How The iPhone 6 May Be The Start Of Apple’s ‘Back To Music’ Strategy

With the launch of its new iPhones just round the corner Apple could be forgiven for feeling rather more positive about its smartphone outlook than it has for a while. The sheen has worn off its number one competitor Samsung, with cheap Chinese and Indian competitors seriously eating into its market share and the investor community realising that the smartphone business is actually a lot like the music business: you are only as good as your last hit. But if Samsung is a major label, measured solely on market share and sales, then Apple has managed to partially maintain the role of big indie, where the quality of its output is just as important. Apple’s Eddie Cue believes that Apple are on the cusp of product strategy renaissance. Crucially, Apple’s CE product portfolio has become wide enough now, especially with the acquisition of Beats, to allow Apple some innovation freedom. I think this could translate into an iTunes phone before the end of 2015.

The Mainstreaming of Apple’s Customer Base

Apple’s customer base has changed from the vanguard of the tech savvy early adopters to a much broader group including large swathes of early followers, later adopters and even mass market laggards. The iPhone was primarily responsible for the transformation and while it has brought undoubted success has also caused Apple problems. As a company with a small product number of products in its portfolio, especially within the mobile category, Apple has never been able to play the ‘Hero Phone’ strategy of phone specialists like HTC and Samsung. So while those companies have been able to sway those all-important investors with small selling but super-specced uber phones, Apple has, until the launch of the 5C, had roll its entry and hero devices into one single new product. But even the combined strategy of the 5C and of targeting lower end consumers with older models still leaves Apple little room to be truly adventurous with its product strategy, for fear of alienating its mainstream users.

As I wrote about previously, the acquisition of Beats presents Apple with the opportunity to innovate with more freedom in the Beats product ranges and then take the innovations that work best there back into the Apple product portfolio. Even if Apple more tightly harmonizes its two divisions’ product ranges, Apple will still be left with a larger and more segmented product portfolio, giving it more ability to super-serve important niches. This is where Apple’s music device strategy renaissance can come into play.

 

itunes phone

Music Changed Apple

When Apple launched the iPod in 2001 it was the start of a musical journey for Apple. I remember attending Apple analyst briefing sessions in those early iPod days and being the only one there interested in this small little side project. Of course over the following years the iPod, with music at the core, took Apple’s product strategy in an entirely new direction. You might say that music changed Apple. But even by 2004 the winds of change were stirring: the launch of the iPod Photo with its colour screen was the first tentative step towards turning Apple’s portable device strategy from music to something much bigger. The iPhone and iPad are the current culmination of that shift, multimedia devices that do many things for many groups of people. Not one thing for one group of people in the way the iPod did.

The strategy has been inarguably successful but just as music stopped looking like it mattered so much, it started biting Apple in the behind. Spotify and other streaming subscription services started stealing Apple’s best iTunes music customers, turning them from downloaders into streamers. That in itself should have been an irritation rather than a problem. But these most valuable of customers now have much less reason to stay with Apple when the buy their next phone because their Spotify playlists will work just as well on Android as they will on iPhones.

Apple’s New Music Strategy

Apple needs a stand out music value proposition to win them back. A subscription service built around Beats Music and iTunes Radio will be the fuel in the engine but will not do enough on its own quickly enough. While Beats Music may have different features from Spotify the fundamentals are essentially the same (millions of songs, c $10 a month). So iPhone owning Spotify customers are unlikely to switch straight away just because it’s there.

Apple needs more. That ‘more’ can be delivered in two ways:

1. Price
2. Device

Apple has always been in the business of loss leading with music to sell hardware. Once that was a growth strategy now it assumes the urgency of defence strategy. That should persuade Apple to heavily subsidize the price of a subscription. In the near term this could be 3 month Beats Music trial plus a discounted $5 subscription offer at the end of the trial free with one of the forthcoming iPhone 6 models. Longer term it should translate into something much more ambitious.

 

The iTunes Phone or The Beats Phone?

Before the end of 2015 I expect Apple to launch a music specialist phone. Whether that is branded as an iTunes Phone or a Beats Phone will depend on who wins the internal branding wars at Apple, but expect it to be one of those labels. The device will be squarely targeted at the music aficionado and will crucially combine the music subscription and device into a single purchase by hard bundling a music subscription into the device cost. It will likely also be squarely focused on pushing Beats hardware sales so it may be both bundled with a Beats Bluetooth headphones and also be the first iPhone without a 3.5mm stereo jack, instead offering Bluetooth only.

The broad feature set could look something like this:

• Hard bundled Beats Music subscription
• Unlimited iCloud access
• Ad free iTunes Radio
• Top level UI music apps
• Bundled Beats Headphones
• Bluetooth only headphone support

This strategy is Apple’s best shot at reclaiming its wavering aficionado fan base but be in no doubt, it would also be a game changer for the digital music space by once again tying the importance of music experiences to device not just app.

Got Milk?

milkPoor Samsung launched their latest punt at digital music success just as Spotify was stealing all the media oxygen with its acquisition of the Echo Nest.  Samsung’s latest venture, curiously called ‘Milk Music’, is another attempt from the smartphone giant to carve out some mindshare and consumer traction in the digital music space.  Like all but one smartphone manufacturer – you know, that one from Cupertino – Samsung does not have the best of track records when it comes to digital music, having recently culled its previous Hub service.  Milk is a Pandora-like mobile radio app and while it certainly suffers from ‘me-too syndrome’ it is not actually a terrible strategic fit.

With 200 stations and a catalogue of 13 million tracks, Milk Music has some muscle but it is hard not to see it as a thinly veiled attempt to ‘do an iTunes Radio’.  However there is not necessarily that much wrong in doing exactly that.  iTunes Radio is a very neat service that is well geared towards the mainstream, less engaged music fan.  That is exactly Samsung’s addressable audience.  Samsung has been at the vanguard of the mainstreaming of smartphone adoption, so much so that many of its devices are smartphones with dumb users.  Milk Music is however limited to the Galaxy range of handsets, which will to some degree filter its audience towards Samsung’s more engaged users.

No smartphone manufacturer has been able to make music work like Apple has.  In fact no smartphone manufacturer has been able to make content and services as a whole work like Apple has.  Apple’s ecosystem is a fascist state compared to Android’s federated democracy, but at least the trains ran on time in Mussolini’s Italy.  That absolute control of the user experience enables Apple to deliver on the single most important part of digital music product strategy: the service-to-device journey.  It just happens, and seamlessly so.  So many other phone companies have failed to understand the importance of this ineffable magic.

Samsung might be able to get it right with Milk Music, but because they are part of the federated states of Android, they will also have to tolerate a bunch of pre-installed incursions from fellow Android states, not least Google’s Play Store.  Apple meanwhile ensures there is just one place for music on its devices.

Samsung desperately wants to make music work and to its credit continues to throw money at trying to fix the problem.  Free radio might just be the best first step.  Especially considering that just 1% of Android consumers state they intend to start paying for a music subscription service and that a quarter of them say they have no need to pay for music because they get so much for free.  Milk Music might be feeding that free music habit, but it could also be the foundation for something bigger and better.  In the meantime, if you can’t beat them…

The Smartphone Innovator’s Dilemma

The recent rumours concerning Amazon’s possible flirtation with launching a smartphone, whether baseless or not, on the eve of Apple’s new product launch, shine an interesting light on a challenge that faces all smartphone manufacturers: where to innovate next?

In the mid 2000’s I oversaw the launch of JupiterResearch’s European mobile research practice and also at Jupiter led countless mobile data and research projects as well as working closely with the leading handset manufacturers.  Throughout that time I saw the early days of the emergence of the smartphone sector up close, and the rate of innovation was both often startling and manifested itself in highly tangible ways. Screen sizes got bigger, handsets got smaller, camera megapixel counts grew, and a whole host of new features arrived including video, email and calendar synching, true tones, 3.5mm headphone sockets, MP3 sideloading, PC-synching etc.

Then in June 2007 Apple came along with the iPhone and transformed the mobile phone market forever.  Apple had characteristically waited until the smartphone market was ready for primetime before launching the iPhone and then pursuing an equally characteristically disruptive strategy.  The last few years of the 2000’s saw successive innovation step changes, with meaningful new marquee features for each new generation of devices. Now though, on the eve of Apple’s next smartphone announcement we are at an unusual place.  There is not that much more that a smartphone can really deliver at its core.  Smartphones were all about disruptive innovation, now they have become sustaining innovation. Thus the new features that are used to distinguish one product from the next are either evolutionary improvements (e.g. better screen resolution, better camera, better battery life), or bleeding edge gimmicks that are not yet ready for primetime (e.g. Siri, Eye Tracking).  The smartphone has hit upon its optimum product construct and thus product changes from here-on-in will predominately be iterative, sustaining innovations rather than disruptive ones.

That in itself is not an inherently bad thing.  Indeed it is typical of a mature market, but it also makes the market right for disruption, and if there is less scope for that disruption to be product focused, it is more likely to be strategy focused.  Hence we have started to see the emergence of strategies such as Mozilla’s Firefox OS devices aimed at driving open web standards and the rumoured Amazon phone strategy aimed at driving e-commerce and digital content revenues. So the established incumbent players face an innovation dilemma for their flagship devices: do they continue to focus their efforts on packaging sustaining innovations with occasional product gimmick, do they try something dramatically different, or do they try the third way of a disruptive strategy instead?

For a company like Samsung with a plethora of product SKUs it is possible to experiment with bleeding edge innovation on niche devices but it is the flagship devices where marketplace impact is measured.   Go too fast on a flagship device and you will alienate your mainstream customers, go too slow and you will be positioned as an innovation laggard.  The irony of course being that it is the less-headline-grabbing sustaining innovations that generally deliver the most discernable user benefits.

A perhaps even greater irony is that it is the software that really delivers the differentiation to most consumers.  With standard smartphone hardware functionality (cameras excepted) being broadly comparable in the eyes and ears of most mainstream consumers, it is what the software enables that people truly notice.  The apps, the content, the features.  Thus iOS 7 will transform how iPhones behave yet Apple will still need a marquee feature to sell the next iPhone, even if that is a bleeding edge gimmick. Against this backdrop the third way of disruptive strategy becomes ever more appealing for smartphone companies.  Hence Apple’s rumoured intensified push towards lower price segment consumers with a scaled down version of the iPhone.

The likelihood is that whatever phone product Apple launches tomorrow it will probably leave many observers disappointed because it will not be seen to be a dramatic innovation step change.  Apple might surprise us and pull a rabbit out of the hat but it is more likely not to because the simple fact is that it is harder than ever to dramatically innovate smartphone products. Though we may not yet have seen the end of the age of disruptive innovation in smartphones, we are certainly in a lull cycle.  Which is why Samsung, and quite possibly Apple, are looking to adjacent markets such as smart watches, as opportunities to innovate aggressively in wild west technology frontiers in order to re-earn their innovation stripes.

iTunes Radio: Another Chapter in Apple’s Cautious Cloud Music Strategy

As expected Apple today announced the launch of the music industry’s worst kept secret iTunes Radio, a Pandora-like personalized radio service.  iTunes Radio is integrated into the new iOS7, is free with ads to all, free without ads to Tunes Match subscribers. There’s enough different and new in iTunes Radio to make it stand out from the pack and to ensure it has a typically high quality Apple touch.  But the prevailing narrative will be that Apple has taken the conservative me-too strategic option rather than bringing new transformative innovation to the marketplace.  In many respects that analysis rings true but the complete picture is far more nuanced.

Apple is not in the business of creating markets or being a first mover.  Apple is the archetypal early-follower.  That applies even more to digital music than to hardware for Apple.  The iTunes Music Store was far from the first download store, but it was, and arguably still is, the best.  Apple is in the business of selling hardware and its music strategy is dictated by its ability to help it sell hardware.  Rather than balance itself precariously on the bleeding edge of digital music innovation Apple waits for music technology to become ready for prime time.

Two Reasons Why Apple Has to Go Slow With the Cloud

All of that has rung true for a decade+ at Apple.  But now there are new factors in the mix which play determining roles in Apple’s music strategy:

  • Apple has become a mainstream company: Apple’s nineties and noughties heritage was that of the early adopter tech aficionado.  Now Apple is a mainstream consumer product company.  Since the start of 2011 Apple has sold 468 million iPods and iPads. In doing so it has brought swathes of mass market consumers into the iTunes ecosystem, resulting in 575 million credit card linked iTunes accounts.  But all this means that Apple now has to move more carefully, innovating at a pace that is appropriate for a majority of its customer base not just the highly engaged top end.  Spotify’s 6 million paying subscribers is a fantastic achievement but pales compared to Apple’s iTunes user count. The simple fact is that Apple does not think that $9.99 subscriptions are yet ready for primetime for mainstream consumers.
  • The shift to the cloud will impact device pricing strategy: currently Apple’s device pricing strategy is dictated by storage capacity.  The bigger the hard drive the higher the price. But once/if everything shifts to the cloud bigger memory capacities matter much less.  This is why Apple has to go slow with the cloud.  If it goes too quickly it could accelerate the transition at a rate it cannot manage and end up wreaking havoc in its core device business all for the sake of keeping digital music fans happy.  A personalized radio service is a neat complement to downloads.  It won’t win any awards for innovation but it will give mainstream Apple customers enough extra value without disrupting device sales, or indeed music sales.  iTunes Radio buys Apple crucial time as it plans its cloud-era device and pricing strategy.

What Apple Could (and Should) Do

The shift to the cloud is of course inevitable and for all that iTunes Radio may buy Apple some time, the challenges must be faced. The answer to Apple’s problems may lie in the problem itself.  If consumers increasingly shy away from higher memory devices – and therefore more expensive devices – content may prove to be the way in which Apple maintains premium price points across its device portfolio.

Content is the core reason people use iPads and iPods and one of the core reasons people use iPhones.  A smart move would be to take that importance and bake it into the value proposition.  Instead of charging a premium based on memory size alone, Apple could additional sell content-device bundles (and longer term phase out memory size pricing entirely).  For example pricing tiers for iPads could look something like this:

  • Price point 1: 16GB, no content
  • Price point 2: 32GB $/€/£10 a month of iTunes content
  • Price point 3: 32GB $/€/£10 a month of iTunes content and on demand music streaming

The reputation of content-device bundles got somewhat tarnished by the Comes With Music experience, but the model remains fundamentally sound.  Apple could just be the company to make it work. If it does, iTunes Radio will have proved to be a crucial first step on that journey.

In the meantime iTunes Radio is another important, incremental step in Apple’s cautious cloud music strategy.  Cautious because Apple is intent on innovating at a pace that matches the appetite of its mainstream customers.  Cautious because a hasty move could turn iTunes Music sales upside down with direct cannibalisation. And most importantly of all, cautious because Apple knows that if it gets it wrong it could disrupt device pricing strategy, with major repercussions right across Apple’s business.

In short there are many reasons for Apple to go slow with its cloud music strategy.  That might not make for the most exciting of music product roadmaps, but it does mean that Apple is building for long term sustainability and viability.  That in itself is of crucial importance for the music industry and should help ensure Apple remains a music industry partner of true scale for years to come.

iTunes @ 10

On Sunday 28th April Apple’s iTunes Store will celebrate its 10th birthday.  It is arguably the single most important milestone in the digital music market to date.  In these days of cloud and streaming dominated industry discourse it easy to forget just how important Apple has been in the history of digital music and how equally important it remains today.  In 2012, iTunes generated approximately $3 billion in trade revenues for the recorded music industry, equivalent to around  55% of all digital trade income and close to a fifth of all global recorded music trade revenue.  By comparison Spotify was closer to 10% of digital trade revenues and 4% of all global trade revenue.  Spotify is clearly at a much earlier stage of growth and represents the future, but iTunes is far, far from being a historical footnote.

The Four Ages of iTunes

The history of iTunes falls into four key chapters:

  • Baby Steps: On January 9th 2001 Apple launched its iTunes music management software, and later that year in November came the first ever iPod.  Back then there was no iTunes Store and Apple made it very clear how they expected their customers to acquire digital music with their ad campaign slogan: ‘Rip Mix Burn’.  Revolutionary as it was though, the iPod got off to a modest start: despite multiple product updates, by the end of 2002 Apple had still only shifted 600,000 iPods. iTunes wasn’t changing the world, not yet.
  • Changing the Tune: In April 2003 Apple launched the iTunes Music Store in the US, and then in 2004 in the UK, Germany, France and Canada, as well as an EU Store.  There were plenty of download stores already of course – Apple is always an early follower not a first mover – but they were crippled by restrictive DRM, cumbersome technology and lack of interoperability.  Most stores didn’t even allow buyers to transfer to MP3 players or burn to CD. And if you were lucky enough to be allowed to transfer to an MP3 player, your device probably didn’t even support the store’s DRM it probably also relied on incompatible 3rd party music management software.  Apple changed all of that in an instant, delivering an end-to-end integrated experience.  Steve Jobs, through a combination of sheer force of personality and a commitment to spend big on marketing (really big) managed to persuade the big labels to support unlimited iPods, CD burning and multiple PCs.  Digital music hadn’t so much been stuck in the starting blocks as having its feet nailed to them.  Jobs set digital music free.  By July 2004 the iTunes Music Store had hit 100 million downloads, but more significantly by the end of 2005 Apple had sold 42.2 million iPods. iTunes was now selling iPods, and fast.
  • Beyond Music: When Apple was in the business of selling monochrome screen iPods, music was the killer app and iTunes was the marketing tool. But that changed on June 29 2007 with the launch of the iPhone.  Apple soon needed more than music to market its multimedia, touch screen, accelerometer enabled devices. Movies were proving difficult to license and TV shows faced free competition from Hulu, iPlayer, ABC.com et al. The solution of course was the App Store.  The App Store took just 3 months to hit 100 million downloads – it had taken the iTunes Music Store 15 months to hit the same milestone.  Apple remained, and remains, firmly committed to music but its attention is inherently diluted by all of the other content types that iPhones and iPads cater for.  When Apple launches a new device it is EA Games you see demonstrating a new game to showcase the device’s capabilities, not a new music track.  (And of course the word ‘music’ got dropped from the iTunes Store name long ago.)
  • The Platform Challenge: The App Store turned the iTunes Store into a platform, albeit it a highly controlled one.  This created an unprecedented window of opportunity for competing digital music services, suddenly they could break into the previously impenetrable iTunes ecosystem.  Pandora was an early mover and within a year of launching its iPhone app had acquired 6 million iPhone users, 60% of its then 10 million active users.  Shazam was another beneficiary, with the iPhone app finally giving Shazam relevancy and context it had long lacked.  And now of course we have Spotify, Deezer, Rhapsody, Rdio et al all hugely dependent on the iPhone, using it as the central reason subscribers pay 9.99.

Responding to Streaming

Strong iPhone and iPad Sales Have Reinvigorated iTunes Music Sales

Many commentators suggest Apple is being left behind in the streaming era.  It echoes comments that Apple was getting left behind by the social age, and its responses then (Ping! and Genius) are not the most compelling of evidence for Apple jumping on the latest digital music bandwagon.  Apple will of course have to eventually move towards a more consumption and access based model but it will wait, as it always does, until streaming and is ready for primetime.  (A radio service is a logical interim step). Spotify’s 6 million paying subscribers are impressive but pale compared to Apple’s 450 million credit card linked iTunes account.  And besides, iTunes is enjoying its most successful period ever (see figure).  For all the need of interactive multimedia products to market iPhones and iPads, music remains one of the key use cases and the iTunes Store has seen an unprecedented surge in music downloads as millions of new music fans enter the iTunes ecosystem as iPad and iPhone buyers.

Apple Still Underpins the Growth of the Digital Music Market

Interestingly Apple’s music download growth appears to be strongly outpacing the overall digital music market (see figure).  According to the IFPI total global digital trade revenue grew by 8% in 2012 but Apple’s iTunes downloads grew by about 50% during the same period, culminating in 25 billion cumulative downloads in Q4 2012.  Multiple factors are at play: iTunes has rolled out to new territories and a portion of the downloads will also be free.  Nonetheless, iTunes remains the beating heart of digital music.

The Next Chapter

Apple’s next big digital music move will have major strategic ramifications that will go far beyond the iTunes Store.  Currently Apple’s device pricing model is driven by storage capacity.  And of course in a streaming age consumers will store less and less content on their devices, so the ability to charge a premium for extra storage capacity will diminish.  This is a key reason why Apple has to go slow with the cloud.  Music however also presents an opportunity to safeguard price premiums.  Apple has shied away from subscriptions (Steve Jobs famously baited then-Rhapsody owner Rob Glaser that subscriptions were mere rentals) but device-bundled-subscriptions are now an opportunity that Apple simply has to take seriously.  Instead of charging a monthly fee for subscriptions Apple could create ‘iTunes-Unlimited’ editions’ of iPads and iPhones that would include ‘device lifetime’ access to either unlimited music streams or a monthly allowance of iTunes credits (for use on all forms of iTunes content).  The latter probably sits most comfortably with Apple as it presents the opportunity for tiers of access (e.g. $5 of monthly iTunes credit, $10 of monthly credit etc.) and so would enable Apple to support multiple product price tiers.

Whatever Apple decides to do with iTunes in the next 10 years, it will remain a key player and do not bet against it still being the preeminent force a decade from now.

Apple Hits 25 Billion Downloads: What it Means for the Music Industry

Yesterday Apple announced that it had reached the milestone of 25 billion songs sold.*  The number is impressive by any means and brings yet more important context to the current scale of streaming versus downloading.   But of course music downloads are just one part of Apple’s business, and not a hugely important one at that.  Apple sells downloads to improve its device proposition.  As I have written before, it is effectively monetized CRM, and interestingly in these days of increased investor scrutiny, music sales are actually a low margin revenue stream for a company which prides itself on high margins.  Which means the better that music sales do, the more they dent Apple’s profit margins.

apple device and download sales copy

But the really interesting trend that the 25 billion downloads reveals is that the surge in iPhone and iPad sales has brought a very significant boost to iTunes sales (see figure).  This has major implications for the music industry.  In 2008 digital music sales fell off a cliff when iPod sales started their long term decline (see my previous chart here).  But now, following an inter-product cycle lull, music sales are up again. The impact of Apple’s device sales on music sales is huge.  When declining iPod sales started pulling digital downloads growth down I wrote that ‘when Apple sneezes the music industry gets a cold’.  Now it is also clear that when Apple smiles, the music industry grins from ear to ear.

There are other factors at play too (such as the impact of all those new Apple stores coming on stream in markets such as Russia and India).  But the data does show that we are some way yet from streaming denting download sales. Largely because downloads are a much more natural entry point for new digital music consumers.

For some final context though, as significant as the surge in iPhone and iPad sales has been on music sales, it has had an even more marked impact on App downloads.  Which is a timely reminder that these devices are built for multimedia, interactive, visual experiences.  While the music industry’s main product for iPhones and iPads remains a static audio file.  That problem needs fixing fast.

 

*For long term Apple watchers the use of the word ‘sold’ is significant. The language Apple usually uses is that in the opening paragraph of the release ‘bought and download’ which has long been assumed to be worded to capture free downloads also.  The interesting question now is whether the use of the word ‘sold’ in the release headline is a clarification of terms, or an over eager copy editor.

Why the Music Industry Needs Another iPod Moment

The importance of Apple to the digital music market cannot be overstated.  Without Apple the digital market would be vastly smaller than it is now.  With all of the talk of streaming services and the shift to the consumption era it is easy to think of Apple’s iTunes Store as yesterday’s game.  Such an assumption is as dangerous as looking upon the CD as an irrelevance in the present era.  The CD and iTunes combined account for approximately 78% of total recorded music revenue in the world’s 10 largest music markets.   And yet neither look like they are going to provide the momentum the music industry needs over the next few years.  Despite its vast importance to music revenue today, the CD is obviously on a fixed downward path.  And the download is not so dramatically different in profile in that it is the dominate revenue source yet is not delivering the dynamic growth the digital market needs.  Key to this is of course the role of Apple.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told us at the launch of the iPhone 5 that ‘Apple still loves music’ and so it does.  But music is inherently less central to Apple’s content and device strategy than it was 5 years ago.  When the iPod launched it had a monochrome screen and did little else than play audio.  Music was the killer app with which to market iPods.  Now games, apps, video and books show off the capabilities of colour touch screen iPads and iPhones much better than a static audio file (even if music remains one of the key activities on both those devices).    In the early days of the iPod Apple needed the record labels more than they did Apple.  Indeed, to begin with the iPod was far from a runaway success.  By the end of 2002, one year after launch, the iPod had only sold 625,000 units.  The iTunes Music Store changed the story, delivering not only unprecedented digital music milestones, but also record iPod sales. After the first full year of the iTunes Music Store, sales of the iPod had quintupled from 2 million to 10 million, and one year later they surpassed 40 million. The iPod and the iTunes Music Store had a clear symbiotic relationship.  Now though, Apple’s devices benefit from a much broader array of content and services from the iTunes Store, which pointedly is no longer called the iTunes MUSIC Store.

Apple’s diversification of device and content strategy heralded a brave new chapter in Apple’s history but it has also left the digital music market without the fiercely energized catalyst that kicked it into motion.  By the time Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, the installed base of iPods was already slowing.  Though sales were still increasing, the majority of those were either replacement or additional purchases.  So although iPod sales were booming still, the number of new iTunes Music Store customers was not.  Throughout 2008 I presented the data to a number of senior record label executives at the time and I argued that they needed to start planning for a post-iPod slow down.  Some of them didn’t take me too seriously, and who could blame them, after all iPod sales were growing strongly and iTunes downloads were growing at a stellar rate. But now, with a few years of market data behind us, the true scale of the post-iPod slowdown is clear (see figure).  As soon as iPod sales slowed, so did the digital music market.  Prior to 2008 the digital music market had grown by an average annual rate of 85.2%, after 2008 that rate dropped to 7.5%.  In many markets the 2009 slowdown was of falling-off-a-cliff proportions: in the US digital growth slipped from 30% in 2008 to a near flat-lining 1% in 2009.

Streaming services have started to bring some welcome momentum to digital music.  But much more is needed from them if growth is to be reinvigorated.  That growth may also be helped by new music formats like the forthcoming Lady Gaga album app.  Whatever the source of it, it is clear that the music needs another iPod momentum to kick the digital market back into life.

How the App Economy Has Transformed Product Strategy

Mobile apps can stake a pretty solid claim to being the single most important shift in consumer product behaviour in the last 5 years.  Sure the devices themselves are pivotally important, but were it not for the apps consumers install on them, they would just be better versions of the feature phones and early smartphones from half a decade earlier.  Apps have transformed consumers’ expectations of what digital experiences should be, and not just on connected devices.  But Apps have also transformed product strategy, in two key ways:

  • Apps have replaced product strategy with feature strategy
  • Apps have created a renaissance in the consumer software market

Apps have replaced product strategy with feature strategy

Though there are a good number of apps which can be genuinely held up as fully fledged products (Google Maps, Angry Birds, WhatsApp etc.) many are in fact product features rather than products.  Shazam for example is a fantastic feature, so fantastic that it should be as ubiquitous in music products as a volume button, but it is nonetheless a feature not a product.  Don’t mistake this for a derogatory critique: indeed feature strategy is virtually the core DNA of the app model.  After all apps rely upon the core product of the smartphone or tablet itself to do much of the hard work.

Apps co-exist with the core functionality of the device in order to layer extra features on top.  Instagram uses a phone’s camera and web functionality, Layar uses the camera and GPS and so forth.  In short, apps add features and functionality to hardware products.  That does not make them inherently any less valuable for doing so, but it does make them dramatically different from pre-App products. Even the majority of utility apps, such as those that track rail and flight schedules, or the weather are at heart browser bookmarks on steroids.  Games are perhaps the only app category which in the main can be considered as self-contained products.

This shift from product strategy to feature strategy has slashed the time it takes for products to get to market and has dramatically reduced development overhead, but it is a model riven with risk.  Consumers and the device ecosystem companies are winners, but many app developers are exposed.  On the one hand they have the insecurity associated with platform dependency, on the other they know that if their features are that good that they will likely be integrated into the device’s core OS or into the featureset of another app with broader functionality.  Sometimes those scenarios will be achieved via favourable commercial avenues (such as an acquisition or licensing) but sometimes it will just be flat out plagiarism.

The lesson for app developers is clear: if your app is a feature and it is good, then you need to plan for how to turn it into a product, else plan for what to do when your app has become someone else’s feature.

Apps have created a renaissance in the consumer software market

It is sometimes easy to lose sight of just what apps are: software.  In the PC age software was for most people one of three things:

  • Microsoft Windows and Office
  • An anti-virus tool
  • A bunch of free-trial bloatware shortcuts preinstalled on their desk top pre point of sale

Mainstream PC behaviour was defined by Microsoft functionality and browser based activity.  Sure, software from the likes of Real Networks and Adobe supported much of those browser based experiences, but they were to the consumer effectively extensions of the core OS rather than software products themselves.  A premium consumer software market did exist but never broke through to mainstream.  Consumers didn’t know where to look for software, whether it would install properly, whether it would work on their PC, and then on top of all this they were faced with having to provide credit card details to small companies they knew nothing about.

Mobile apps changed all of that.  App stores simultaneously fixed the discovery, billing, installation and compatibility issues in one fair swoop.  Apps have enabled the consumer software market to finally reach its true opportunity.  Just in the same way that the iPod allowed digital music to fulfil its potential.

Apps continue to transform consumer behaviour and expectations

So where will feature strategy and the reinvigorated consumer software business take us?  What is clear is that consumers are getting exposed to a wider array of digital experiences and are evolving more sophisticated digital behaviours due to apps.  Apps are also enabling consumers to do things more effectively and efficiently, and are empowering them with more information to make better decisions, whether that be getting the best flight price or choosing the best local plumber.  They are also making consumers expect a lot more from a device’s ecosystem than just the devices.  How often do you see a phone company advertise its handsets with the screen turned off? It is the apps that count.  For now, however good Nokia might be able to make its smartphones it knows that its app catalogue and ecosystem struggles to hold a candle to Apple’s App store and ecosystem (the same of course applies to all other handset manufacturers).

Apps have become velvet handcuffs for connected device owners

But what happens if/when consumers start to shift at scale between ecosystems?  For example, say Apple finds swathes of its iPhone and iPad customers switching to competitors in the future, what sort of backlash will occur when consumers find they have to expensively reassemble their app collections to reconstruct the features they grew used to on their Apple devices?  Perhaps a smart handset manufacturer would consider investing in an app amnesty, giving new customers the equivalents of their iOS apps for free on their new handsets.

For now though, Apple’s market leading app catalogue behaves like velvet handcuffs on its customers and gives it a product strategy grace period, in which it could get away with having a sub-par product generation, with customers staying loyal because of not wanting to lose their App collections.  But not even the strength of Apple’s app catalogue would not enable them to keep hold of disaffected customers much longer than that.  After all, apps are features, not the product itself.

Apple’s $1bn Settlement: a New Innovator’s Dilemma

Apple’s $1 billion patent infringement victory against Samsung raises a number of increasingly pressing issues about innovation in the consumer technology space. There is no doubt that Apple has done more than any other single company to shape the smartphone marketplace. It is also clear that the average smartphone form-factor and feature set look dramatically different post-iPhone than they did pre-iPhone.  And there is an argument to be had that those same form factors and feature sets bear more than passing resemblance to the iPhone. But this raises the issue of where the ‘a high tide raises all boats’ market evolution argument stops and the patent infringement one starts.

Samsung is the Buffer State in Apple’s Proxy War with Google

Apple’s case against Samsung was in effect a proxy war against Android.  Samsung became the target because it was doing a better job of making Android compete against Apple than anyone else.   While competitors like Nokia and HTC have laundry lists of product names and numbers, Apple’s elegantly simple iPhone brand cuts through the smartphone name clutter like the proverbial knife through warm butter.  Among numerous other factors Samsung recognized the supreme value of establishing such clear brands (such as the Galaxy) and pivoting their portfolio around them.  Samsung became competitor #1, the Android success story, racking up a 50% share of the smartphone market in Q2012 according to IDC, which compares to just 17% for Apple.

The final impact of the ruling is yet to be seen, with countless potential challenges and subsequent actions likely to come.  There are also interesting geopolitical issues at stake, not least of which is the degree to which a Californian jury and judge will be perceived on the international stage as having the requisite impartiality to rule upon competition between a South Korean and a Californian based company.  But leaving aside the legal permutations for a moment, let’s instead take a look at the known unknowns and their likely impact on the marketplace:

  • Competitive patent strategy. Over the last couple of years we have seen an acceleration of the use of patents in the consumer technology and Internet arenas.  Patents have quickly become established as an extra part of competition strategy among big technology firms.  Now, instead of just relying on product development, marketing, pricing and positioning technology, companies can use patent claims to help strengthen their position at the direct expense of the competition.
  • Patent arms race. With the rise of patent trolls (companies’ whose sole objective is to acquire patents and then try to sue established companies for patent infringement) the big established companies themselves have started to acquire patent arsenals.  For example, earlier this year Microsoft paid AOL $1.1bn for 925 patents, 650 of which it promptly sold to Facebook for $550m.  Before that, in 2011, Microsoft teamed up with long-time rival Apple as well as with just about anyone whose anyone in the smartphone business who isn’t Android (RIM, Sony, Ericsson et) to spend $4.5 bn on 6,000+ patents from bankrupt Canadian teleco equipment maker Nortel.  Google had been on the other side of the bidding war and lost out with what was seen by some as a whimsical bidding strategy.  Google promptly went onto to buy fading handset manufacturer Motorola for $12.5bn, a company that just happened to have c.17,000 patents in its archives.  There are uncanny echoes of the Cold War with both sides stockpiling nuclear weapons.  The difference here is that the arsenals are being thrown straight into battle rather than being held back for fear of Mutually Assured Destruction.
  • Patents no longer fit for purpose? Patents raise as many questions as they provide answers for in the software and technology spaces.  Not only are they subject to legal challenge, the language used in them is often  inadequate.  What gives a piece of technology competitive edge is not having rounded corners, but the digital mechanics underneath the hood. It is the code inside a piece of software that gives it edge, not the broad user behaviour it supports.  That’s why we have market leaders in software and product categories that are crowded with lesser competitors that support the same basic user behaviour. And yet patents focus on the exact opposite of this equation.  Patents are typically vaguely worded affairs that talk about broad behaviours such as “a system for controlled distribution of user profiles over a network” (taken directly from a patent which forms the basis of Yahoo’s case against Facebook). Even the more detailed patents – such as Apple’s recent Haptics filing – have a procedural focus.  And of course they have to. Patent applications are exactly that: applications.  There is no guarantee they will be granted and so a filing company is going to be as secretive as they possibly can rather than give its competition edge.  But even if there was a guarantee there is no way in which a technology company is going to publish its source code on a publically accessible document.

And therein lies the problem, if a company is not ever going to include the secret sauce which gives its product the real edge, then what is a technology patent really going to be able to definitively cover?  If it inherently comes down to a discussion about supporting usage behaviours then we end up with an unusual and potentially restrictive lens placed upon innovation and invention.  The history of innovation and invention is that when something comes along that is good enough, it permeates through the entire market.   Sometimes this involves licensing of patents, more often than not it happens through creating similar but different inventions. Think about any consumer electronics purchase, whether that be a digital camera, a laptop or a TV: the products all have pretty much the same mix of features and form factor in their respective price tiers.  This is what has happened to date with smartphones.

However if the Apple ruling survives all challenges and is then extended it could have the effect of a forced and artificial split in innovation evolution. Instead of the touchscreen smartphone becoming another step on the innovation path it could become the sole domain of Apple and force the competition to pursue entirely different evolution paths.  Now there are obviously both positive and negative connotations of that.  But whatever your view point, it will be dramatically different from how other consumer electronics product categories have evolved.

With its origins in early 18th century England, there is an increasingly strong case for a major review of the global patent system and whether it is the right tool to strike an appropriate balance between protecting intellectual property and fostering innovation in the 21st century consumer technology marketplace.

Who’s Competing with Who?

An interesting post-script to the Apple-Samsung case is looking at who else will potentially benefit other than Apple.  Right now there will be a host of handset manufacturers who will be hurriedly looking for a Mobile OS Plan B.  An uncertain Android future doesn’t leave them many places to turn to other than Microsoft’s Windows 8. Historically no friend of Apple but these days of course part of Apple’s Patent Pact. How long that alliance will remain intact remains to be seen, though a cynic might argue that Apple would leave it in place just long enough for Microsoft to get enough of a foothold to fragment the OS marketplace before it renews hostilities between Cupertino and Redmond. By which stage Apple could have billions worth of patent settlement dollars to wage war with…