Apple thrives when it’s iterative, even if you don’t care

After Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked event in early August, I wrote that the company’s “revelation” of multiple well-leaked products was a pointless mess — an overly long and poorly organized mega event that should have been split into multiple product-specific announcements. Yesterday, as the first step in what are now expected to be September (Apple Watch/iPad), October (iPhone), and November (Mac) mini-events, Apple showed everyone what the alternative to a giant information dump should look like. But it also revealed the smaller event strategy’s potential weaknesses: If the fewer announcements aren’t huge or are too focused on a narrow product category, some people won’t care to tune in.

By Apple standards, the September event had enough news to merit attention, and I knew as much in advance. There would be new flagship and midrange Apple Watch models, new midrange and entry-level iPads, and two new or new-ish subscription services. I was ready and able to cover all that news. But I was asked two questions that couldn’t be answered definitively before the event: Would any of the news be transformative-level important? Would an audience of business decision makers care about whatever Apple was about to announce? Unless the answer to either question was yes, the announcements weren’t worth covering as news.

If this wasn’t already obvious, it’s very hard to make the case to a skeptical person that any single piece of news — from Apple or anyone else — is “transformatively” important. With the possible exception of 2007’s original iPhone introduction, which almost everyone grasped as huge even back then, that’s a high bar to reach. 2010’s big iPad reveal was arguably at that level; the 2014 original Apple Watch debut would lead Magic 8-Ball to say “hazy.” Moreover, if the first device in a series isn’t important, what prayer does the Apple Watch Series 6 have of meeting that standard? Absent a complete redesign with a truly breakthrough feature, it’s hard for any sequel to be “transformative.”

Revolutionary products rarely appear from nowhere. I’ve only had two or three opportunities to personally witness examples to the contrary — such as the first iPhone emerging fully formed from Steve Jobs’ pocket — and I can say with some chagrin that many people don’t appreciate the importance of what they’re seeing when it’s taking place. It’s very easy to downplay a big announcement; it’s far more challenging to correctly peg a controversial one as likely to be important going forward.

You may recall that some publications believed so heavily in Microsoft that they let then-CEO Steve Ballmer fart on the iPhone’s impending launch, as he claimed Apple had “no chance” of getting “any significant market share.” (Ballmer also suggested Microsoft’s software would power 60-80% of phones, while Apple “might get” 2-3% of the market.) As important as the iPhone became, eventually enabling Apple to reach $1 and $2 trillion market caps before Microsoft, making such a prediction back in 2007 would have gotten anyone laughed out of the room.

Iteration has unquestionably been the key to Apple’s success. It’s actually remarkable that there is so much physical and conceptual similarity between the original and current iPhones, though Apple’s evolution from selling 10 million to over 200 million iPhones in a year all comes down to the little changes. Price tweaks helped. Faster chips helped. Clearer and bigger screens helped. Stronger glass helped. Better cameras helped. These changes didn’t all happen at once, and individually, they might not have seemed “transformative,” but there’s no question that they helped Apple — and its rivals — completely change the way people used phones and established phones as a major, arguably dominant computing platform.

At one point, this wasn’t generally understood by the business world. Apple’s stock chart looked like a rather boring roller coaster with little peaks and valleys. But several years after the iPhone launched, the chart started to look like a rocket taking off, and smart investors became rich from betting on Apple — not against it. At the same time, iPhones, iPads, and Macs pushed their way into Fortune 500, 100, and 50 companies. No small number of executives swapped their Rolexes for Apple Watches, even without an 18-karat gold option to choose from. By 2017, the Apple Watch was the top-selling watch in the world, and last year, the Apple Watch outsold the entire Swiss watch industry combined.

In other words, an event that’s “small” by Apple standards and focused mostly on new Watches matters because millions of people now rely on those very personal computers to track their health and help them work more efficiently every day. The addition of a blood oxygen sensor or a 20% faster chip might not be a huge deal that changes everything, nor is the release of a midrange model that sits between Apple’s flagship and cheapest Watches. But if each one of these devices is likely to outsell every Rolex released this year, who’s to say which is more of interest to business decision makers?

Apple’s successes haven’t come as direct, immediate responses to “transformative” announcements. They were gradually won over multiple years by continually refining compelling but imperfect initial products. Moreover, the increasingly massive scale of these product launches suggests they’ve become important to everyone, Apple customers and competitors alike.

I’ll be the first one to admit that the Apple “Time Flies” announcements yesterday were as iterative as they come. Putting aside the Watch news, the new iPads are basically old iPads with faster chips, and the subscription service announcements were somewhat underwhelming. It would be easy to dismiss all of yesterday’s news and await something more obviously important on the horizon.

But every piece of evidence I’ve seen suggests that interest in what Apple’s doing is at an all-time high. Call the company boring or predictable, but people seem to care more than ever about even its small updates, as they can have big impacts on the way people live healthy lives, work, and enjoy entertainment. My favorite just-announced Apple Watch feature is something small, but it makes me smile every time I look at my wrist, and that matters — especially during times as turbulent as the ones we’re all living through.

If reports can be believed, an iPhone event is coming in October, followed by a Mac event in November. I’m looking forward to the announcements, only in part because I think they’ll be milestones — my strong belief is that they’ll be interesting to lots of people who either use or compete with Apple products. If you’re reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts, contrary or otherwise.

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