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Nick Skillicorn

CEO & Founder, Innovation Coach at Improvides
Voted as the world's #7 Innovation blogger in 2014, I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love.

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Nick Skillicorn
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Apple Logo

It’s official! Apple has taken its focus off the only thing that matters: its customers

In many ways, Apple is having an incredible year. Last week it announced not only it’s long awaited new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus (which have broken sales records by selling more than 10 million units in 3 days), as well as the most anticipated piece of wearable technology in the world, the Apple Watch.

The problem is though, behind the scenes there is evidence of a cultural shift which could soon stop Apple’s status as an innovator.

It’s a subtle shift, but a very powerful one.

Apple’s focus has moved away from designing for it’s customers, to designing for Apple.

Now, I hear the screams from the naysayers saying I don’t know what I’m talking about, and how Apple’s products are some of the most innovative ever created.

I am not denying that.

In fact, while I was watching the Keynote presentation and the unveiling of the iPhone 6 and Apple watch, I noticed some innovations which are truly exceptional and are focused completely on the customer, such as:

  • The new iPhone processor designed to increase battery life as well as power
  • User Interface tweaks to make the larger screen usable with one hand
  • The ability to make calls over Wifi, then transition onto a cellular network
  • The sapphire and pressure sensitive screen on the Apple Watch

The issue lies not with the products being created.

It lies with the gradual trend that Apple is transforming into an internally-focused company. And the people at the heart of this change are ironically the very people that make Apple’s products so innovative: it’s amazing designers. Apple is becoming a company that cares much more about what it thinks, than what is necessarily best for its customers.

It happened to blockbuster.

It happened to the Detroit car manufacturers.

It happened to Western Digital.

And now, slowly, it seems to be happening to Apple.

How can I make such a bold claim? Well, it’s based on some pretty damning evidence.

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U2 album launch fiasco

In mid-2014, I was presenting at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, and on the last day there was an open discussion panel session which was by far and away the most popular session of the event. It was on the topic of RED (the AIDS awareness charity), and the two main panelists were U2 frontman Bono and Apple’s chief designer Sir Jony Ive (who I am a massive fan of). Here’s a picture of them at the event:

Bono and Sir Jony Ive at the Cannes Lions 2014

Bono (left) and Sir Jony Ive (right) at the Cannes Lions 2014

What became quickly obvious was that U2 and Apple share a deep friendship, which extends way back to before they launched a U2 themed iPod together. They share a creative philosophy, and also a commitment to the RED cause (although Bono jokingly said he was frustrated that Ive wouldn’t allow him to rebrand the Apple logo for RED).

So when U2 took to the stage to play a new song at the Apple keynote last week, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Things started to get a bit weird when there was some very forced banter after the song between Bono and Tim Cook about getting the album out to as many people as possible on iTunes. But then things got a bit weird when it became clear that Apple was sending the new U2 album “Songs of Innocence” to every iTunes user, whether they wanted it or not. And it quickly became clear why they had done it, as immediately after the download was initialised, a big slide was projected onto the wall saying 500 million, and Tim Cook said this:

That’s over half a billion customers, and it makes music history because it’s the largest album release of all time

Needless to say, the feedback from the customers wasn’t universally popular. In fact, within a few days Apple was forced to release a special tool just to allow customers to remove the album as it was almost impossible to get rid of manually.

In Apple’s mind, they were probably thinking they were being incredibly generous to their customers. After all, rumours suggest it cost Apple almost $100m to get the rights to give the album away for free.

But there’s a difference between giving customers a choice and forcing them to accept what you tell them. This was a case of the latter.

If Apple had accepted the fact that many people did not want this album, and just made it available for free, they probably still would have gotten several million downloads voluntarily, especially with Apple’s marketing budget behind it. But instead they made the decision that getting the world record for themselves and their friends U2 was more important.

Customers always want choice. It is a fundamental right. Apple’s customers may be some of the most passionate, loyal and vocal in the world, but they still want to know that they are the ones in control. And customers react differently as they are individuals.

Apple needs to make sure that from now on, every decision they make includes the question: What is the impact on the various customers if we were to do this?

That way, they’ll continue making innovative products which customers will continue to love.

iCloud naked Celebrity hacking scandal

Make no mistake, when news broke in early September that naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and dozens of other female celebrities had been released onto the internet, some of the most worried people were not Hollywood agents, but the information security teams in Cupertino.

It quickly became obvious that the hackers had not accessed the celebrity phones themselves, but rather the cloud-based storage that is becoming the backbone of all of Apple’s services, along with some of Apple’s own systems like “Find my Phone”.

Back in the 1990s (for those of you who were born then already), there was a running joke that the reason why Mac computers didn’t need antivirus software was because they were already more secure than the crummy Microsoft devices, and that so few people were using them that hackers weren’t interested.

How the tables have turned.

With the introduction of iOS8, Apple is placing even more emphasis on making documents, media and files available on all devices, all the time, with seamless and stress-free synchronisation using iCloud.

And while it has spent a huge amount of time working on the design and functionality of all of these services, it has obviously not put as much emphasis behind security testing. Which is something it pride itself on for years and years.

The worrying aspect of security leaks like this goes far beyond keeping your naked pictures to yourself. Apple is currently moving into three directions which could have huge ramifications for security leaks:

  1. Apple Pay, with payment using card payments stored on your phone: they went into a lot of detail about chip-based security on this, so they seem to have sussed it out
  2. Health monitoring using the Apple Watch and HealthKit: Personal health profiles being hacked could have huge implications
  3. Home automation with Homekit: Everything from controlling appliances to unlocking doors to people’s homes.

I’m sure Apple has been kicked into action, but they really need to double down on stress-testing all of their security and privacy features with as much effort as they put into designing them.

Apple Watch issues

Is Apple Watch beautifully designed: Yes

Is it the most advanced and useful wearable device ever created: Yes

Is it a watch: No

I’ve had my doubts about wearable technology since the beginning. And while I was impressed with many aspects of the Apple Watch when I watched its unveiling (especially its screen), there is one thing which was going through my head while I watched it:

This product is all about form over function

Why is this? Two reasons:

  1. The battery lasts for less than a day, so you need to take it off and charge it every night (at least)
  2. You cannot use it without also carrying an iPhone. It is essentially an extra screen for your iPhone

Don’t get me wrong, by essentially being a screen for your iPhone connected to the internet, it’s functionality is limited only by the imagination of it’s app developers. It could find some truly revolutionary uses.

Would I prefer to have access to some of my information within one second of twisting my wrist? Absolutely. But for the first generation of the product, it’s clear that 90% of the effort went into the design of both the hardware and the software. This becomes even more obvious when you watched the keynote and seeing how much time was spent on the design of wristbands with magnetic hooks, and a gold version. The emphasis of the product’s unveiling was on beauty and fashion.

You can only use it for a few hours at time. At the moment, it is a fashion accessory rather than a killer product.And Apple seems to be selling it that way.

There is hope for the battery life yet. Apple has a long history of gradually improving battery life (just look at each iteration of the iPhone, iPad and Macbook Air). And this is the first version of the Apple Watch, which will get further innovations over time.

Let’s just hope that is actually the emphasis of Apple Watch 2 though.

Taking advertising in-house

The final piece of evidence is one that most people won’t have heard of, but to me is the most significant. It signals to me a clear shift in Apple’s creative ethos, which is that they know better than everyone else. Nowhere is this more evident in the business so closely aligned with creativity: advertising its products.

Over the past couple of years, Apple has made the strategic decision to produce more and more of its advertising within its own company. As Ad Age recently reported, they’ve done this by growing their own internal advertising team toward a target of 1,000 people, which is biggest than many other full-service advertising companies.

This move isn’t necessarily bad in and of itself. The issue is the tone of many of the adverts that their teams have come up with. At the moment, there is still a split between adverts which are being produced by their in-house team and their external advertising partner, TBWA/Media Arts Lab.

Here are some of TBWA/ Media Arts Lab adverts:

And here are some examples from the Apple in-house team:

Based on studies asking consumers what they thoughts, the TBWA/MLA adverts consistently outperformed the ones produced by Apple. In fact, Apple’s “Basically” advert was so hated that it was pulled from showing soon after launch.

The tone of Apple’s commercial team comes across as “We’re special and you need us”, compared to the TBWA’s tone of “You’re special and can do it”.

But there is one more commercial which I think exemplifies the attitude which is growing within Apple perfectly, and it’s a commercial which Apple released to make it clear what it’s company stood for:

Watch some of the language Apple is using:

The first thing we do is ask: what do we want people to feel?

Here, it is clear what the culture of Apple is turning towards: a group of very talented designers and engineers who ask themselves and each other what’s important.

The focus has shifted away from the customer, internally into Apple.

So what does this all mean?

Is Apple doomed? Will it soon begin launching products people won’t buy?

No, of course not. At a minimum, it has enough cash in the bank to buy several Caribbean islands (or countries) and retire forever.

But analysts have been worried about whether the pace of innovation is slowing down. Here, there is evidence that this is still an issue.

Innovation is turning an idea into a solution that adds value to a customer. And Apple appears to be spending more of its time turning its ideas into solutions, that it needs to take a step back and bring the customer back into focus.

Then, and only then, can it be sure that it will stay an innovation leader.

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Do you think that Apple still has what it takes to innovate? Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to share.