Technologizer

“Apple Must…”: A Brief History of People Instructing the Company to Do Things

...and why it rarely does.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook, stubbornly refusing to announce a large-screen iPhone at Apple's press event in San Francisco on September 10, 2013

Some wise person — I wish I knew who — once said that everybody has two businesses: their own, and show business. The same is true in the world of technology, except the two businesses people have are their own, and Tim Cook’s.

Everyone, in other words, seems to have strong opinions about what Apple should be doing. And a remarkable percentage of the people who share their thoughts state them not as a suggestion or a preference but as an imperative so absolute that ignoring it could plunge the company into crisis. To emphasize the seriousness of the matter, their headlines usually use the words “Apple must…”

There are, however, a few problems with this approach to Apple commentary:

  1. The stuff Apple must do usually amounts to following an industry trend in much the same way that everybody else is doing it, right this very moment.
  2. Though Apple does frequently respond to industry trends, it’s not in the company’s nature to do so in precisely the way that everybody expects, and it often bides its time before doing anything at all.
  3. Time and time again, Apple doesn’t do what Apple must do…and yet the results aren’t calamitous.
  4. In some instances, the things people insist Apple must do — such as make a netbook — are not only not necessities, but terrible ideas.

Herewith, a few examples. Just to show this has been going on for a long time, let’s begin with an example that’s almost three decades old.

Apple must open the Mac architecture.

Decreed by: Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and his colleague Jeff Raikes, in a June 25, 1985 memo to Apple’s John Sculley and Jean-Louis Gassée

Why? Allowing 3-5 other leading computer manufacturers — such as Wang, AT&T or DEC — to make Mac-compatible machines would help expand the platform and ensure Apple’s reputation as a technological innovator.

What Apple did: Nothing, until a decade later, when it allowed some third-party hardware companies to license the Mac OS — a decision it reversed in 1997 when Steve Jobs returned to the company.

Aftermath: Microsoft’s operating systems went on to dominate the PC industry for decades. They still do. But almost 29 years after Gates and Raikes’ memo advising Apple to follow the same strategy as Microsoft, Apple isn’t just still selling Macs — it’s also the most profitable PC company on the planet.

Apple must release the iPhone.

Decreed by: DSLReports forum member Cortland on February 28, 2005

Why? It would create converts who’d then buy Macs instead of Windows PCs.

What Apple did: Less than two years after Cortland’s directive that Apple should enter the smartphone market with something called the iPhone, the company followed it.

Aftermath: The iPhone did indeed help sell Macs. More important, it outsold them, and became Apple’s most important product.

Apple must do a netbook now.

Decreed by: Cnet’s David Carnoy on February 27, 2009

Why? “It’s the biggest growth category in laptops.” And nobody’s spending $1,000 on the MacBook Air.

What Apple did: It never released anything remotely like a netbook, though I guess you could make the case that the iPad, at $499, was a netbook killer in disguise.

Aftermath: In October of 2010, Apple released much-improved new versions of the MacBook Air, which became very popular. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry, having found netbooks to be profit killers, decided to replace them with Ultrabooks — thinner, slicker, pricier laptops that paid the sincerest form of flattery to the MacBook Air.

Apple must embrace the online version of Google Voice.

Decreed by: Don Reisinger of eWeek on August 10, 2009

Why? After the uproar over its initial rejection of Google’s Google Voice app for the iPhone, the company could reconsider and approve the software. But “that won’t happen.” So it needs to publicly acknowledge that it’s O.K. with Google offering a purely web-based version for iPhones.

What Apple did: The thing Reisinger declared would not happen — it approved the Google Voice app.

Aftermath: Perhaps chastened by the FCC’s investigation of the Google Voice affair, Apple stopped rejecting apps purely on the grounds that they competed with the iPhone’s built-in apps. A happy ending for everybody involved.

Apple must announce the Verizon iPhone.

Decreed by: MSNBC.com’s Wilson Rothman on October 19, 2010

Why? To screw Google by encouraging Verizon customers to spurn Droids in favor of waiting until the likely January arrival of the iPhone. Not announcing the Verizon phone during Apple’s October 20 press event, Rothman said, would be “dumb.”

What Apple did: It waited until January 11, 2011 to announce the Verizon iPhone, which didn’t go on sale until a month after that.

Aftermath: Once it was available, the iPhone 4 had the strongest launch of any device in Verizon history.

Apple must launch NFC in the iPhone 5.

Decreed by: Brett King on May 10, 2011

Why? With NFC technology increasingly important for mobile payments and other applications such as data-transfer-through-bumping, “it’s either that, or let Google change everything and rethink your iPhone branding strategy.”

What Apple did: It didn’t build NFC into the iPhone 5, 5s or 5c. At this point, I suspect that few holdouts expect it to arrive in any future model.

Aftermath: Mobile payments via NFC haven’t turned out to be as big a deal as many folks once thought they would…though of course, it’s possible that they’ve been hampered by the fact that iPhones don’t support them. Meanwhile, iOS 7′s AirDrop feature mimics NFC without requiring its presence.

Apple must deliver the iPad Mini.

Decreed by: Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff on July 25, 2012

Why? Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Google’s Nexus 7 are hits at 7 inches for $199, so Apple needs to offer a tablet at the same price and size.

What Apple did: On October 23, 2012, Apple did release the iPad Mini — but it had a 7.9-inch display and cost $329, making it something less than a direct competitor for Amazon and Google’s cheapo models.

Aftermath: Apple later knocked the price of the Mini down to $299, while adding a $399 Retina model. And both Amazon and Google, when they upgraded their 7 inchers, greatly improved the specs and raised the price to $229 — nudging the whole market slightly in Apple’s nicer-but-pricier direction.

Apple must make an iPhone with a bigger screen.

Decreed by: Business Insider’s Henry Blodget on February 1, 2013

Why? “After five years of having the best smartphone on the planet, Apple has arguably fallen behind the competition. And the biggest and most obvious reason Apple has fallen behind the competition is its stubborn insistence on sticking with a small iPhone screen.”

What Apple did: Since Blodget’s post, the company has released two phones — the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c — with screens the same size as that of the iPhone 5. (Blodget followed up his first post with one noting an analyst’s contention that a bigger-display iPhone had been delayed until 2014, saying that if that was true, Apple was “hosed.”)

Aftermath: Despite the new iPhones’ relatively dinky displays, both models managed to outsell their principal rival, Samsung’s Galaxy S 4, in October, which would seem to suggest that their screen size isn’t a crippling competitive disadvantage.

Apple must buy Netflix.

Decreed by: blogger John Henwood on February 9, 2013

Why? “A purchase of Netflix would not only give Apple a massive footing in internet based TV, but it would give them a valuable management team that could help drive their innovations forward once again.”

What Apple did: It’s shown no interest in buying Netflix, a purchase which would cost at least $20 billion. Instead, its TV strategy to date has consisted of quietly beefing up Apple TV’s content lineup.

Aftermath: People who take seriously the possibility of Apple spending billions on a high-profile company — who are legion — would do well to keep in mind that it’s never paid more than a few hundred million for an acquisition, and rarely buys anything that anybody’s ever heard of.

Apple must announce touchscreen Mac computers soon.

Decreed by: Gary Judge of Head4Space.com on February 23rd, 2013

Why? Microsoft and Google are doing touchscreen machines and “Apple need to be ready to decapitate its own market before others do.”

What Apple did: It’s been less than a year, so “soon” may not have come and gone yet. But so far, no Mac Touch.

Aftermath: I wouldn’t rate the odds of Apple releasing touchscreen Macs at zero percent — years ago, I asked Steve Jobs himself about the possibility, and he didn’t rule it out. But the difficulties Microsoft is having with Windows 8 show that adding touch to a non-touch operating system is no cakewalk. Me, I think the chances are far higher that Apple will eventually do iOS devices in Mac-like cases — though I’d never say that the company must do so.

Apple must fire Tim Cook.

Decreed by: Fraser Seitel on April 9, 2013

Why? “Three words: miserable shareholder relations.” (More words behind paywall.)

What Apple did: Continued to employ Tim Cook.

Aftermath: By September, Seitel was no longer demanding Cook’s ouster. Actually, he was generously sharing advice on how Cook could avoid being fired. (Example tip: Cook should buy a blue blazer.)

Apple, incidentally, isn’t the only tech company that gets advice in the form of musts. If you’ve been paying attention, for instance, you know that Microsoft’s musts have included turning Windows into open-source software, buying Palm and rebranding itself as Bing. It’s failed to do any of the above, and has — so far — lived to tell the tale.

I’m not going to demand that pundits stop telling tech companies what they must do. But here’s a modest proposal: If you say that a company must do something, and it doesn’t — and catastrophe doesn’t ensue — wouldn’t it be fair to write a follow-up story acknowledging that your advice didn’t turn out to be so essential after all?