For anyone who follows Apple product releases and news, there’s arguably been a trend over the past few years of Apple becoming less-differentiated from its competitors. This is especially true as the biggest product category (smart phones) has matured. Apple made bigger phones along with Samsung, HTC, and LG. Apple added third party keyboard support and extensions between applications like Android. Apple released smaller iPads to compete in the 7-inch tablet space. These are not necessarily bad things and have allowed Apple to enter market segments from which it otherwise would be absent. But yesterday’s unveiling of the iPhone SE – an anachronistically small smartphone with top-of-the-line internal components – is a refreshing step out of line from everyone else.
The iPhone SE announcement itself wasn’t the groundbreaking type of product launch for which Apple is most known. It was a small affair held at Apple’s campus and shared the stage with the iPad Pro 9.7″ launch among other announcements. But for Apple to essentially buck the trend of ever-growing phone sizes (a trend it followed with the 6 and 6+), it was a surprising change. Even more so was the fact that this smaller phone wasn’t relegated to previous generation parts or lower-spec versions. The internals of the iPhone SE are all but identical to the iPhone 6S – Apple’s current flagship phone.
Apple’s iPhone SE announcement was great from the perspective of bucking the trend, but there was one aspect that didn’t quite measure up to Apple’s own high standard of why they release new products. Apple presented the launch of the iPhone SE as a response to customer demand. Tim Cook said it directly: “Many, many customers have asked for this, and I think they’re going to love it.” The maddening and critically important aspect of Apple of the past (with Steve Jobs at the helm) was that the company released products the public didn’t consciously know it even wanted yet. The evidence for this characteristic is most evident in Jobs’ comments on market research. The link below is to a good article discussing the topic, but of particular interest were the quotes that were pulled from Walter Issacson’s official Jobs biography:
- At a 1982 planning retreat, someone on the Mac team, “thought they should do some market research to see what customers wanted. ‘No,’ [Jobs] replied, ‘because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.’”
- “On the day he unveiled the Macintosh, a reporter from Popular Science asked Jobs what type of market research he had done. Jobs responded by scoffing, ‘Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the phone?’”
- Jobs: “Some people say, ‘Give customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse!”‘ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
These statements are, depending on your perspective, bold, foolish, or a combination of the two. Yet they outline a very uniquely Apple approach to product development that didn’t necessarily cater to stated customer desires. After all, revolutionary products rarely arise out of focus groups. But that ‘Jobsian’ approach is certainly a mixed bag, and there’s a lot about the new Apple that I prefer to the old. However, when it comes to visionary genius that Steve Jobs was (rightly or wrongly) individually credited for, market research is a poor substitute.
I’m still impressed and pleased with the iPhone SE launch and step away from the crowd that Apple is taking with it. But I can’t help but hope for more products from Apple that live up to the “magical and revolutionary” tagline than simply being a function of existing customer demand.