One release away from irrelevance

A few weeks ago on Twitter, I said something about Apple, and someone replied back something akin to, “Apple is only one release away from irrelevance.”

Ah, but you see… we all are. In terms of sustainability, if you believe “we get this version released, and we win”, you lose. Whether you have competitors today, or you have a market that is principally yours, if there is enough opportunity for you, there’s enough appeal for someone else to enter it too.

A book I recently read discussed the first generation Ford Taurus. Started at the cusp of the 1980’s, after a decade of largely mediocre vehicles from Ford, the Taurus (and a handful of other vehicles that arrived near the same time) changed the aesthetic experience we expected from cars. The book’s author comments that Ford had even largely stopped using it’s blue oval insignia during the 1970’s, perhaps out of concerns that the vehicles didn’t represent the quality values that the blue oval should represent. Thing is, you very clearly get a picture that as the vehicle neared completion, the team “hit the wall” in marathoning parlance. They shipped, congratulated each other, and moved on to other projects. Rather than turning around and immediately beginning work on a next model to iterate the design and own the market, they stalled out for nearly a decade, only to do the same massive run in order to get the next iteration of the vehicle out the door (documented in yet another book). But I digress.

Many people often ask who Microsoft’s biggest competitor is. It isn’t Oracle. It isn’t startups. It’s Microsoft. Every 2-5 years, Microsoft replaces (and sometimes displaces) their own shipped X-1 products with new versions. If those new versions don’t include enough features and value so that customers can feel they are getting their money’s worth, they’ll stall out on older versions. We’ve seen this with Windows, where many businesses – and consumers, have stalled out on a 12 year old OS because “it’s good enough”, or Office 2003, because not only is it “good enough”, but the Ribbon (and it’s half-completed existence in Office 2007) scared away many customers. It’s gotten better in each iteration since – but the key question is always, “is there enough value in there to pull customers forward”?

I believe that the first thing you have to firmly grasp in technology – or really in business as a whole – is that nothing is forever.  You must figure out how to out-innovate yourself, to evolve and grow, even if it means jettisoning or submarining entire product lines – in order to create new ones that can take you forward again. Or disappear.

I’ve been rather surprised when I’ve said this, how defensive some people have gotten. Most people don’t like to ponder their own mortality. They sure don’t like to ponder the mortality of their employer or the platform that they build their business upon. But I think it is imperative that people begin doing exactly that.

There will come a day when we will likely talk about every tech giant of today in the past tense. Many may survive, but will be shadows (red dwarves, as I said on Twitter last night) of themselves. Look at how many tech giants of the 1970’s-1990’s are gone today – or are largely services driven organizations rather than technological innovators.

When that follower said that Apple was only one release away from irrelevance, I replied back with something similar to, “Almost every company is. It’s just a question of whether they realize it and act on it or not.”