I made a very similar statement to the one I’m making now around the same time last year. Back then I mainly argued that Apple had way too much variety in their iPhone and iPad lines, a fact that led to a slew of messy naming conventions and a needlessly confused customer base. And I regret to inform you that, unfortunately, this year, it’s gotten even worse. Last week, at their live-streamed special event, Apple announced four completely new iPhone models. That’s the most iPhones they’ve ever released at one time, but the number shouldn’t really come as a surprise to those who have been following Apple trends for the past few years.
This trend of product line expansion began in 2013, the first year that more than one iPhone was launched at once. Back the, this didn’t really seem like an issue, as the iPhone 5s and 5c were easily distinguishable from one another and had two noticeably different markets, the high end and mid range customer bases respectively. But what’s notable with the case of the iPhone 5s and 5c was that it saw the first phones that were truly developed under Tim Cook, and not Steve Jobs, and I think that this shift is really visible when looking at these two phones. The iPhone 5c was really unlike any iPhone that came before it; it had a polycarbonate plastic shell, that, when compared to the anodized aluminum of the 5s felt cheap and almost toy-like in the hands of many, it lacked one of the primary selling points and new features of the 5s: Touch ID, and where the 5s and every iPhone before it focused on the best possible user experience, a fact that meant that the iPhone was usually more expensive than most other phones, the 5c was focused on a completely different target: value. I think the iPhone 5c is really indicative of Tim Cook’s leadership at Apple, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Cook’s Apple takes the approach of trying to get Apple products into more users’ hands through expanding product lines to better fit the most amount users’ needs. And while yes, this means that more people may be inclined to purchase Apple products than before, it also has a negative side-effect for Apple: lack of focus.
Part of what has allowed the iPhone, Mac, iPad, and AirPods to take off in the ways that they have it the shear attention to detail and refinement that Apple puts into them. Where other companies typically look to pumping out more and more products or slapping on more and more gimmicky features to existing ones, Apple has found monumental success through focusing on and refining a comparatively small range of products, as this small number of SKUs affords Apple the ability to give each and every one of them greater focus and attention. However, it seems that Apple, as we progress farther into the Tim Cook Industrial Engineer led era, has begun to neglect this very approach that has garnered them so much success in the past. We once had just one iPhone release per year, with the previous year’s model becoming the “budget” option. This granted Apple the ability to focus on one iPhone per year, while also offering a totally competent option for more budget-conscious customers, without having to divert focus from the main phone. But now, in addition to holding onto this model, Apple introduces a range of new phones each year, with the hopes that each will satisfy a different market, when simply selling the previous years model would be more cost effective for the company in the first place.
This approach has a few key negative impacts for Apple. One is the way it diverts focus within Apple, something which is immediately visible when taking a look at recent iOS, iPadOS and MacOS updates, which upon each of their initial latest releases, have been buggy, and even -on occasion- unusable. What’s frustrating about this is Apple could be spending the time and resources they put into making those 3 extra iPhones each year into refining these existing products that will impact consumers on a much greater level. On the consumer side, this division of focus has hurt the common customer as well, who now how as a much harder time choosing between the iPhone SE, iPhone XR, iPhone 11, iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro Max, all of which are on sale in Apple’s retail and online stores right now. This lack of focus has led to subpar internal support for existing products at Apple and massive amounts of confusion for average Apple customers, and the worst part is: it’s completely unnecessary.
Apple had a nearly identical problem to the one it has today nearly 25 years ago, where they had far too many products in a lineup that had salespeople needing spreadsheets to understand them and customers confused out of their minds. It took Steve Jobs’ return in 1997 to fix this, where a major focus of his restructuring plan-that completely saved Apple from bankruptcy and formed the foundation for all of Apple’s successes today- was cutting down on the number of products Apple sold, with him eventually slimming it down to just 4 main products: a consumer notebook, a pro notebook, a consumer desktop, and a pro desktop. It was this lineup that gave us the iMac and catapulted Apple out of the red and into being one of the most successful and prolific companies of the early 21st century. This is why its so frustrating when I see Apple making the same mistakes the did 20 to 25 years ago, they’re not just making their products worse, they’re betraying the very values that made them such a successful and such a great company. This focus is what makes Apple so great, it’s what built the foundation for the company to reach the levels of success it has today. And maybe Tim Cook sees this as some sort of scaled growth strategy, an attempt to appease developing markets, but I see it, and like to think know it, as a complete betrayal of Apple’s fundamentals. When Apple loses focus, Apple loses what makes it Apple.
P.S. -I am cognizant of the fact that Apple offers cheaper models to entice people to upgrade with Apple rather than buying devices from third parties, but that doesn’t mean that they need to offer seven different iPhones, they could achieve comparable success in a less resource intense manner by simply offering the previous year’s model and refurbished options for even older models on their website.