Monday, October 03, 2011

The "One More Thing" thing

Comes tomorrow, Apple will be unveiling the new iPhone (whatever that comes after iPhone 4), iOS5, and maybe more.

In many ways, tomorrow's event and its aftermath will be very uncertain; exhilarating, but uncertain.

The Post Steve Jobs Apple

It baffles me that we still see no shortage of pundits flirting with the idea of receiving yet another dose of epinephrine-inducing encore called "One More Thing" from Apple. Worse, some pundits, like Darrell Etherington from GigaOM writing for Businessweek, suggests that none other than Steve Jobs will be delivering it on stage.

Okay, to be fare, if tomorrow's event will indeed be closed-out with the famed climax, it's got to be done by Steve. The reason is simple: no one can do it like Mr. Jobs, it's just one of his things, like the black turtleneck. Anyone thinking he can pull off the trick like Steve is just begging for mockery, and mockery is what the Apple PR is trying to thwart off in every step of their war game. Among what we can expect at tomorrow's event, "One More Thing" is not one of them. The trick is trite, it's time to move on.

Not only will we not see this encore stunt, we won't even see Steve running the show. I still think there is a chance of Steve being present in the room, even being on stage just to say Hi, but don't expect anything more from him. It is also likely that Steve Woz would be appearing alongside Jobs in the audience front row, signifying the passing-on from the founder's era while leaving us with the last bit of warm fuzzy feelings like a good ending in a Hollywood feel-good flick. Not to mention, the official biography of Steve Jobs will be published in a few more weeks. Personally and processionally for Steve, anything mentioned about him from now on will be about his legacy, not another blockbuster.

The key here is passing on. Beneath the Apple fanfare is the cold hard reality of running a business. The biggest brand of Apple is Apple itself. That brand stood on many legs, one of them the public persona of Steve. As I'll argue below, the event tomorrow will make it clear that Apple will be Apple sans Steve from now on, and that's alright.

iPhone 5

As always, we have seen too many rumors about what the next iPhone will be like. Forgetting the oddball speculations, I think a few things will materialize:

  • A5 processor, if not A6
  • Even better graphics processing power, think games & Airplay,
  • same retina display, with improvements,
  • iOS 5, of course,
  • unibody back, just like the iPad2,
Apple has always let the new products do the talking. We will see how true this is in tomorrow's event, now that Steve won't be distorting our sense of reality no more. The invitation lays out very clearly: Let's Talk iPhone. Pundits are tripping over themselves to read between the lines and pixels, making up stories on the symbolisms on the invitation graphics, to which I say: DON'T. The appearance of iPhone 5 will be enough to generate oohs and aahs, followed by a few app demos by some lucky but trembling developers to show off iCloud integration and some closely guarded secrets of the new model, cumulating to the net effect of everyone including yours truly wanting to get rid of their suddenly stinking iPhone 4. We already know that iOS 5 has reestablished parity with Andriod and outdone the competitors in a few places; iPhone 5 will complete the picture on the hardware front and the OS implementation front.

Uncharted territories

We will most likely see a few more product announcements to complete the picture of iCloud. Also, there have been enough rumbling in the TV space that we can expect to see some iCloud magic there as well.

In the iPod days, product announcements were simple and clean; Apple enjoyed a lot more creative freedom in the product design when it comes to something as simple as an MP3 player. That freedom gave rise to the strategy of multi-tier product lineup with iPod Shuffle, iPod Nano, and iPod Classic that completely took the oxygen away from the competitors. Nowadays, Apple is all about tie-ins, platforms, and ecosystems. No wonder that we see Apple slow down on hardware designs compared to the iPod days, not least because a phone's form factor is a lot more rigid to work around with.

The trend is going to continue even after tomorrow's product announcements. It points to two directions that old Apple fans may not take too well:

  • Apple's strategy is becoming more convoluted, and
  • Apple is becoming predictable.
To be fair, Apple is still the best company to play this game it has written for the industry; no other company is as coherent, nimble, bold, yet huge and powerful; most are just one or another, or neither. To Apple and the shareholders, it means that Apple from now on will either concur the uncharted territories (something Apple has done repeatedly) or go down hill (something Apple has also done to an epic scale before). Going downhill is easy without even making big mistakes; sitting still in Steve Jobs's remaining halo is enough to do it. You can bet that Apple doesn't have that future in mind. Apple's current success also falls squarely in its ability to outmaneuver the competitors, a skill set that come with the current executive team with Tim Cook being the poster child in this department. What we don't know is whether someone, or someones, will fill in the crucial role of great leadership vacuum left by Steve, the role of all roles that attract the best and competing minds to work towards the same goals.

Apple is many things - good things - to different people. To the financiers, it's a money making machine. To the marketers, engineers, and designers, it's a house of superstar products forming an tight and impenetrable superstar team in the tech and media world. To the competitors, it points to new directions and make new markets possible. To consumers, it constantly generates wants and keep them excited. To b-schoolers and professional managers, it's the mecca of strategic and tactical management, from supply chain management all the way to retail management. To the media and journalists, it's a constant source of stories. All these things and more still remain valid at least for a little longer after Steve's retirement.

I do not expect to see the full potential of the new Apple sans Steve in tomorrow's event, but I am still looking forward to seeing signs that can give me more clues to the future. If I have to coin a tone for tomorrow's event, it will be "cautiously optimistic".