October 19, 2016

Apple’s Trial Run

There is a seemingly standard period of time during which every Apple product could be a success or a failure.

Apple’s trial run is an undefined (fictional) period of time that marks their wading into uncharted waters, a timeframe Apple uses to figure out what really differentiates their product aside from their top-notch design. Generally, the trial run takes place in so little time that it is hard to remember in hindsight. However, in each scenario, they have something to learn, something to prove, and something to market the hell out of.

In each of these announcements, Apple left something to be desired, something that pundits considered lacking from the product. For the iPod, perhaps it was Windows compatibility or DRM-free music. For the Apple TV, it may have been apps or perhaps we are still waiting. For the iPhone, it was the App Store. For the iPad, it was the maturation of iOS or the Apple Pencil or the Pro line. For the Watch, it is arguably watchOS 3 and more fitness focus. Each product had reasons why it could have been a failure: its trial run could have lasted too long or the addition that made it a success could have never materialized. Apple’s record, however, is notoriously good at figuring out that lynchpin.

The majority of people view these situations with admittedly rose-colored glasses after the fact. Of course the iPhone was a success.” But was it that obvious at the time of its announcement? Even to Apple fans, the success of the iPhone was not immediately apparent; the lack of copy and paste was infamous and John Gruber literally called the lack of native applications in favor of web apps a shit sandwich”. Without the App Store, what would the iPhone be now? What would the world of smartphones in general be now if Apple hadn’t realized the App Store was in the best interests of their device’s (and the ensuing platform’s) longevity? Even Apple didn’t see the App Store as necessary initially, but the iPhone’s—and arguably the iPad’s and Watch’s—success has largely been because of it. The iPhone is also the only Apple product that can attribute its trajectory to a single feature addition with confidence.

As a counterexample, the Apple TV was famous for being a hobby at Apple, the clearest example that the trial run period exists; unfortunately, its trial run is still in progress. Though apps (and universal search and Siri integration) may be the answer that the Apple TV was always looking for, the newest generation of the Apple TV product (announced in late 2015) might as well be entirely new, thus resetting the clock. The Apple TV, much like the iPod Nano line, has gone through many iterations, revisions, and complete revamps on its road to success.

Apple is almost never the first to announce a product category; they are innovators, technological refiners. So the technology they are announcing is not new, but their rendition is. They work to better understand the playing field and their strength within it, often by entering the race. There is no way Siri would be what it is now if not for the trillions of combined hours of usage the system now has under its belt and maybe it still has work to do. It is not until they have hundreds of millions of active devices or more that they can get a real-world view of their products’ strengths and weaknesses. Then, the iteration begins.

The Apple Watch’s second series is the most recent example of such focusing, such iteration. The device has already been a success by any reasonable measure, but Apple-level success comes with time and attention to detail, permeation of devices so much so that seeing them is a natural daily occurrence. Apple learned from the first generation, now often referred to as Series 0, in a number of key ways. The software was too battery conscious, too interested in a communication method that users didn’t care about, and too broad in focus to the point of a muddled user interface. Most of these issues were taken care of with a simple OS update and Apple’s second series of Watch hardware focused on the most important features to most current and potential users: fitness and power (both in processing and battery). It stands to reason that the Watch is now exiting its trial run and has established its trajectory.

The end of the trial run should not be confused with product maturity. Arguably, the iPhone is only just now reaching a level of maturity, which may be why its design is changing less and less year over year. Similarly, the MacBook Pro line reached maturity when the unibody design was released; from then on, the MacBook Pro has (and really all MacBook lines have) had the same general design, only getting thinner and subtracting ports as necessary to that end.

The trial run is fictitious, but Apple’s products appear to have a standard lilt: Apple releases a product, the product often has great features at the start and appeals to a certain crowd, Apple iterates to broaden the install base, the product grows in success and capability. By the second or third generation, Apple’s understanding of the product’s purpose is clearer based on a real-world dataset and user feedback from early adopters. Much like many software development methodologies, the cyclical nature of product development is nothing new, but if the trial run is a real approach to Apple’s product understanding, it is at the very least working.

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