Icebergs and Kremlinology

It’s hazardous to judge the obscured by extrapolating from the visible. The error rate is certainly high. However, the secrecy of the unknown makes it compelling, and the only clues lie in what is visible.

With icebergs, only 10% of the iceberg is above the water. The remainder is submerged. In the midst of the cold war, Kremlinologists analyzed every photo, video, or speech, which emerged from the Soviet Union, to try to understand who has risen of fallen from power since the last piece of information.

From Wikipedia:

During the Cold War, lack of reliable information about the country forced Western analysts to “read between the lines” and to use the tiniest tidbits, such as the removal of portraits, the rearranging of chairs, positions at the reviewing stand for parades in Red Square, the choice of capital or small initial letters in phrases such as “First Secretary”, the arrangement of articles on the pages of the party newspaper “Pravda” and other indirect signs to try to understand what was happening in internal Soviet politics.

Because the only people who know the details work at One Infinite Loop, in Cupertino, CA, the rest of us interpret what is happening inside Apple by watching the public facing events and announcements. It’s from these episodic events we decide where the company sits on the spectrum from doomed, to operating at the peak of potential. Based on the reveal of the next chaper for Apple, the Apple Watch, it’s fair to question the focus applied to the newest product, as well as, the presentaion.

Apple Watch looks like a beautifully designed product, packed with amazing technology. However, why has it earned the right to be strapped to my wrist? After watching the keynote, I don’t know, and it doesn’t seem Apple does either. Ben Thompson discussed this topic in two well written posts on his blog, and a podcast, at stratechery.com.

Knowing the professionalism and polish on display during the keynote are the result of hours practice, editing and thrown away scripts and slides, it’s hard to understand how some of this material made the cut. The keynote announcement and demo were painfully missing the “why”. For anyone who has spent time in sales, a critical component to dilaogue is linking features to benefits. Talking about a feature without a linked benefit, a sentence doesn’t feel complete.

Feature example: The engine has six cylinders.

Benefit example: The engine has six cylinders, so you will have the power to accelerate quickly when passing other cars.

As a company which has always maintained products are not about feature checklists, this keynote demo felt like a list of features. One after another, without getting to the core of why the Apple Watch exists. The first iphone had 15 apps, the Apple Watch has 64.

iphone 1
Apple Watch

For a product which is not shipping for another six months, this keynote was the perfect time for restraint. They needed to identify core use cases, where the watch is the right tool for the job, better than the great new phones. Instead we saw:

  • Photos too small to see
  • Zooming in on a map too small to see
  • A movie search
  • A SDK announcement
  • So many little icons, they don’t fit on the screen

In his interview with Charlie Rose, which aired the two weeks following the keynote, Tim Cook said, “It’s so easy to add, it’s hard to edit”. With the Apple Watch it doesn’t feel like there was enough editing. If Apple doesn’t know the core “why”, they can’t communicate it to customers. Regardless of what it will become, this announcement was the opportunity to start with the core and position the Watch for the jobs it’s best at doing for people. With all of the noise of feature after feature, the core jobs, where Apple Watch can excel, are buried.

Here lies the danger zone. Apple has strung together industry defining products enough times they have proven success is not due to luck, but rather due to their ability to make great products people want. Questioning their ability to create another is probably a fools errand. Apple Watch does some amazing things, and we saw those as well.

  • Personal communicator
  • Fitness tracking
  • Apple Pay

These are the things Apple Watch can do even better than the beautiful new iPhones. These are the features around which a story can be written to specifically identify the benefit of Apple Watch. These stories tell customers why Apple Watch belongs on their wrist, replacing an existing watch or putting something there for the first time.

As Steve Jobs said many times, and Tim Cook has said as well, “technology is not enough”. This is true, and the success of Apple is evidence. It’s also the case that a great product is not enough. The entrepreneurial graveyard is littered with examples:

Apple may have so much momentum Apple Watch will catch on and gain adoption in the mass market. Even if this is the case, it is still concerning that both the product, and the announcement of it, lacked the focus expected from Apple. Even with great products, promoting them determines how well they perform, compared to their inherent potential. With the right focus, potential can be maximized. Without the right focus, a great product may be successful, but it won’t reach its full potential. The concern isn’t if they can make great products, they can. The question is more about their ability to fit those products to the needs we don’t even know exist until they show us. No doubt Apple said “no” to many itertations of Apple Watch along the way, it doesn’t feel like they said no enough.

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