industries are being disrupted. Retail giants like Circuit City, Blockbuster and Borders have literally evaporated in the US.

In the electronics space, Philips, Telefunken, TDK, Blaupunkt and Pioneer used to make everything, right. Right?

Further back, names like Commodore, Compuserve, Packard-Bell and IBM (my first PC was a PS2!) all meant something. “IBM”, now firmly in servers and consulting, would mean very little to a 13-year-old today. AOL has been around for 20 years and is now far less relevant as a brand (and company?) than its Huffington Post business. Even “Instagram” has more meaning to some young people than “Polaroid” — a company that sold millions and millions of cameras.

The thing with Apple is you (already) have a massive installed base.

Apple has sold over 200 million iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch) since the original iPhone launched in 2007. And it has an undeniably strong platform.

So surely the installed base, the platform (and the ecosystem!) mean you’re locked in?

Yes and no. The cost of switching exists – it’s not zero but it’s not prohibitive either.

There was a time when Yahoo! was the number one portal in town. You either searched the web on Altavista or Yahoo!. And then, within years the one had been subsumed into the other and both found themselves fairly irrelevant. The cost of switching search engines is zero — something Google has great pleasure in providing as evidence to anti-trust authorities.

Sometimes even the cost of switching doesn’t matter. We’ve seen evidence of this in how easily fickle young consumers have flipped between MXit and BBM. Or between MySpace and Facebook. Try telling someone that switching is difficult because it means they have to rebuild their social graph.

Horace Dediu, perhaps one of the most critical and intelligent writers around, has visualised platform adoption (looking at anything from Xbox 360 to Netscape to iTunes), with some startling results.

(Hint: the further out you are towards the top right of this chart, the better)

Windows is an interesting exception.

Dediu has also hypothesised about the race to a billion users, which is not as simple as it sounds.

“Reaching one billion in less than 10 years is an interesting challenge for any platform and, at first glance, it seems that both iOS and Android have a shot at it,” say Dedieu

Maybe at a billion users, the rules change.

The inherent difficulty is that, at some point, innovation does not scale.

This manifests itself in altogether different ways, both externally and more crucially inside a company. How do you innovate as effectively when you have 50 000 employees compared to when you had 5000 employees? We’re seeing Nokia as well as RIM (BlackBerry) wrestle with these very issues.

Nokia was the gorilla, full stop. BlackBerry owned the enterprise. In two years’ time they could both be toast, perhaps sooner. They could also end up reinventing themselves.

We’ve seen it play out with MySpace in a very short space of time, literally months (Facebook runs a serious risk of not being able to innovate at the scale it finds itself at).

Apple will be gone some day. Maybe in four years’ time. Maybe forty. So too Facebook. And Google.

One might argue, and the temptation is there, that this time it really is different. If you truly believe that, I’ve got some Groupon stock I’d like to sell you…

Image: SubDooM




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