The Myth of Success

Partly as a response to some of the feedback I’ve had on yesterday’s post and partly in response to feedback on twitter today, I’ve been driven to create another blog post on the notion of ‘success’ and how (traditional, and very well executed) PR can completely blind people to the realities of a situation.  I should point out before I start that the entire PR industry is changing to be more authentic and to debunk these myths, but at the moment, hyperbole is still remarkable in the manner it influences perceptions.

And yes, I am going to use Apple as a case study.  But I could well have used most other tech companies, with the absolute exception of XEROX.  The  Palo Alto Research Center (PARC; set up by XEROX but now a wholly owned subsidiary) is, and always will be for me, the only truly innovative non-government technology development centre of our time. And during the key period in desktop PC and internet development during the 1970s-1990s, it was absolutely prolific in its outputs. ALL other products that have been developed in this sector are based on the pioneering work done at PARC. Even the Graphical User Interface (GUI) was theirs; in spite of many commentators’ claims of Apple’s pioneering of the GUI, it was actually a product of PARC and adapted for the first Apple Lisa released in 1983, ten years after the Xerox Alto was developed.

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So… to my case study.

There is much hyperbole in the press today about Apple’s new iPad and much quoting of Steve Jobs in saying the iPad represents a new revolutionary platform and is ‘magical’.  Not only is this hype patently untrue, it is evidence of Apple’s ongoing mastery of the myth of success that surrounds the firm’s products.  Let’s take a look at the evidence shall we?

iPod: “Game changer; moves mountains in music industry; must-have”

The iPod came out in 2001, four years after the first mass produced MPMan went to market in 1997.  iTunes, which is usually attributed as the vehicle for iPod’s success, has certainly made in-roads into the music sales industry market, but it has mainly eaten into existing CD sales and overall music sales are down.  Even iTunes sales were down in 2009.  But when you take into account massive closures in CD retailing stores, creating unemployment on a grand scale in music retail, the net effect of iTunes and digital music sales has been remarkably negative.

Certainly the iPod has cornered the MP3 player device market with approximately 75% of market share in the US.  But this has only occurred after overcoming several issues with durability, reliability and DRM issues that plagued early iPod outputs (particularly pre-2006).

The iPod is well-designed for user interface but is not in any way a game changer.  iTunes is quite specifically resisted by many users, and its deals with AT&T and B2B markets came just the fourteen years after Microsoft’s original deal with telecommunications providers and media bodies for content.

Not ground-breaking. Not revolutionary.

iPhone: “Best phone on the market; most successful”

As I noted in my post yesterday, the iPhone has captured just 15% of market penetration and is actually being challenged in the market by a resurgence in the Symbian and Blackberry competitors.  It’s certainly an attractive device and much loved by the technological elite, but even its interface design was not new when it came out in 2007.

The iPhone is based on a touchscreen interface, which had developed over several iterations of stylus oriented devices before the first touchscreen smart phone, the Ericsson R380, came out in 2000 – seven years before the iPhone.

The scrolling and multitouch functionality of the iPhone is, of course, based on earlier scolling PDA functionality and multi-touch technology invented in 1982, embedded into several desk devices from 1991, and manufactured for mass market use from 2001.

Beyond the battery problems I’ve alluded to in yesterday’s post, there have also been issues with SIM locking and restrictions on application loading.  But essentially, the iPhone, as lovely as it is, has nothing in it that is essentially innovative. It has merely brought together pre-existing technologies in to a rather pretty and expensive package.  So expensive, indeed, that profit margins for iPhones are the highest in the mobile device sector.  That’s success in terms of profit, drawn from overcharging those who buy the devices, not success in terms of market penetration, device durability or device innovation.

So… not revolutionary, nor most successful.

iBook, Macbook: “Best ever made! Unbelieveable Power!”

I had an iBook back in 1999 when they first came out.  They were very girly, after all, with their little carry handle at the top. But the technology itself was fairly bog-standard even back then. And this was deliberate: it was designed to be lower spec than the Powerbook which was aimed at professional users.  But the Powerbook was a machine developed from 1991 – 2006 as a relatively successful, but ultimately very highly priced alternative to the IBM and (later) Compaq alternatives in the market.  The Powerbook captured up to 40% of market share in the very early days, but as more competitors in laptop market were released with the more-powerful Intel 80486 chip, their dominance waned rapidly, and never recovered.

Importantly the technology behind the earliest Powerbooks was also based on the earlier IBM devices from 1988 and the (Australian) Magnum, which emerged in 1982.

So what about the more recent Macbooks?  They are, again, incremental improvements on existing technologies but the tech design is again, beautiful. As for market share, Apple doesn’t make the top 5 of global laptop sales and only comes in 4th in the US, with just 8% of market share. Hmm. Not exactly successful penetration rates there either.

And as for the unbelievable power? The general consensus seems to be that among ultra-portables, the new Sony Vaio is the most powerful at the moment, while Dell’s Alienware notebooks seem to be the product of choice for general laptops.

So… the Apple notebooks are neither unbelievably powerful nor the best ever made.

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I could go on, but I’m not going to.  The point I’m making is that success can be measured by:

– Innovation, first-to-market;
– Quality and durability of the product;
– Mass adoption (or at least dominant market share);

– Profits.

The only area in which Apple are genuinely successful today are in profits on iPhone sales.  This doesn’t make their products good, it just means they are generating higher margins, thus charging more for what they sell. Apple’s success is a myth. It’s all about perception and hyperbole, and not about actual fact.

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