Product Marty Cagan

The Role of Product at Apple

It pains me to write this article.

I have been an unapologetic Apple fanboy for as long as I’ve been in this industry, and published articles at the debut of the iPhone, and the debut of the iPad, congratulating Apple on what I believed would go on to become extremely successful products.  I am also on record as considering Steve Jobs the world’s greatest product leader.

However, now that Apple has released it’s first major new product of the post-Jobs era – the Apple Watch – I wanted to talk about the changing role of product at Apple.

To get this out of the way up front, I found the Apple Watch to be a remarkably disappointing product.  I have no access to Apple’s internal financial expectations or sales, so I can’t speak to whether this initial product would be considered by Apple to be a commercial success or not, but I can say it is certainly not a product up to the standards I believe Apple is capable of, and it’s not something I believe Apple employees would be proud of.

The purpose of this article is not to provide yet another product review of Apple’s watch.  There are already countless reviews that will spell out the features for you, and talk about the current limitations.  But since my premise here is that the product is not good, it’s only fair that I summarize my reasoning.  So quickly:

I love the product vision of reducing our dependency on / addiction to our phones.

I do think Apple has done an excellent job on the watch’s industrial design.  The physical watch itself is beautifully designed and manufactured.  The other aspects of the design – especially the interaction design and visual design – are not great but not really terrible either.  If people are motivated enough they can work through it and figure it out.

More surprising to me was how unimpressive the engineering is in the watch.  Frankly, it’s lame.  Most of what runs on the watch is just a thin client and the heavy lifting is done on your phone.  The watch is a parasitic device and it runs parasitic apps.  They are tethered to your phone and consume your phone’s resources.  Sure, the watch battery can last a day, but now my phone can no longer last a day.  And since the watch depends on the phone for everything meaningful, it makes the watch pretty useless when the phone is out of juice.

Even the ability to tell time was disappointing.  Due to battery conservation the device tries to just show the clock when you turn your wrist to see the time.  Unfortunately, by the time it detects this motion and illuminates the display with the time, my glance would normally be over.  I found I had to hold the wrist an extra couple moments if I actually wanted to see the time.  A little awkward and a lot frustrating.

In theory the health related apps should be strong on the watch due to the sensors, but the initial offering there is embarrassingly weak.  The other players in this market certainly have nothing to worry about with this first generation watch and apps.

All that said, the larger issue with the watch is that I couldn’t find anything that I couldn’t do better, and more naturally, on the phone.  It’s just not compelling.  It’s missing the value.  And it certainly didn’t deliver on the promise of the vision.

To me, the hallmark of Apple products has always been value.  So much value that we don’t hesitate to spend the premium prices.  So much value that we overlook minor engineering and design issues.  But with this device, I just couldn’t find the value, and with all the problems I literally could not wait to get the watch off my wrist, and remove all traces of the watch from my iPhone.

Of course, maybe I’m an outlier here and the vast majority of people genuinely love their watch and would not want to go back.   But I would be very surprised if that’s the case.  When I notice people wearing an Apple Watch, I have been asking them about it, and I have met a few people that tell me they love it, or at least like it, although I haven’t heard good answers when I ask what aspects they find compelling.  There are of course millions of people that love all things Apple, and want to love the watch they just dished out $500 to $1000 bucks for.  It’s a very strong brand and that counts for a lot.  And there are some people that are just happy to have a beautiful piece of technology on their wrist.

It’s important to keep in mind that a product does not need everyone to love it in order to be successful; they just need some significant market of people to love it (and with Apple’s business model, the market needs to be large).  It’s also important to keep in mind that the Apple Watch is really a new type of platform, and it will take time for product teams, at Apple and especially in the broader development community, to invent applications that truly leverage the potential of this new wrist-based platform.

So it’s slow, the apps are lame, the interaction model isn’t natural, there’s little actual value, and it sucks the juice out of your phone.  As bad as that sounds, I would argue that these are all correctible relatively quickly if Apple gets serious about the role of product, and raises the bar for their next generation device.

OK, now to the real point of this article.  Assuming I’m right and Apple considers this a sub-par product, I’d like to discuss what happens when a company loses their key product leader, and must re-establish the product competency in another form.

In “The CEO as Head of Product” I wrote about the case where the visionary CEO is the effective head of product.  I would argue that this was certainly the case at Apple while Steve Jobs was alive and engaged.  However, at the end of that article I also said that many companies don’t take this form of succession planning seriously enough, and now I’m arguing that’s what happened at Apple.

During most of Apple’s life, they had “Product Marketing Managers” that were part of marketing and were the closest thing to a product person (aside from Steve Jobs).  I was often asked about that, and I argued that in Apple’s case, this made a lot of sense for a couple reasons.

First, it helped clarify roles and responsibilities to the organization.  Steve would drive the product, and the product marketing managers would help get these products to market.  Critical work, but not really the product work.  I also argued that the Apple model could not scale to most companies, but in Apple’s case, where they have always focused on a small number of blockbuster products, versus a large portfolio of products, it wasn’t inconceivable that one (admittedly exceptional) person could define and ensure winning products.

Second, with devices especially, the product marketing and project-management related work can be daunting.  It takes a lot of time and effort to get these types of products to market, and with their leader covering the product definition side, this allowed the product marketing managers to focus on this other critical work.

While few tech companies use the title “product marketing manager” for the product role, and Apple does have some people with the “product manager” title now, it is all too common that the way they define the job of the product manager is along the lines of “do whatever needs to be done to get this product out.”  In fact, a friend just recently forwarded me an article that advocated this “filling the white space” concept as the heart of the product role.  While this mindset of doing whatever it takes is admirable and something I believe is important, especially in startups, it really misses the primary point of the product role – which is to ensure that the team is actually building and delivering a product that has the necessary value.

As I see it, Apple has three main options for re-establishing the product competency in the post-Jobs era.

The first option is to try to find another super-star product leader.  Besides Elon Musk, I’m not sure who that might be.  And Elon seems to be doing pretty well on his own.

The second option is to hire or promote from within a few product rock-star types, one for each of their major product lines.  It’s much more viable for them to recruit these people, but I do worry about these people being accepted culturally.  Steve Jobs had the moral authority of the founder (as well as the credibility that comes with so many major successes), but these people would be going up against some very strong engineering and design leaders and would probably have a tough time of it.

The third option, and the option that’s probably the most scalable long-term, is to introduce the true product role.  I’m talking here about ensuring that all critical products have a true product leader, and especially getting the organization to pay attention to these people.  I have long believed that Apple has more than their fair share of very talented potential product leaders, but it’s more a question of the engineering and design leadership deciding to truly give these people a seat at the table.

As is so often the case in so many companies, whether or not Apple succeeds in re-introducing the true product competency will depend on the support of their leadership team. In any case, I am rooting for Apple, and I’m willing to grant them a mulligan on the first Apple Watch.