Yesterday James, my co-founder at Percolate, sent me over a really interesting nugget about how Apple structures its company about 35 minutes into this Critical Path podcast. Essentially Horace (from Asymco) argues that Apple’s non-cross-functional structure actually allows it to innovate and execute far better than a company structured in a more traditional, non-functional, way. As opposed to most other companies where managers are encourages to pick up experience across the enterprise, Apple encourages (or forces), people to stay in their role for the entirety of their career. On top of that, roles are not horizontal by product (head of iPhone) and instead are vertical by discipline (design, operations, technologies) and also quite siloed. He goes on to say that the only parallel he could think of is the military, who basically operates that way. (I know I haven’t done the best job articulating it, that’s because as I listen again I don’t necessarily think the thesis is articulated all that well.)
Below is my response back to James:
While I totally agree with what he says about the structure (that they’re organized functionally and it works for them), I’m not sure you can just conclude that’s ideal or drives innovation. The requirement of an org structure like that is that all vision/innovation comes from the top and moves down through the organization. That’s fine when you have someone like Jobs in charge, but it’s questionable what happens when he leaves (or when this first generation he brought up leaves maybe). Look at what happened when Jobs left the first time as evidence for how they lost their way. Apple is a fairly unique org in that it has a very limited number of SKUs and, from everything we’ve heard, Jobs was the person driving most/all.
My question back to Horace would be what will Apple look like in 20 years. IBM and GE are 3x older than Apple is and part of how they’ve survived, I’d say, is that they’ve built the responsibility of innovation into a bit more of a cross-functional discipline + centralized R&D. I don’t know if it matters, but if I was making a 50 year bet on a company I’d pick GE over Apple and part of it is that org structure and its ability to retain knowledge.
Military is actually a perfect example: Look at the struggles they’ve had over the last 20 years as the enemy stopped being similarly structured organizations and moved to being loosely connected networks. History has shown us over and over centralized organizations struggle with decentralized enemies. Now the good news for Apple is that everyone else is pretty much playing the same highly organized and very predictable game (with the exception of Google, who is in a functionally different business and Samsung, who because of their manufacturing resources and Asian heritage exist in a little bit of a different world).
Again, in a 10 year race Apple wins with a structure like this. But in a 50 year race, in which your visionary leader is unlikely to still be manning the helm, I think it brings up a whole lot of questions.
Matthew Yglesias makes a decent argument that Apple Maps, while a terrible product, is succeeding at its intended goal:
To get out of that bind, Apple has never needed to make a product that’s actually superior to Google Maps. What they’ve needed to do is produce an application that clears two bars. One is that it has to be good enough that your typcial doesn’t-care-too-much phone consumer doesn’t reject iOS out of hand. The other is that it has to be good enough such that if Google doesn’t want to lose the entire iOS customer base it has to scramble and release a great Google Maps app for iOS and not just for Android. Apple’s Maps app easily clears both of those bars. Before the release of iOS 6, the inferiority of Apple’s Google-powered iOS Maps app to Android’s Google maps was a real reason to prefer an Android phone. Today, there is no such reason. Not because Apple Maps is as good at Google Maps, but because Google Maps for iOS is as good as Google Maps for Android.
This was actually part of the original Chrome strategy as well. While Google released the product because long-term they couldn’t afford to have their biggest competitor (at the time) controlling the majority of their usage, they also did it to push Internet Explorer to innovate so that Google could deliver a better and faster experience for its customers. By entering the browser market Google was able to light a fire under Microsoft that a company like Firefox never could and the versions of IE that followed were a thousand times better than what had existed before.
Ran across an interesting quote (reportedly) by Jony Ive about the difference between measurable (speed, hard drive size, etc.) attributes and the non-measurable ones:
But there are a lot of product attributes that don’t have those sorts of measures. Product attributes that are more emotive and less tangible. But they’re really important. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really important that you can’t distill down to a number. And I think one of the things with design is that when you look at an object you make many many decisions about it, not consciously, and I think one of the jobs of a designer is that you’re very sensitive to trying to understand what goes on between seeing something and filling out your perception of it. You know we all can look at the same object, but we will all perceive it in a very unique way. It means something different to each of us. Part of the job of a designer is to try to understand what happens between physically seeing something and interpreting it.
I think about this a lot. One of the things that inspired Brand Tags originally was a similar quote from my friend Martin Bihl’s 2002 AdWeek article: “The way I look at it, a brand only exists in the consumer’s mind. That other product isn’t a brand yet because consumers don’t really know about it. It’s still a product.”
The most interesting part of this interview with Horace of Asymco about the Surface is his take on the difference between how Apple and Microsoft view tablets:
I have some guesses but I don’t think it’s something that is defensible. Too many things can change. Fundamentally I believe Microsoft sees the tablet as a PC and intends to migrate a substantial portion of would-be PC customers to tablet forms. If they are successful then they preserve the existing PC user base and allow it to grow a bit.
In contrast Apple sees the iPad as a new type of device that is used for things not directly related to PC style computing. In that sense the iPad competes with PC non-consumption. It means people may own both a PC and an iPad and some will own only an iPad. The iPad will expand the market while taking share from the PC. Windows tablets will try to hold the Windows share steady.
Douglas Rushkoff asks some interesting questions about the lengths we’re going in the patent battle between Apple and the rest of the industry:
But when it comes to gestures, such as the now ubiquitous “pinch and zoom” technology through which users stretch or shrink pictures and text, well, that no longer feels quite the same. They are gestures that may have begun on the device, but which have become internalized, human movements. When my daughter was three I used to watch her attempt to enact those same swipes and stretches on the television screen – a phenomenon so prevalent that many television dealers now keep a supply of Windex handy to clean their giant flat screens of children’s fingerprints on a regular basis.