iPhone 7 and Apple Watch show the evolution of Apple’s story

Apple hosted a special eventiPhone 7 and Apple Watch show the evolution of Apple's story on Wednesday to announce the iPhone 7 and the Apple Watch Series 2. I watched some of the event, and I came away with two main observations:

  1. Apple Watch shows the company’s strength around innovation and experimentation.
  2. iPhone 7 shows the company’s strength around positioning mature technologies.

Apple Watch — innovation and experimentation

Let’s start with Apple Watch. The company is very much in the mode of adding features. One big piece of news from Wednesday was the addition of a GPS unit to the watch. Now, walkers and runners can track their routes without having to carry their phones.

Another hyped feature for the watch was water resistance up to 50 meters. Apple showed a really cool video of how they tested the watch by plunging it vigorously, repeatedly, in a water bath. They wanted to ensure a lifetime of watch reliability for swimmers.

It wasn’t just raw features, though. Apple has partnered with Nike to create a new version of their watch specifically for runners. As I was watching the keynote, I couldn’t help but think Apple is experiment with its marketing. Clearly it’s zeroing in on people with active lifestyles as their core watch audience. The Nike partnership is another way to probe that market.

iPhone 7 — positioning mature technology

At this point, smartphones are mature technologies. We have great clarity around expected features and customer use cases. Pretty much all the enabling technology exists, to offer the smartphone experience that customers demand. Yes, we’ll keep seeing iterations on processor speed, camera quality, and screen materials. But the lion’s share of the disruption is behind us.

One of the coolest parts of Apple’s keynote was a video highlighting the iPhone 7’s new design. Jony Ive narrates the video, as you’d expect. Here’s a transcript I created of the narration:

We have created a product that is the most deliberate evolution of our original founding design.

An aluminum body and form sheet of glass describe a singular shape. One made with very few, very precisely engineered parts. Our obsession remains to continuously simplify and improve. From sculpting the camera housing directly out of the aluminum body, to embedding the antenna within the enclosure, essentially making it disappear, each refinement serves to bring absolute unity and efficiency to the design.

To define one truly uninterrupted form, we’ve developed a whole new process to achieve a high gloss black finish. This begins with rotational 3D polishing. A specialized compound flows over the intricate geometries of the housing, removing imperfections, establishing a seamlessness between materials, and producing a pristine, mirror-like surface.

The enclosure then goes through an anodization process, which creates a protective oxide layer. A single component dye is absorbed through a capillary effect to ensure maximum saturation while actually becoming part of the surface itself. Finally, a magnetized ultra-fine iron particle bath is used to polish the anodized layer to a superior high shine.

When complete, iPhone 7 is the most singular, the most evolved representation of this design.

Having Jony Ive narrate that video was 100% intentional. The dude is a living, breathing embodiment of refined design. Apple couldn’t find a more effective person on the planet to sell its customers on its design chops.

What we see with the Jony Ive-narrated video is Apple’s positioning of a mature technology. Smartphones aren’t so much about features anymore. Even super cheap smartphones are capable devices. Smartphones today are more about status and story.

Apple positions the iPhone 7 as a form of luxury jewelry. Why do you buy an iPhone? Because you have exquisite taste. Because you’re willing to pay more for the finest things in life. Because you’re the kind of person who appreciates the beauty you get from a sophisticated manufacturing process.

Comparing stories between Apple Watch and iPhone 7

The big difference between these two products is their different maturity. Apple Watch is new. The whole smartwatch category is still finding its way. It’s not terribly clear exactly who needs or wants a smartwatch. It’s also not terribly clear what people want a smartwatch to do.

Apple is experimenting here. They’re still in the mode of adding features. Shipping “Series 1” of their watch helped them learn more about the market, and the expectations of their customers. Now they’ll iteratively respond. They’re famous for doing this part well.

The iPhone 7 shows us what the next phase looks like for Apple, when they have nearly 100% clarity on who their customers are and what their customers expect. At that point, products are more about status and story. They’re luxury items.

Remember the $10,000 Apple Watch? That was Apple’s attempt to accelerate the luxury-focused marketing of the watch. As it turns out, Apple Watch will almost certainly have to follow the iPhone roadmap. It’ll need to go through several iterations where the focus is on features. Then, when the technology is mature, and Apple knows who they’re targeting…that’s when you get the luxury-themed storytelling.

One of Apple’s core strengths: owning its story

This week’s special event from Apple had a lot less hype than previous events. Analysts and customers have embraced the reality of iteration. Rather than being blown away by some unforeseen technology, we’re going to see a steady march to better and better versions of what we already have.

Apple knows its story, which focuses on design. One potential route through Wednesday’s event was to hype every little technical improvement possible. I’m sure Apple could have asked their engineers to draft a 100 point list of improvements. The story then could have been of a feature war, where Apple has the most souped-up phone.

That’s not the story Apple chose to tell, for tons of different reasons. I loved that they embraced their story and led the iPhone 7 discussion with the Jony Ive-narrated design film. It’s quintessential Apple.

I want to make one last point. It seems obvious that Apple would tell a design-focused story. What’s interesting isn’t so much that Apple knows, and owns, it’s story. What’s interesting is that the vast majority of other companies don’t.

What does a company stand for? What story does it want its customers to tell? This part is harder than it looks. We take for granted that Apple does it so well. We shouldn’t.

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