ec-o-sys-tem: The key to Apple's success

iPhone SE
iPhone SE

Apple has changed the consumer landscape over the last decade: Where there was once a market driven by platform application availability (e.g. Windows), it's evolved into a combination of end-to-end operating systems, diverse devices, services, and applications. This has all worked to devalue consumer perception of a given platform, carrier, or device relative to the total experience.

Apple is a world class hardware designer, a world class software creator, and a world class services provider. Very few companies are any of these; no other company in the world is all three.

The key to understanding Apple's ecosystem is this: The company focuses on innovating a few great things that work together to change markets. Apple's goal is not necessarily to be first, but always best. The areas of Apple innovation are then linked together to create a holistic experience.

Apple and retail

In the early 2000s, Apple changed the process of purchasing technology from something reviled into the best retail experience of any kind. I hear so many great anecdotes about the company's customer service at the Apple Store, and these tales turn into stories that become legends. I don't know if all the stories I hear are exaggerated, but I do know no one is telling those stories about Samsung, Microsoft or Google.

Apple and hardware

Apple taught the world to "think different", and they apply that philosophy to arguably making the most iconic, beautiful, and easy-to-use computers the world has ever seen — one product family at a time. One needs only to look at the MacBook or 5k Retina iMac and see how Apple values innovation.

iPhone taught the world about multi-touch, the power of an always-on, always-connected mobile experience, and unleashed new and different experiences through apps. It's something we take for granted today, but the iPhone's core concepts were pretty revolutionary in 2007 — and likewise in 2010, with the launch of the iPad.

Apple and services

Apple revolutionized listening to music with iTunes, and the iPod. The company then took that goal one step further with iLife and iWork to allow users to go from content consumption to creation. All of Apple's applications, services, and devices are seamlessly linked together with iCloud to keep everything up to date, and always available.

The company revitalized and changed the music industry with the iTunes Store, and users rediscovered listening to — and paying for — music. Apple created and innovated a new industry, along with millions of computer engineering jobs, thanks to the App Store. Developers unlocked new capabilities and experiences that would have been impossible for any single vendor or big-budget firm to deliver.

Apple and the future

Currently, no competitor comes close to delivering the focused combination of the various parts in Apple's ecosystem.

That success, however, has raised new questions for me when I look at Apple's current line. From Watch to iMac, iTunes, to Apple Music, and everything in between, I wonder: Has Apple lost the focus that brought it to the success of today?

Are there too many products in the lineup, and too many choices in each line of devices, and services? Can an ecosystem have too many components? How does one understand products such as MacBook and iPad Pro competing for user attention? Even in the iPad Pro line: Did Apple need to introduce the Baby Pro?

Can the retail experience continue to grow, and still retain high levels of consumer satisfaction? (Ask any potential buyer of a Baby Pro keyboard cover how they feel about a purchase they can't make thanks to low stock levels.)

These are the questions running through my brain right now when it comes to Apple's philosophy on evolving the product line. And they're important questions to ask: As Apple itself knows and practiced for many years, dwelling on the past is no way to build a solid future.

I’ve covered the personal technology beat for more than two decades at places like Gartner, Jupiter Research and Altimeter Group. I’ve also had the fun of contributing my $.02 on the topic at Computerworld, Engadget, Macworld, SlashGear and now iMore. Most recently I spent a few years at Apple as Sr. Director of Worldwide Product Marketing. On Twitter I’m an unverified @gartenberg. I still own some Apple stock.

16 Comments
  • I think Apple is currently undergoing a rebranding on some of their current product lines. I think Apple will eventually get rid of their "Air" lines in both the MacBook and iPad categories. The Air currently still exists because of the lower price target and lower cost to entry. Once Apple can get the price of their MacBook line down, the Air will have no reason to be. I also think iTunes can be put in the same boat. It's obvious that Apple Music will be the future of Music for Apple. We are currently going through a transitional period for some of the product lines but I think eventually everything will straighten itself out and all the product lines will make more sense.
  • I doubt iTunes is going away in favor of Apple Music, it would upset too many people and be a PR nightmare for Apple. (Remember when Camera Roll went away and everyone lost their cool? Apple had to put it back in.)
  • Yeah that's true. I think the name iTunes though will seem outdated years from now when streaming music is considered the norm. That would leave iTunes for just movies and tv shows. What does the word Tunes have to do with movies or music? So maybe they can do some rebranding when Apple launches their TV streaming service. But I agree iTunes is a name that has been used for years so replacing that name can cause a lot of confusion for customers.
  • They could have launched Apple Music as a separate service with separate apps. Leaving legacy iTunes to rot & get covered in dust, but still technically functional for a few years. I for one would cling to iTunes, as messy as it is, since I don't listen to enough music to justify $10/m for a subscription. Now if Apple could offer an all encompassing Music/TV/Movie/Software subscription model, for $100/m and we just get everything as long as we keep paying... I would sign up for that, ditch all other media providers.
  • I still buy Vinyl. And on some of them, Amazon offers "auto rip" which means you also get a free MP3 download of the music when you buy the Vinyl. I keep the digital files in iTunes. There are still lots of people that use iTunes not just as a jukebox manager, but also buy songs via the iTunes store. Not everyone is into steaming, they want to own their music. And unlike TV Shows and Movies that have DRM on them and thus you don't really "own" them, the music you buy from iTunes is free from any such DRM and thus you truly own it.
  • I bought the 128 GB iPhone 6 for the sole purpose of being able to have access to ALL of my music on my phone. Those of us on a limited GB package per month cannot afford to stream live music unless we are in a secure WiFi area. As much as some people bag on iTunes I enjoy it for its simplicity and organization. Yes, Apple Music threw in a bit of a monkey wrench but it still works great.
  • iTunes definitely needs a complete overhaul, but I can't imagine Apple removing the ability to purchase individual songs/albums or view and listen to your purchases from the desktop. In iOS I could easily see that functionality moving out of the app iTunes Store and into the app Music. For desktop, I think Apple's best bet is to build multiple programs (could be web-based?) to handle the functionality that iTunes currently has. Don't replace old iTunes with new iTunes, but rather replace old iTunes with new Music, Movies & TV, Podcasts, and Backup programs. The fact that one program currently handles all of this is a heavy stone tied around their neck, and dividing that functionality among multiple applications would free them to innovate and improve each application more frequently.
  • Yeah spot on. Apple still makes way too much money on selling music through iTunes to just sweep it out the door any time soon. For the longest time I would only buy physical disks unless I just couldn't find something in particular. I gave up on that a few years ago after we finally got broadband in my area. Call me old fashioned but whether I download it or buy the physical media, I want my music with me all the time whether I have an internet connection or not.
  • I think there should still be a section for digital music and album purchases as not everyone wants to move the music streaming and want to continue to own their own music, there needs to be a market for that even if Apple eventually drops the iTunes name. Sent from the iMore App
  • Very interesting perspective. I definitely agree. I fear the walls of the kingdom have starting to crumble over the past few years. My perceived reason: They're giving us what we asked for – too many choices. Steve Jobs gave just a few choices, not too many. Humans are funny. We want choice, but not too many choices or we can get confused or frustrated, then call it quits & move on empty handed. If Steve Jobs ran a restaurant there would be 2 appetizers, 2 entrées, 2 desserts & 2 wines on the list. It's enough for us to feel the perception of choice while allowing the cooks to control their kitchen. If they had a five page menu, the refrigerators would be stuffed and hard to inventory, and more importantly the cooks wouldn't be able to master every single recipe. So now we have a company that is trying to appease almost all types of customers, while offering too many services and devices for their employees to master. We've gone from "quality over quantity" to "quantity over quality". That said, Apple is still the overall better integrated ecosystem than the other options, IMO, even if they still don't offer every option or feature that's technically possible from all other companies combined. Sent from the iMore App
  • Ha, and they discussed this on yesterday's Mac Break Weekly, which I'm watching just now.
  • Nothing much good gets said these days about Apple on Mac Break Weekly.
  • Good article. It reflects a lot of what I too have been thinking about Apple.
    I think they have too many things going on. They seem to have lost their way under Tim Cook. Apple also has completely forgotten their roots. Mac is a side project now.
    Profit margins and iPhone is the only thing that matters to Apple any more. Customers did NOT like stores Always out of stock for the first 3 months after Every single release.
    Apple watch, Macbook (core m), Apple pencil, Apple keyboard, all took 3 months to be able to buy it unless you ordered it online. I can shop Amazon if I want an online store. They need to get rid of:
    Core M Macbook.
    Macbook Air.
    Mac Mini (they ruined it anyways. User can't add ram or SSDs anymore..)
    $1099 MBP (non retina) slowest laptop ever. (it has 4 year old parts in it)
    $1099 iMac. - 2nd slowest computer ever. 1.6Ghz desktop... lol. no.
    $1299 iMac. (drop 4k iMac to $1399)
    27" non 5k iMac.
    iPad mini and iPad air 2, just do 3 sizes of Pro. Make all 3 the exact same specs and drop the word Pro. Keep:
    3 iPods ( as they are now. touch, nano, shuffle)
    3 iPads: iPad M. iPad, iPad L. Size and Storage should be the Only choice/difference.
    3 phones: iPhone M, iPhone, iPhone L size/storage should be ONLY diff. Same specs. All 3.
    3 Retina MBP: 12", 13", 15.6" - have to have various spec options here.
    3 iMacs: 21.5" 4k, 5k 27", (New) 34" Curved 16:10 widescreen model (4k-5k / various specs/configs.)
    Focus. Trim the junk.
  • Apple is in a situation here where they can't win. If they were to ditch, say, the iPad mini 2 and iPad Air 2, they would be lambasted for getting rid of their more affordable products so that people will be forced to buy the more expensive ones to raise profit margins. If they were to get rid of iTunes and go Apple Music only, they would be dragged over the coals for trying to force people into a monthly streaming plan that they don't want. If they get rid of Apple Music, they are criticized for not being competitive in a market that seems to be shifting over to streaming instead of owning your music. If they keep all of the above, everyone cries "too much choice!" PR wise, it's a lose-lose for Apple. There's no way for them to make everyone happy. When you go to Apple.com, click on an item at the top navigation, and just look at what models are in the lineup for each one, they feature three iPhone models, four iPad models, three Mac laptops, and three Mac desktops. If I were to chop anything out of that lineup, it would be the mini 2. I would then do some minor rebranding of the iPads: iPad Pro (pick a size), iPad (formerly iPad Air 2), iPad mini (formerly iPad mini 4). You could do a yearly refresh from there just like how they handle the Macs, and save the big keynotes for when there's a big leap forward, such as the iPad Pro, the True Tone display, etc. I honestly believe that's all they need to do to simplify the lineup. I think that the market will decide when it's time to get rid of iTunes, but now is not that time. And I think there's a slight chance that the market might also decide that there's really not much need for an iPad mini at all anymore, but that might be a little more far fetched.
  • Hi Can any BODY Help Me get any phone i losted last night Sent from the iMore App
  • I'm not too worried about most of this. The only real "point-of-internal-conflict" I see in their ecosystem is MacBook vs iPad. Now you have two separate platforms, each with tremendous strengths and weaknesses over the other, each vying for the same (or similar) space within the ecosystem. I can see the merits of both in the medium, and the demerits of both, as I'm sure most of us can. And, in a perfect world, I'd simply have both. But like just about all of us, I can't afford (or at least can't justify) having two very pricey devices within the same space of the same ecosystem - especially when the one of them I already do have (an iPadAir2) gets used so seldomly. I doubt the MacBook would escape this if I had had it instead, and DEFINITELY not if I had both to split that already sparing use in half. Though if you held a gun to my head and asked me if I preferred OSX, or iOS, I'd probably have to say OSX. Otherwise, the system as a whole still feels harmonious to me. And I'm not too worried about an overly fragmented focus. That we have Apple Watch, and Car Play and Apple TV, and iPad, and iPad Pro, and MacBook and all the rest doesn't bother me, nor even having things like multiple sizes of iPhones. Indeed, I see it all as benefits that accompany a growing ecosystem. Instead, what I'm so much less happy about than having Apple Watch, and Apple TV and iPad (pro and other), and iPhone and iPod and Mac this, that, and the other is that we have OSX, and iOS, and WatchOS, and TVOS, and all of this. We have a different OS for each of these devices almost. I mean, Apple has made it work. On balance, these disparate operating systems play well together, maintain a familial vibe, and that certain special Apple sheen. So it works, but I just don't like the way they're going about it. Say what you will about the current state and future prospects of Microsoft's initiative, but I find their vision of a unified ecosystem (namely, in a unified operating system) to be exceedingly more attractive - as well as more ripe with promise. At a minimum, a Surface Pro 4 with Windows 10's "Tablet Mode" branch of Continuum solves the tablet/laptop dilemma (hardware and UI) I discussed earlier. I know, I know. The OS still has some rough edges, the app gap is huge, and mobile presence is so small. But at this point, I'm only talking potential. If they can get this thing off the ground, I see it having the potential to be much bigger than what we're discussing today with Apple. And worse, if (we're just saying if) "Satya's gamble" is right, and the next bend is indeed a bend like MS is betting it's **** on, given Apple's current fractured ecosystem, I would see it having a really hard time maneuvering accordingly. Google is kinda the X-Factor here. At present it's last-place-in-class for ecosystem coherency and integration. But this year or next, there's something big planned involving Android and Chrome, and so who knows exactly how that's gonna go. And for as small a blip in the scene as Ubuntu is, it's already putting the finishing touches on an ecosystem approach very similar to Windows'. The point is, if the future goes MS's way, nobody's gonna be in worse shape in terms of ease of adaptability than Apple.