Horace, you spent nearly a decade at Nokia, where you worked as a business development manager and industry analyst. Did you foresee their current, increasingly dire situation?
I did not see an explicit downfall. I anticipated difficult times ahead and a deep crisis. My view of what would happen was published as my first Asymco post.
What led you to start Asymco?
I started a consulting company which I hoped would generate leads through a blog. The blog became far more exciting than consulting and it became my primary focus after about one year. I had no ambition to write for a living or to be a “blogger”. I did not anticipate there would be any interest on the topic I wrote beyond a handful of people. In that regard, things played out as most start-ups do: what you end up doing is not anywhere near the target you aimed at.
Apple’s clearly one of your favorite topics. What about the company appeals to you?
Business education is predicated on storytelling, also known as the case method. Business management is not a discipline that has “axioms” defining basic truths, or if it does, they change frequently. Therefore business education (i.e. the MBA) is the equivalent of people teaching each other by telling stories around a campfire. The best stories get repeated more often and are better ‘teaching tools’. So it is with Apple. It’s a great medium for story telling because people can see the stories unfolding in real time or at least within their lifetimes. They are not about a distant past or an abstract industry. There is also a lot of passion around the brand, both positive and negative and so it leads to more attention.
You told Adam Lashinsky, author of “Inside Apple,” that you hope Apple is focused on killing the iPhone. Would you mind elaborating on that a bit?
If a company does not focus on self-disruption then it will cease to exist. The rate of disruption has been greatly increased in this century vs. any other period of time. Therefore it’s crucial that a company not only dedicates itself to finding a way to tear itself down but also to doing so as quickly as possible. I think Apple gets this. It may be the first major company to practice self-disruption with rigor. That is why I say I “hope” that they do so. Because if they do then we can all celebrate it and everyone else will do it as well leading to more rapid innovation and a better standard of life for all.
Are there things that you feel Apple could be doing better in the here and now?
Sure. There are many things to improve. Mostly I think they could come out with improvements to the iPhone more quickly. Maybe every six months rather than every year. The cycle time of innovation is faster than ever but it could be faster still.
In the tech industry, companies typically look about three years ahead with their roadmaps. For Apple, that means that despite Jobs’s absence, the company’s late founder will have had a hand in most of its products for years to come. When that changes, do you think innovation at Apple could suffer?
I think they have a strong chance to do well. There are many companies that prospered after the founder left. Think about Disney, Ford, Mercedes Benz, Beretta, Ferrari. Sometimes there are crises but sometimes the brand lives for many many decades. What matters is that the company uses processes and values that the founder leaves behind. This is true for many areas of human endeavor. We did not forget science after Newton died. The key is that the knowledge is codified and can be passed on.
Speaking of Jobs, he wasn’t happy that Google jumped into the smartphone market with Android, which he considered to be shamelessly derivative. But despite Android’s me-too origin, do you think Apple could learn anything from the operating system today?
Android is successful because it resonates well with the value chain in telecommunications. I don’t know yet if it resonates well without mobile operators where its open nature makes it equivalent to Linux which did not succeed. I see Android’s primary innovation to be rapid development time without regard to contracts (and hence to intellectual property). The protection from forking comes from continuous and rapid improvement. That may be a lesson in product cycle development but I don’t know if Apple can apply it since they are internally deeply interdependent with a long value chain. Apple is perfectly set up to introduce new innovations and Android is perfectly set up to rapidly follow. I don’t see Apple ever wanting to be a rapid follower or Google ever being a rapid category definer.
You recently talked a lot about Windows Phone, particularly the platform’s trouble gaining traction. Do you think its too late for Microsoft to become a major player in the mobile space?
Since the telecom market still has operators which can influence platforms, it may be that politically there is a chance. Without operators the market would evolve as a purely computing market which might favor a monopoly or duopoly. I don’t know whether this will happen in telecom anyway as the forces of computing disruption might overwhelm the political forces that would want to check or block change.