If you want to be a bad product manager, copy everything that Apple does. Everyone knows that Apple has some of the best products in the world, so you’d be a fool not to copy what they do. If you want to create a product as successful as the iPhone or the iPod, then just follow their lead.
If you want to be a good product manager, learn from the mistakes of Apple, including those related to the iPhone 3G S. Apple has produced some legendary products which have been wildly and there are many aspects of their product development process which product managers would be wise to understand and emulate. However, they are not perfect, as evidenced by less-than-stellar ideas like the Mac Mini and Apple TV, and slip-ups around launches of products like MobileMe. Their recently announced iPhone 3G S provides a few examples of why not to blindly follow Apple, and how to learn from their mistakes:
- Product naming: The name for the original iPhone made sense — a phone + iPod, from Apple = iPhone. The iPhone 3G was a good extension; while 3G is more of a technical term, it is common enough parlance for consumers to understand the difference from the original iPhone. The addition of 3G described the main feature and benefit of the new model — speed. However, if the difference between the original iPhone and the iPhone 3G was speed, then the difference between the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3G S is… more speed? Apple is unfortunately slipping away from their traditionally consumer-friendly naming scheme (e.g. MacBook vs. MacBook Pro) into the all-too-common tech-centric model numbers (e.g. TPS-8675309X). The lack of a clear differentiated name also will make it more confusing when the next version of the iPhone is released, and consumers have to differentiate between the different models when comparing versions, buying accessories, or seeking support. Apple unfortunately ran into this problem as well with the iPod, with new versions being unofficially being referred to as “generations” (e.g. “third-generation” iPod). This is not unlike the automobile industry, where a model name stays the same from year-to-year; however, unlike a car, Apple has been rather sly about naming each subsequent version and the differences between each “model year” are much less significant than the differences in an automobile from year to year. Since subsequent iPod models look physically similar, and since the software differences are not obvious at first glance, it takes some sleuthing to identify the type of iPod and whether a desired accessory is compatible. This has less of an impact on other Apple products like the iPod Mini, iPod Nano, and the various versions of the iPod Shuffle, since the visual differences between models is more obvious.
- Hardware vs. software: Apple announced a number of new exciting enhancements with the iPhone 3G S, including the ability to copy-and-paste, search your iPhone, use peer-to-peer apps, and tether the device to your computer for roaming desktop internet access (provided you are in a supported country, of course). The only problem with these enhancements? They do not require an iPhone 3G S, only the iPhone 3.0 software, which is available for free for any iPhone owner. Apple extols the virtues of the new model, yet does not disclose clearly which features are in the new software versus those only available in the new hardware. Want to record Voice Memos? Any iPhone will allow that. But you also Want to use Voice Control? You’ll need the iPhone 3G S. By not providing a clear comparison of which features are part of the new software release and which require the new iPhone device itself, Apple risks frustrating “legacy” iPhone owners and iPhone 3G S owners alike. Existing iPhone owners may feel duped to learn that an exciting new feature actually requires a new hardware purchase, and iPhone 3G S purchasers may be upset to learn after the fact that an older (and cheaper) model would have provided the functionality they were looking for. While it is possible that Apple made this line intentionally unclear to persuade more current iPhone owners to upgrade to the iPhone 3G S, this would not seem to fit with the Apple culture. Other electronics manufacturers may take this route, though it is likely that Apple will have enough upgraders without having to resort to bait-and-switch.
- Focus and Benefits: The iPhone 3G S is “The fastest, most powerful iPhone yet.” Great — how does that help me? If someone has yet to buy an iPhone, what benefits in the new iPhone will persuade them to purchase one? What segments is Apple trying to attract with this new model, and what features and benefits will win those customers over? Are there hoards of consumers out there who have been delaying an iPhone purchase simply because the device doesn’t start up apps quickly enough? The iPhone 3G S and associated iPhone 3.0 software seems to be more of a list of fulfilled feature requests than a focused strategy. Some features appeal to power users (e.g. 3 megapixel camera) while some appeal to those needing assistive technology (e.g. new Accessibility features) while some appeal to business users and those concerned about privacy (e.g. Find My iPhone and Remote Wipe). With a product like the iPhone, which is used so universally by so many different types of users, it would be hard to include something for everyone, which is all the more reason to focus on specific segments or personas. For example, to better penetrate the corporate market, features which provide additional security, auditing, IT oversight, and better enterprise integration should be added.
Will these flaws have a serious impact on sales of the iPhone 3G S? Not likely. Apple is such a marketing powerhouse and cultural icon that the success of the 3G S will be more about the product itself than its positioning or communication around the launch. And, despite these issues, the iPhone 3G S appears to be a reasonable improvement to an already dominant product. However, even the mighty Apple is not perfect, and product managers who ask and are asked “Why can’t we just do what Apple does?” should learn from the successes and missteps of the iPhone 3G S (and should also learn why you can’t innovate like Apple). No product is perfect, and product managers and product development teams should take any opportunity to learn from the successes and failures of others.