I spent some time in the Palo Alto Apple store yesterday. My eldest daughter was playing with a raft of different products from laptops, to ipods and iphones and of course all the various accessories. Standing in the midst of the store I became aware of just how many products Apple is now selling and the list seems destined to grow. Now imagine the store as a metaphor for what the average consumer can associate with and you can easily see that as the product range expands their ability to maintain strong associations with products diminishes. Pretty soon Apple is meant to launch some kind of tablet which will take up yet more shelf or table space.
As someone that loves the quality of the Apple products and admires the brand, I worry that this ‘growth’ mentality could be a dangerous path. Some companies are able to run large product lines because their products are designed to reach different audience segments and we understand that as consumers. But Apple’s brand has been built around the idea that we all want all of their products and they’ve actually done a pretty good job of selling that brand. I for example have an iPod, iPhone, iMac, Apple TV and a MacBook Pro. I’ve also got countless Apple accessories and chargers. At some point though the list has to stop. As a consumer I don’t want yet more products. I want fewer that span the gamut. Apple in its recent incarnation (Steve 2.0) has done an amazing job of only launching products that are really needed. Few products seem to have struggled – the Apple TV and the Mac Air seem the notable exceptions, while the iMac iPod, iPhone and iTouch have been huge successes. If Steve was 100% well I wouldn’t raise these concerns. But we all know that Steve is not devoted to Apple in the way he was before his illness and that at some point he’ll take a huge step back. When that happens I worry that Apple will miss his iron grip on the company’s product strategy and that inferior products will be launched and Apple will be right back where it was before Steve returned.
Next time you are in an Apple store, try and imagine that they’ve launched four major new products and still have all the current product range. You will quickly start to wonder how they can fit everything in without making the stores much bigger. FYI rumors are rife that Apple is going to take a much bigger space in Palo Alto and open a new flagship store (click link). Does this suggest their solution to the product proliferation problem is simply to take on more space? I sincerely hope not.
Earlier today I was pondering the fact that someone will inevitably produce a better iPhone. I have no clue whether that product is the Droid. I very much doubt it. But it may be. At this point in the game Apple holds most of the cards. It has a well designed product, reasonable customer service and the iPhone links to that wonderfully closed world call iTunes. Google is trying to do an end run around all that with its own links to music producers and it may well get somewhere. The Android technology also looks like it will be good enough to keep some Verizon customers who would have shifted to the Apple/ATT world. But Google has a huge mountain to climb. The noise level around the iPhone is still huge. A Google news search shows there are roughly 87,000 news stories about the iPhone versus a little under 10,000 for the Android phone. The stats on YouTube are even more in the iPhone’s favor with just 11,200 hits for the Android versus 385,000 for the iPhone. But I expect things to change on that front and change quickly. I have two reasons for believing this:
1. Verizon has to throw a lot behind the launch of the Droid and when that happens the US public will know that the Droid is a real competitor to the iPhone.
2. I think the world is ready for someone to compete with the iPhone. Innovation on the iPhone seems to have stalled. I own one and I love it but the 3GS isn’t that much better than the original. The battery life is still dreadful.
All this makes me wonder whether there really is such a thing as an enduring brand anymore. Competition is more fierce than ever and the tools for competitors to compete using social media mean that any weakness can be exploited and any opportunity grabbed.
We may well have seen Apple’s peak, or we may have seen another competitor try and fail. We’ll know all too soon.
I only just came across Pandora, a web site that essentially allows you to create your own radio stations. You input the name of an artist or song that you like. It plays an appropriate track and then follows it with other similar music. If you don’t like a track you can skip to the next (it only allows six tracks to be skipped per hour). If you really like a track you can bookmark it and of course buy it on iTunes with one click. Pandora is of course perfect for the iPhone, except for the fact that it drains the pathetic battery this device houses. If like me you hadn’t heard of this site, you should try it. I was instantly puzzled how they are dealing with the royalty issues, to which Sean Garrett at 463 immediately said they are in DC dealing with that very issue right now… Hopefully they will be allowed to continue to offer the service.