Apple is difficult to work with. Apple shuns technology providers. Apple pays its few partners few benefits for selling and supporting their products. And yet, Apple is looked upon by the channel with much admiration despite critics' barbs because it continues to generate profits greater than all the gold in El Dorado.
Over the last 15 years or so, Apple has done a masterful job of not just rethinking technology and form factors, but the entire product lifecycle. Combined with slick marketing, Apple has created a persona that resonates with customers to the point where consumers drag their employers into the Apple sphere of influence kicking and screaming.
Apple, perhaps, has no greater weapon in its arsenal than good timing. And, as everyone knows, timing is everything.
Since Steve Jobs retook the company in 1997, Apple has read market trends, customer desires and technology capabilities with sure instinct to create innovations. The secret sauce has been its ability to bring those innovations to the market at just the right time.
In 2001, Apple introduced the iPod music player a year after buying SoundJam MP, an online music service. The combination of the easy-to-use digital music player and the online music store shook up all of personal entertainment and disrupted the music industry.
On the strength of iPod sales, Apple began redesigning its Mac personal computers, making them smaller, faster and lighter. Mac sales surged and, for the first time, began challenging the dominance of the Windows PC.
In 2007, Apple released the first generation iPhone to disrupt the mobile phone and nascent smartphone markets. At the time, the iPod was the still Apple's best seller, but was reaching market saturation and competitors were coming on strong. The iPhone was an immediate success and, five years later, commands 53 per cent of the smartphone market.
In 2010, with a recession still holding the US economy in its grip, Apple released the iPad, the first marketable tablet computer. Its iPhone sales were still going strong, but the iPad completely disrupted the budding netbook market, which was buoying PC manufacturers up through the recession.
In each instance, Apple's innovation washed over the market at precisely the right time so new product types would create new segments and command nearly 100 per cent market share.
Apple managed that overwhelming market share wisely, with the full expectation that competitors would challenge and, eventually, shift share away. At each stage, the new innovation was enough to offset and lift Apple, forcing competitors to continually play catch up.
Of course, Apple was helped by hapless competitors, none more notable than Microsoft. While Apple innovated, Microsoft was dismissive. Microsoft stuck to its traditional innovation paths, technology families and release cycles, falsely believing its dominant market presence was enough to squelch any competitor momentum.
Now, Apple has a problem which has investors running for the doors and wearing the shine off Apple's once Teflon image. It's one simple question: "What comes next?"
This is a different question to Clayton Christensen's "innovator's dilemma", in which a market leader is disrupted by an upstart that comes to market with a cheaper "good enough" product. No, Apple's dilemma is much worse, as there's no apparently green field waiting to be ploughed.
Apple TV? Smart televisions are available, and the current models on the market by Samsung, LG and Vizio are pretty good. ViewSonic is coming to market with "connected computing", essentially smart TVs with greater processing power to facilitate the cloud.
An iWatch? It's an interesting concept -- wearable technology. But Apple itself did much to destroy the wristwatch industry, helping make the mobile phone everyone's personal timepiece. An iWatch as a computer, entertainment device or mini-television would be nothing more than a share-shift of the current iPods.
iAppliances? Smart refrigerators, washing machines and dish washers are already readily available. In fact, Samsung, LG and GE have multibillion-dollar businesses and distribution systems for their interactive home appliances.
People poking fun at Apple's innovation dilemma have suggested smart, computerised products ranging from internet-connected mountain bikes to toilets. The concepts go from the sublime to the silly -- but it does speak to the issue of what's left to create, and it probably explains why many Apple loyalists who laboured under Jobs are now looking for new opportunities.
Resellers are constantly asking us how they can find new business opportunities that add and sustain value. The lesson from Apple's success is no success lasts forever; innovation is a continual process that must be nurtured, and timing is truly everything. It's not a matter of finding the next big thing, but always looking for opportunities to leapfrog the market.
Companies that miss the next innovation wave, such as Microsoft and HP, often find themselves in a jam.
Larry Walsh is president and chief executive officer of Channelnomics
As part of our special editorial partnership, CRN is publishing this recent article from Channelnomics.
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