Be Unbeatable

Farhad Manjoo, writing for Slate:

Imagine you run a large technology company not named Apple.

How are you feeling today, a day after Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the new iPad?

For your sake, my hypothetical CEO friend, I hope you’re frightened.

It’s the iPod model. In this story, Apple begins by releasing a novel, category-defining product. Then, as rivals scramble for some way to respond, Apple relentlessly puts out slightly better versions every year, each time remaining just out of reach of the competition.

In the tradition of the best armchair CEOs, I’ll post my thesis here. If you want to compete with Apple, you have to:

  1. Buy Low, Sell High – Apple does this by being confident it can sell gasquillions of devices and so they make big orders and suppliers are not only hesitant to hedge bets and lose big orders to competitors but they’re willing to make steep discounts to a big order that pays in advance. By dipping a toe in the water, you will never hit the economies of scale needed to compete with Apple. And when Apple enters a market, you can be sure they’ll be looking for 33% margins or better so take that into account.
  2. Own Your Destiny – this is one of the issues with developing on Apple’s platform; you don’t own your destiny, Apple does. But at least developing for Apple,you know you have a partner who wants you to make money. It’s not quite so cut and dried when dealing with other platforms. If your OS vendor isn’t bothered about whether you meet your profit targets, then you should worry. And if you’re developing software for that platform and they seem disinterested, you need to take stock. Whether it’s Apple or Google or even the FLOSS zealots – be careful who you get in bed with.
  3. Respect the Customer – Apple spends millions on marketing, especially recently, showing off the capabilities of the customer when using their hardware and software and the apps produced by third parties. Customers love this, so do the Developers. It makes them compete to get included. In contrast, too many competitors ads focus on the customer, deriding Apple’s customers as deluded by marketing or suckers for wearing white earbuds. The Apple demographic are willing to spend their hard-earned on high end devices, accessories and software. What’s your demographic?
  4. Make the Buy Impulse Easy – Simplify your product lines like Apple did when they axed the entire line to consumer and portable, desktop and laptop. Don’t release three competing devices at once. Apple released one device: iPad which had three choices: Colour, Capacity, Cellular. If you make me wonder whether I want the 5″ or the 7″ or the 7.7″ or the 10.1″ and only some of them come with a Stylus and not all of them ship with the latest version of the software (4.0), some of them still ship with old versions (2.3) and every one of them has a different interface, then my hesitation is making me wonder if I’m making the right decision.
  5. Be Courageous – Don’t wait for Apple to define a market. Go out and take one. In two years, Apple has created a brand new market from nothing and imbued it with the graphics prowess of the leading consoles. And they managed it while also making the “optical plastic disk” market look archaic. Apple re-invented music players, phones, watches, micro-laptops, media players, PDAs and tablets. They’ll do it again unless you do it better. They entered these markets because no-one was doing them well. And especially not for Mac users. People who buy expensive computers when they can buy cheap ones.

So, consider some of these and see if you can do better. I’m pretty sure that Apple won’t enter the TV market (just look at the margins), white goods (look at the margins) or legacy CE (do I need to say it again?). I do have a few ideas about where I think they won’t enter which still has decent margins, but I’m not going to blab. You can figure that out for yourself, probably.

iPad

There were a few people complaining about the new iPad. Apparently it wasn’t innovative enough. That a faster processor (presumably more RAM), 4G networking (and faster 3G), quad-core graphics, Bluetooth 4, 1080p video recording and pushing 4 times the number of pixels (Retina Display at 2048×1536*) while still maintaining the battery life and the same cost is not innovation.

The iPad was revolutionary because it consisted of a screen with a border. The screen was everything. The screen was the gateway to the magical software that runs on the device. Not the Apple-supplied Springboard but apps like Pages, iPlayer, pUniverse, The Elements. The software changed the entire purpose of the device with just a tap. That was the magic and that is, in my opinion, the singular reason for the success of the iPad.

Which is why the most important part of the upgrade was the Retina Display and the quad-core graphics processor to push those millions of pixels. The singular magical feature of the iPad just got four times better. Not ten percent better, 300% better. The touch interface will be just as accurate but the pixels which make up the display will be, for nearly every instance, invisible to the naked eye.

Tim Cook made a big deal that none of their competitors managed to beat their Retina Display in the iPhone nearly two years later and none managed to beat the iPad to release with a similar class of display. As the screen is the most visible part of the device and in many ways; is the device ; it surprises me that none of the competitors have bothered to improve the most important part of the device.

Technology journalists can’t just embrace the success. They get eyeballs from presenting jeopardy so every headline is about how Apple still needs to look out for a series of unlikely competitors because one of them is bound to unseat the Cupertino giant. They wanted the iPad to debut with haptic feedback, fold out keyboards, anti-gravity repulsors and the ability to transform into a pony. They’re also seething that their puerile predictions that it would be known as an iPad 3 or iPad HD were also torpedoed. And they’ll rail in their little gilded cages about how the device will only appeal to the Apple faithful; an assertion that if true, means there are millions of new faithful followers appearing each year. In truth, they’re just angry about being wrong. And they’ll take their anger out on Apple by writing glowing reviews of third rate plastic tablets running outdated versions of second rate software. Or in touchy-feely tones about how Apple was better, you know, before Steve died.

I’ve been a long-time user of Apple equipment and software. The equipment was the only way to get to the software and the software, nomatter what you may have thought of it, was worth paying extra for. I’ve always had the choice of software and hardware over the years due to working for a couple of huge corporations but I came back to Apple every time because it was simply better. They understood what I wanted out of a computer and they still do.

People will buy the new iPad in their millions as they have in previous quarters. The new lower priced iPad 2 (£329) willow, I predict, further push Apple into places they could never have considered before.

* Putting that in perspective, Apple’s 27″ display costs twice as much as an iPad and offers 2560×1440.

The objective has to be learning, not just getting the technology out there

A school in Maine deployed iPads:

“classes using iPads … outperformed the ones without them in every literacy metric used.”

“The objective has to be learning, not just getting the technology out there”

“We are paying attention to app selection and focused on continuous improvement — we aren’t just handing equipment to teachers.”

“many educational institutions have not put in enough effort.”

It has never been about the “new and shiny” though detractors of 1:1 computing programmes have always used this as a defence against the investment in learning. This isn’t about putting Angry Birds into the hands of students or distracting them from their studies with FaceBook but rather adopting a permissive approach to technology. When you permit students to use technology in learning, they use technology in learning. Obviously. There’s no need to compete with FaceBook or BBM for attention if the materials and delivery are engaging.

Note that none of the quotes put the responsibility on teachers. But in the end it is the teachers who have to be engaged with the process before the students can be engaged. We’ve been thinking how the Department of Education in Northern Ireland (DENI) and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) can help in this without just funding cheap iPads (which is not the desired end result). And it obviously has to be in the development of the curriculum and assessment of students.

In the interests of being pro-active, Momentum and Digital Circle are supporting the next TeachMEET in Belfast (because ICT pervades every teaching subject), have published a position paper on 1:1 computing (and the need to accelerate development of resources) and support the removal of ICT in its current for at GCSE and A-level (as it has become the 21st Century equivalent of Typing Class). We are also in the process of creating a new collaborative network for educational content and technology where we hope to bring together local industry, sectoral bodies, academic research and primary/post-primary education to attempt to resolve the big issues we see before us. From what we can see, we’ve inherited decades of legacy and centuries of process, something has to change.

Of course I’m interested, I’m a parent.

iPad growth curve: I have run out of superlatives

Lovely visualisation by Horace Dediu @asymco

It’s hard to appreciate how popular the iPad is until you see it compared to its peers. In the same time frame, the iPad has completely obliterated the amazing success of the iPod and the fantastic success of the iPhone. At this point, I have run out of superlatives.

ePubs and iBooks and whether we care about the EULA.

I took a couple of days to digest the iBooks Author news – to see what the fuss was about and form my own opinions in a timely fashion. I even took time to hoover in all of the opinion on the industry which, on the side of the creators, seems largely positive and on the side of the publishers, seems largely negative.

iBooks Author enables normal folk to create some amazing content. It enables the embedding of HTML widgets, the inclusion of presentation decks, 3D models, pictures, text – in fact – everything you’d want in a book or a magazine, and previously had to pay for an individual app. But one issue, these extra features won’t work in any competing ePub reader because they’re exclusive to iBooks.

From Nameless Horror: iBooks Author Rage

Apple claim no ownership of the product (there’s the standard “we reserve the right to reject and/or pull your book from the store” but that’s no different to any other e-store or bricks ‘n mortar outlet; you don’t have a right to be sold). Your copyright is unaffected. There is nothing whatsoever (so far as I can see) stopping you from taking the same content, assembling a different epub edition in a different program, of which there are plenty (though I’ve not found one that handles this level of designed-for-touch-device interaction and prettiness quite so easily

Obviously some folk are up in arms. Ed Bott, particularly, calls Apple “evil” and “greedy” but I’m failing to understand why he’s so incensed. Apple supports ePub formats, they continue to make the best reader of this cross-platform format on any platform.

All we’re waiting for is someone to create “ePub Author”.

So, two things.

  1. Why didn’t Apple create ePub Author? (and why are people upset about this?)
  2. Why hasn’t anyone created ePub Author? (and why are people not upset about this?)

The world hasn’t had much success in getting open standards out there. I mean, HTML is a standard and look at the mess we’ve had to endure for the last twenty years. And yes, the W3C can rail all they want about the proprietary extensions that make “iBooks” differ from “Epub” but do we have to think about why no-one has made an ePub Author app that doesn’t suck? You can get ePubs out of InDesign and out of Pages but if you want great results, you’re hand-coding the bits and pieces. And that’s not going to make anyone happy.

The big issue for some seems to be the EULA which demands a level of control over the output of the software. That is, they give you a tool for free to create great iBooks, which you can give away for free or sell for less the $15 on the store they’ll set up for you. This not only undercuts a shedload of publishers but also sets a precedent for the pricing. If $15 is the top price, eBooks just got a hell of a lot more affordable. That’s gotta be good for the market and, if Apple is only taking 30% of cover, it’s a lot better for the author as well. Speaking from experience here.

Some folk have compared this to, say, Microsoft demanding control of the output of Microsoft Word which would be a valid comparison if Apple had a monopoly share of the operating systems, a monopoly share of the word processing market, charged several hundred quid for iBooks Author and pushed the iBooks format as a standard across all devices, platforms and organisations. Which, of course, it doesn’t. On any level.

Some people pointed out that Apple has a monopoly share of the tablet market. Which, again, I’d have to say they don’t. They just have a large share of the profits and a pretty good share of shipments. But there were 87-odd tablets announced at CES in 2011 and I’m sure that some of them are selling, somewhere to someone.

Some folk are determined to blame Apple for breaking their expectations that the company would release an amazing ePub editor. Not only that – but that would allow folk to build sparkly ePubs on a Mac using a free tool, glittering with Apple Awesome Sauce and sell them for any price on Android. In any sane version of the world, this does not work. Apple has no interest in promoting Android – they’re much more likely to promote Windows Phone 7 than Android, truth be told. And they’ve no interest in promoting you and your product unless it coincides with their own aims: making the Mac, the iPad and the iPhone the world leaders in great products.

You want to make great ePubs and sell them anywhere? Apple still provides probably the best ePub reader on any platform, for free, to about 300 million customers on iOS. Customers who don’t mind paying for content. And you can deploy on Android and wherever else has an ePub reader. It’s a standard so there must be millions of them. All you have to do is hand-roll the ePubs yourself. Stop stop whinging and get stuck in.

But for the average punter? iBooks just works. And the iBooks available through iBooks Author (though there doesn’t seem to be a solution for iPhone) will be fine considering the number of iPads out there. As a consumer of eBook formats, iBooks delivers – as does Kindle. I don’t recall the outcry when Kindle didn’t support the ePub standard?

iPhone returned

My iPhone came back today and it didn’t take long to get it re-activated and get up and running again. As a special treat to myself I spent a little time re-arranging icons and generally marvelling at this device that I did without for a week.

I thought I’d share this with you, though. Apple sends out their repaired/replacement iPhones in a box that, with it’s matte covering and embossed silver writing, is nearly as nice as the box the iPhone shipped in.

Then you open it and inside is a shining iPhone, wrapped in protective plastic with a screen film and even the inside of the box is padded and cushioned.

Apple has, to my mind, outdone themselves again. Again, thanks to Colin and Christina at O2 in Ards Shopping Centre for looking after me. Very nice people.