Speculating about future Apple products is really hard to do well. That doesn’t keep everyone from trying. Even grizzled Apple-watching veterans often fail catastrophically with each new Apple announcement.
The reason it’s difficult is that “evidence,” which would normally be the best tool for predicting things, doesn’t work in Apple’s case.
The best criteria are strategic and cultural analyses. But even these are not perfectly reliable.
If you’ve struggled to accurately guess in the past what Apple will announce, don’t feel bad. Even Apple executives themselves don’t know until often very late in the game.
Here’s why predicting Apple products is so hard.
The Trouble with ‘Evidence’
There are three basic kinds of “evidence” people use to predict what Apple will ship in the future: patents, manufacturing reports and leaks. They’re all misleading.
A “normal” company like Samsung or Nokia, HP or Microsoft takes a totally different approach to product development. The usual way is to choose the range of customers you intend to sell to, then create a range of products to match the range of customers.
Samsung starts out by saying: OK, we need a phone for cheapskates, a phone for power users, a phone for women, a phone for executives, a phone for international travelers, a phone for students, and so on. Then they look at the range of available technologies and features and match them to the target audiences.
As a result, every possible kind of phone is available from Samsung — multi-touch phones, flip phones, big-screen phones, rounded edge phones, square-edge phones and every other kind of phone anyone can think of. As a company, Samsung is totally neutral on what a phone should look like and how it should work.
Apple is the opposite. The company really only makes one phone at a time, and is exacting about what a phone should look like and how it should work.
Both Samsung and Apple try a gazillion ideas. But in Samsung’s case, the consumers choose. In Apple’s case, Apple chooses.
Everyone was shocked this week to discover that Apple seriously considered launching the iPhone with a physical keyboard. But that shock is nothing more than a confrontation with the public’s misguided assumptions about how Apple develops products.
Of course they considered a physical keyboard. They probably considered hundreds of ideas that didn’t show up and will never show up in any Apple phone.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the possible alternatives to be considered don’t exist purely in the mind of Jony Ive.
One thing you need to understand about Apple’s decision-making process is that the right features and functions are like pornography: They know it when they see it. In order to see it, they need to build it. Apple makes prototypes so people in the company can see how it feels.
But before you can make prototypes, you need ideas. And before you can have ideas to be considered for the prototypes, you need to develop those ideas. And if you develop ideas, you should patent them before another company does.
It’s relatively cheap and easy to patent something, so every possible approach to doing anything that might possibly be patentable needs to be patented as soon as possible.
Even the patents themselves are incredibly broad, whereas any implemented idea is much more narrow.
And sometimes, Apple even patents things long after they’ve shipped. And that’s another reason why patents for things that haven’t shipped don’t tell you what Apple will actually develop and sell.
So if you think of the whole idea process, it starts with general ideas and invention, followed immediately by the patenting of those ideas. Then you float those ideas around.
The surviving ideas might make it into a prototype or two, or shelved for some future prototype. Most of the ideas considered aren’t patented. Most of the ideas patented aren’t put into prototypes. Most of the ideas prototyped aren’t put into the final product.
This is probably not the case with a regular company like Samsung. If Samsung patents and prototypes an idea, it’s probably going to end up in one or more of their gazillion phones.
All of Apple’s idea generation, patenting and prototyping generates the “evidence” from which pundits predict products. But most of it is misleading.
The total body of this “evidence” includes ideas both rejected and accepted. And a lot more of it is rejected and less of it is accepted.
Every time Patently Apple reports some new patent application by Apple, bloggers and tech reporters always jump on the news as evidence of Apple’s intent. It isn’t.
When Apple interacts with its manufacturing partners on some form factor or process, moles within those companies contact Digitimes or some blogger with the news, which hits the tech pundit echo chamber and becomes considered “true.” It isn’t.
And, in any event, many or most of the so-called “leaks” are in fact fabricated, made-up, faked. It’s a kind of trolling that some people engage in for sport.
Yes, like the X Files, the truth is out there. But it’s always buried in a mountain of misleading evidence or faked evidence.
In Apple’s case, “evidence” will usually lead you astray, because most of it points to product decisions Apple will not make.
Why Strategic and Cultural Analyses Works Better
A better, but still imperfect, approach to predicting Apple products is to analyze the company’s strategy and culture.
What is Apple’s larger strategy? It’s to make the best content consumption and content creation experiences that they can. In order to do this, they find areas where people are suffering from lousy experiences and they use a combination of hardware, software and services to create good experiences.
Based on this strategy, for example, you could have predicted the Apple iPhone. Will Apple ship an Apple TV? Yes, because TV viewers are suffering and a lot of diverse content will be “consumed” on TVs no matter what Apple does. So Apple will be there.
What will the Apple TV look like? That’s easy: It will look at lot like the iMac. Why? Because an analysis of Apple culture will tell you that Apple loves design unity. Unlike other companies that want design variety, Apple comes up with design ideas that it tries to implement across product lines to the greatest extent possible. (What we don’t know is whether the TV will look like the current iMacs, or the future ones. Sorry.)
These are just examples. The bottom line is that it’s really hard to predict what Apple will do in the future, because Apple itself doesn’t even know. Using “evidence” will lead you astray, because most of the so-called “evidence” will point to dead ends. Your best chance of successful prediction lies in analyzing Apple’s overarching strategy and corporate culture.
Image courtesy of Simeon Gentle.