Learn from the mistakes of the iPhone 3G S

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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14 thoughts on “Learn from the mistakes of the iPhone 3G S

  1. Jeff, Excellent points!

    You’re pretty courageous to say anything bad (at all!) about Apple right now – since they’re the company that almost everyone thinks can do no wrong.

    Your last point is great- Apple’s brand is so strong and customer loyalty is so high (cultish!) – these mistakes are unlikely to affect them much when it comes to sales.

    However – a company that doesn’t have cultish following shouldn’t blindly copy Apple and expect to replicate their success.

    On the same token, even silly names like “Microsoft Windows Live Hotmail” work for some companies! 🙂

    – Raj
    Accompa – Affordable Requirements Tool for Product Managers

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Great post, I agree with you entirely on this one. I think that this release has been problematic for Apple as it’s all about adding in features that are basic on competing products. There is no “wow” feature in this release.

    If you have a 3G, the 3G S is not a big enough change to make you want to upgrade (for the majority of users, in my opinion). So it’s difficult to position the product as something really new and must have.

    That said, they had a great launch weekend and have sold large numbers – what does that say? Pent-up demand? Most people have been expecting the iPhone 3G S for several months and have waited therefore to buy one (myself included). I expect sales to go back to “normal” in a few weeks.

    What’s really interesting is the pricing of the 3G at $99. Could this signify a change in Apple’s pricing? Could the success of the App Store be bringing in enough revenue over the 2 year life of a phone to merit moving towards the Gilette Razor type model?

  3. Good post, and I agree about the product naming.

    Regarding the features in the OS vs. the 3GS: Apple has been pretty up front, from the phone introduction through its web collateral, which features work where.

  4. @Tim: Not sure how “up front” Apple has been. Burying the comparison chart under the support section of the web site is not too transparent, in my book. As an iPhone 3G owner interested in the 3.0 software, I actually wasn’t able to find anything that listed out the differences between the different versions, even after probably an hour of searching. In fact, had you not provided the link, I would not have known exactly what hardware supported what feature, since Apple doesn’t link to this on the iPhone site. They do have a comparison of the 3G to the 3G S, though it’s not clear whether the “original” 3G phone released in 2008 is the same as the 3G phone released in 2009. (The answer is that they are in fact the same, though that’s not very clear.)

  5. I usually more or less agree with your articles, but I think you are way off base on this one (particularly on point #2 and #3). Apple pitches the iPhone as a hardware platform, not a device unto itself. Therefore, it is misleading to attempt to compare the relative merits of a new release to the previous one in order to determine whether customers can be convinced to upgrade. Apple is not trying to convince customers to upgrade; they are focused on improving their platform to expand the user base.

    Think of the iPhone 3GS like the recent MacBook Pro revision — an incremental improvement with some great new features but not aimed at getting current customers to upgrade.

    If Apple focused their marketing efforts on specific features, they would likely fail and would lose a checklist comparison to lots of competitors. (This is true of iPhone/iPod/Macintosh). I keep seeing comments elsewhere along the lines of “who cares about the iPhone, I’ve had feature X and Y on my Nokia for 3 years!”. Yes, that may be true but who cares? The iPhone’s appeal was initially purely about the user experience, not the features and is now all about the platform.

  6. @Brent: Your comments are well-stated. Maybe Apple’s approach to the iPhone 3G S makes sense given their strategy — in this case, it even more reinforces my point, which is that product managers shouldn’t just copy what Apple does in all cases. If you have an existing platform which is well-received and are building out the platform, then there may be merits in borrowing from what Apple has done. If you have more of a “traditional” product approach — without a platform — then Apple’s tactics may not be appropriate for your product strategy.

  7. Jeff

    I too agree to the reasoning which you have provided in your blog.

    Guess iPhone faltered on the basic product management fundamental of making products which people require and which solve some of their current problems.

    I personally think that speed has not bubbled up to be a problem with their cult as of now and hence introduction of iPhone 3GS was just a classic case of repackaging forced by sales team.

    However it would be interesting to see the sales figure for the model and if they are good, then I don’t think they made a bad decision. Since I firmly believe that a product manager’s success for a mature organization is measured by its revenues.

    Vishwajeet Sukhija

  8. Kudos for pointing out some of the flaws in Apple’s branding strategy – you’ll probably be burned at the stake by the ‘Appleites’ for being a blasphemous heathen!!

    Apple’s promotion strategy leans strongly on leveraging the ‘coolness’ factor and using peer pressure to sell their products. It should be interesting to see the direction the company takes with Jobs’ less-than-usual involvement in the business.

  9. Jeff, I agree with the points you make in principle. Yes, you need to name the product clearly. Yes, you need to articulate the benefits to the customer clearly. However, practically speaking, you can never create a perfect product. Any product will have its weak areas and strong areas. The art of product management is to align the strong parts of the product as closely as possible with the customer’s needs. From this perspective, Apple has done a great job. The name, distinction between software and hardware etc. are not the important points for Apple customers. In my view, it is not important to get these parts right always. If you get it right it is great.

    Another aspect is the relationship between product names and acceptability of product to the customers. Most often I have not seen a direct correlation, especially for consumer products. Buying process is not often that rational and logical. Emotion play a large part.

    As a product manager, I would not worry much about the aspects that are not very critical to the customer segment. I dont agree that it is ‘bad product management’.

  10. jeff, you have not wrotten articles on Blog for long time,but still thank you very much for I learned a lot from you, good luck to you! do you like QQ? it is an often used communicating tool in china, if you do,pls informate me via email,I can help you !haha

  11. Now that six months have passed since the last comment, what are your thoughts on naming the iPad?

  12. I dont think this is a good post. While i do agree with the statment that ‘dont copy apple blindly’ i found no substance in the post for the same. The post is just about naming and marketing collateral – while we are talking about being a product manager and their are bigger things to done than naming. Sure, dont copy apple naming, specially ipad 🙂 , but what about ease of use, and giving fancy new UI?

    Incidentally, also read this blog here… from CEO of Sun Micro

  13. @Bill: That’s probably deserving of a separate article, though I’ll reiterate what I said in the original post — Apple has brand identity and marketing reach that basically no one else enjoys. My point was that Apple does a lot of great things, though you shouldn’t just copy everything they do blindly. Personally, I think iPad is not the greatest name (too similar to iPod), though I really doubt that will impact sales at all.

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