How Apple’s millennial consumer electronics hits went from launching with a single purpose to launching as multi purpose devices and what it means for Apple Car

Thoughts on Apple Car, Part 95

When Apple launched the iPod in October 2001, it was about playing music. Nothing else. The news was exciting enough, and only later was drummed up with the iTunes combo and all kinds of additional media (podcasts, video, …) as well as business models (remember rip/mix/burn?).

But at launch it was a single purpose device. The perfect thing.

Everything changed with the iPhone

Apple took a huge bet with iPhone, which dimmed iPod down to just an app and was much more than just a phone. At launch though, it was focused on Safari, music and phoning.

»The killer app is making calls!«

Steve Jobs famously joked.

Still, it was multi purposed from the start.

iPad taking over

In 2010, Apple launched the iPad, which couldn’t make calls but had a full suite of software loaded out of the gates. It was the time when iPhone’s operating system was so advanced to become a whole platform and eventually be renamed iOS.

The initial idea behind iPad has already been one of replacing a number of key tasks from both the phone and the Mac.

It took more and more of those over time, but iPad really started out as a device serving multiple purposes right away. In no other way could it have been so many different things to so many people and be the best selling hit it was.

All what has come before is now on the wrist

The world longed for a new Apple device category and got it in 2015 with the Watch. As Phil Schiller described it takes as many things as possible from iPhone, iPad and Mac. What a smaller device can do better it will take.

It is again the same thinking that allowed Apple Watch to launch with so many use cases, making it a real multi purpose device.

Although industry commenters at the time looked back at the iPod and wondered whether a single purpose launch would have given the Watch a more understandable positioning, sales figures suggest it’s just as big a success as iPod was.

What will the Car be?

When reading David M. Levinson’s „The End of Traffic and the Future of Access“, I paused at a point he made at about a quarter into the book.

The[re] are two different types of vehicles (high speed freeway vs. low speed neighborhood), and though they may converge, there is no guarantee they will, and perhaps today’s converged multi-purpose vehicle will instead diverge.

He raises the question whether autonomous cars will not follow the path of consumer electronics, buying up more and more purposes – but rather stay focused on doing one thing very well, much like the original iPod.

He goes on:

Autonomous vehicles promise a Cambrian explosion of new vehicle forms. Evidence for this is already emerging. Google has proposed and built prototypes of a new, light, low speed neighborhood vehicle designed for slow speed (25 mph or 40 km/h) on campuses. The UK has four pilot programs starting. Singapore is testing similar vehicles.

The design implications are obvious. Are single purpose car will look much different from scenario to scenario. IDEO had a range of those in their Future Automobility series.

I don’t necessarily agree with their concepts, but find Levinson’s thinking intriguing enough to challenge my own assumptions of what Apple Car may be.

Going deeper:

This has important implications. For example, cars can be better designed for specific purposes, since, if they are rented on-demand or shared, they don’t need to be everything to their owner. Narrow and specialized cars are more feasible in a world of autonomous vehicles. The fleet will have greater variety, with the right size vehicle assigned to a particular job.

This sounds right for the bigger picture of autonomous fleets. The question is what Apple Car’s position in this market place will be.

Two things:

  1. It will be an affordable luxury/premium offering. For the masses but not for everybody. Compare to iPhone or Apple Watch. People will say „but it’s not for my purpose“ and that’s okay. It will be for many people. That’s also the sweet spot for a high margin business.
  2. Apple devices probably don’t work with »they don’t need to be everything to their owner«, as Levinson puts it. All current products in their line up are about being as much to their owners as they can be. People love their Apple devices.

At crossroads

Single or multi purpose, still a bet. Today, my cards are on Apple Car being a multi-purpose personal device – with ‘multi’ being about a few carefully selected use cases, and not all imaginable scenarios you can think of.

Levinson ends his discussion with:

Today there is a car-size arms race, people buy larger cars, which are perceived to be safer for the occupant even if more hazardous for those around them, and taller cars, which allow the driver to see in front of the car immediately in front of them. Both of these advantages are largely obviated with autonomous vehicles. The car-size arms race ends.

I’d love that.

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