Reading the Room

Many of Apple’s recent stumbles strike me as decidedly simple

Several years ago, I wrote a post outlining a need I saw for big companies: a VP of Devil’s Advocacy. That is, someone who could serve as a gut-check ahead of product launches, to make sure they should really go forward.¹

This was in the wake of Amazon’s Fire Phone fiasco, which was so obviously going to be a fail from the get-go that I was surprised that Amazon actually launched it. Of course, they would argue — and no less than Jeff Bezos has — that without such failures, or really, the willingness to take risks, progress wouldn’t happen. Or at least, progress would be much slower. And the learnings from such attempts and failures leads to other things, like the Echo and Alexa, in Amazon’s case.

And, sure. Still, it feels like if you can get away without spending millions of dollars pushing something that is never going to work, that would be a useful thing for a company to know. And yet it seems to happen time and time again. Apple’s HomePod and Samsung’s Galaxy Fold are just two recent examples that spring to mind.

Also, in our current environment, these types of product and/or initiative mishaps also just serve to exacerbate the broader problems that many of these companies have — or are perceived to have. Facebook’s Portal jumps to mind here. The company launched a camera for your home just as they found themselves in perhaps the worst customer data/privacy scandal that tech has ever seen. We’re far beyond devil’s advocacy here. Sheesh.

I’m not sure you can’t abstract this idea one level further. What if rather than having someone with veto powers over individual products, you just need someone taking the high level temperature of their industry. That is, someone who could “read the room” and could make sure that many initiatives at a company aren’t directionally incorrect, or worse: dangerously amiss.

This idea came up in a podcast I recorded recently with Daring Fireball’s John Gruber. Naturally, we were talking about Apple. As we went down the rabbit hole of discussing if the company has or has not lost its way, even if just a bit, this was the idea I kept coming back to.

At first, my thesis was that in the post-Steve Jobs era, while there’s no question that Apple has had immense success from a business-perspective — the first trillion dollar company! — there have also been a number of stumbles which have seemed avoidable. And such stumbles seem to be happening with increased frequency.

Again, no company is perfect. And neither was Jobs — iPod Hi-Fi, anyone? — but Apple, at least in my view, has been suffering from a seeming lack of clarity with regard to the market. Wayward products are simply a symptom of this, I believe.

And while I think you could make a compelling argument that Apple has had most of the pieces in place to rightfully make it the biggest company in the world with Tim Cook (operations), Jony Ive (design), Phil Schiller (marketing), Eddy Cue (deals), etc, they’ve lacked the core product person without Jobs.² But I again wonder if this actually doesn’t just point to a person who could read the room. That is, the market, the industry, the base — there are a number of ways to interpret this, but I think they all work.

Again, products are the physical manifestation of decisions within a company, so that’s the obvious focal point in what’s missing. A product person. And to some extent, it may be that simple, in some cases. But I still think you can and should go a level higher here.

When I look at Apple’s recent stumbles — things like the aforementioned HomePod,³ the Mac Pro, the education market, the Airport, the Apple Stores, the strange recent events, the Apple TV, the Touch Bar, the entire line of new MacBook keyboards, and so on,⁴ I see a company that is failing to read the room. Again, a company that is directionally misguided in some areas, and the products (or lack thereof) simply showcase this.

This is easier said than corrected, of course. Obviously, no company would ever misread the room on purpose. It takes a specific kind of clarity, and one that is extremely rare for someone who is within a company.⁵ I’ve seen this time and time again — even within myself — you see what your company is working on and you think it’s great, and you become blind to the ways that it’s not great. You’re too far in the forest. Too in the day-to-day. You’re almost too knowledgeable about a product or initiative that you simply cannot see what is so obviously flawed to those on the outside.

That’s why I wonder if such a person shouldn’t be on the outside.⁶ Or, at the very least, a company ombudsman, of sorts, whose job is just to keep their finger on this pulse. To read the room.⁷

¹ Which wasn’t exactly a new idea either — though I’d argue even more useful in the tech industry.

² Some would argue that Scott Forstall was this person. Others might say that Craig Federighi seems to be the closest Apple currently has to such a person.

³ I believe the HomePod is the prime example of what I’m talking about. By all accounts, it’s a well-made product. Very Apple. But they completely misread the type of product they should be making here. They followed the old playbook of looking at what the market is doing and trying to enter at the high end, with focus, but it was a strategic mistake. As, yes, I predicted it would be.

⁴ I actually wouldn’t include one of Apple’s higher profile failures — AirPower — here, because I think that was just a failure of physics, not misreading the room. Though setting expectations for such a product a year and a half before they had to kill it, certainly was weird!

⁵ These, in my experience, are the best founders/entrepreneurs — the ones who know their company inside and out but also know what’s going on outside of their walls and can make sure to steer the ship appropriately. This sounds obvious. And it is! But it is anything but common! Or easy! And yes, Steve Jobs is probably the best example of this, which is why he is considered such a visionary. Vision is involved, but it’s a different kind than what you might think from such a loaded term. The iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player. The iPhone wasn’t the first smartphone. Etc.

⁶ And perhaps that’s the role we play as commentators on such things. He says, flattering himself.

⁷ By the way, since it’s top of mind, Game of Thrones probably could have benefitted from such a person as well.