6 Ways Apple Can Stay Relevant

Continuum's Gianfranco Zaccai offers advice to businesses just starting out and those in danger of falling into complacency.

As Apple rolls out its next iteration of the iPad, I can’t help but think of Blackberry, whose demise is the classic tale of a company with a big success that becomes fearful of "breaking what’s not broken." It put its energy into perfecting what its customers loved, such as the typing experience, the unmatched security, and the BBM messaging, without investing in innovation. So when a competitor showed up with "the next big thing," the maker of "the last big thing" was left wondering what went wrong. This is exactly what’s happening with Apple.

Of course, it’s easy to admit today that I predicted in 2005 that Blackberry would be in trouble. As for Apple, concerns that the company had peaked began appearing more than a year ago, accelerated by the death of Steve Jobs. Now, as one tech writer says: "There’s a new rhythm to product releases among the biggest players in mobile tech, and increasingly, Samsung is building a reputation as the most brash and quick-to-act of what I would call the ruling triumvirate, which also includes Google and Apple. Google plays the reasoned experimenter, Apple hangs back and refines the best ideas to come out of the market, but Samsung increasingly seems willing to absorb the costs of diving headlong into new territory, just to prove it can."

What is Samsung doing right? And how can a company keep from becoming a sitting duck while remaining a cash cow? Here’s how to forge an innovative future while remaining a profitable company today.

1. Don’t believe your own PR.

As the prospectus says, "Past performance is no guarantee of future returns." A product manager who hasn’t imagined how his product might be trashed by a competitor is not doing his job.

2. Nurture change agents.

The talent to see what others do not notice and to imagine compelling innovation will turn up in many employees, not just designers. Give them the tools and the space to explore what people really think, do, and feel, and the means to create a receptive audience within the organization.

3. Don’t trust focus groups.

Of course customers are central to the innovation process, but you need to understand not only what they say but what they are unable or unwilling to say. That’s design research and actionable strategy. For example, one of our clients was testing children’s beverages with a group of mothers in Brazil. There was hesitation among the moms to say, "That's healthy enough to give to my kid," when we showed prototype formulations and packages. When we began presenting some really new ideas, the situation became even worse as group-think lampooning set in among the group. When asked their opinion, they all went along with each other, even though, judging from their facial expressions, we could tell they didn’t agree. Faces are the telltale signs of focus groups.

4. Fail early and often.

The more mistakes you make, the more you learn. The sooner in the product development cycle you make them, the less they cost. Some companies test their new products to death in a futile attempt at perfection, but that perfection can only be attained after a product has been tested in the marketplace. For instance, the Apple Newton Message Pad might have been a failure—it was too big and the handwriting software was inaccurate—but it opened the door to the ground-breaking Apple iPhone.

5. Make your best products obsolete.

Toyota took just this step with its hybrid cars. Initially, the carmaker’s development effort was all out of proportion to the market demand, but Toyota wasn’t waiting for another company to beat them to the foreseeable future ... and that future is now. Companies naturally worry about cannibalizing their own business, but if they don’t do it, someone else will. Think of your company not as the provider of a product but as the provider of the benefit of that product—by the best means available, which may not be the product you are selling so profitably today.

6. Design a total experience that people will love.

There are multiple touch points between the customer and the producer: the buzz, the store, the product, the packaging, the user manuals (or, ideally, the lack thereof), the service center, and so on. Every one of these should be carefully designed—not adequate but great!

Marketplaces change quickly—someone smart and creative is always out to get you. Design researchers and envisioners are your company’s immune system. People with healthy immune systems still suffer illness and infection, but they recover. Companies with healthy design resources will still take hits from their competitors, but they stand the best chance of coming back with a new winner.

[Images via Shutterstock]

[Image: Flickr user Yutaka Tsutano

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  • JP Fluellen

    Blackberry failed because in 2010 they missed their opportunity to hit the market with a real competitive lines phones. There touch screen phone was a huge failure. Blackberry 10 should have come out in 2010 and now it's to little too late.

  • modScheherazade

    Honestly, I wonder why I wasted my time reading this. The whole list was a bunch of cliches that really did not have much to do with Apple or offer any evidence that Apple is failing to innovate (other than a bunch of other people are talking about it), or what they could truly do differently.

    I have my issues with Apple, but in their defense, I don't associate innovation and Samsung together. Android is innovative-- Samsung, notsomuch. They seem to copy everyone, and not even with improvements, exactly what innovation is not.

  • peter spear

    You need smarter moderators for your focus groups. The simple fix for the experience you describe is to have people write down their answers prior to sharing. This is qualitative 101. See "Asch Conformity Experiment."

  • ram

    Being relevant in today's world would be to understand internet better. I get almost everything (Google apps, spotify web player, Maps, Youtube, Netflix) done over web browser except for eclipse and SQL. Apple has failed to improve safari and as long as it wouldn't seamlessly sync with multiple devices or is not as powerful as chrome, my Mac would remain a means for me to use Chrome. Apple doesn't get the Internet as good as Google does and a company can stay relevant in the future only if they do.

  • Carl Hicks

    On the face things I would agree with you. I would say I think you are thinking of Apple in the wrong way. Apple isn't a web services company nor does it want to be. There only mission in life is to sell tangible items with apples logo on them. I think it is really hard to compare and Apple to a Google or Amazon (well the web services part of Amazon i.e. EC2's type things)
    Apple does some things on the web very well ... like sell music and manage backups of your devices. Your list is a list of services in which apple services a platform to get to those things. (Chrome vs Safari is a preference. Chrome might have a slight edge but I would say the majority of people using OSX or iOS run Safari.)

  • Grant Hutchinson

    A couple of small niggles. The Newton wasn’t a “failure”, it was deliberately killed when Jobs returned to Apple. In fact, the platform was gaining ground in education and vertical markets when the development was halted in 1998. Yes, the handwriting recognition was admittedly “inaccurate”, but only in the early iterations of the OS. Later versions were vastly improved and very accurate. Also, “MessagePad” isn’t two words.

  • No Refuge

    About as insightful as reading tech commentary from the back of a cereal box. Kudos to the "Apple is d000med!!!11!" clickbait headline though.

  • Random_Goldflake

    Totally. But the headline works great if u substitute 'Fast Company' for Apple.

  • Sumner Lee

    Nothing new but you would be amazed at how many "creative" CEO'S fail to grasp these concepts

  • Sudhir Desai

    These border on homilies - aka the 'motherhoods and apple-pies of innovation' every Innovation thought-leader talks about.

    There is not one piece of concrete recommendation on what Apple could do differently.