Apple, the iPhone, and The Innovator’s Dilemma

“If you re-read the first few chapters of The Innovator’s Dilemma and you insert ‘Apple’ every time Clayton Christensen mentions ‘a company,’ a certain picture emerges: Apple is a company on the verge of being disrupted, and the next great idea in tech and consumer electronics will not materialize from within the walls of its Cupertino spaceship,” Molly Wood writes for Wired.

The Innovator’s Dilemma, of course, is about the trap that successful companies fall into time and time again. They’re well managed, they’re responsive to their customers, and they’re market leaders. And yet, despite doing everything right, they fail to see the next wave of innovation coming, they get disrupted, and they ultimately fail,” Wood writes. “In the case of Apple, the company is trapped by its success, and that success is spelled “iPhone.””

“You may be tempted to argue that Apple is, in fact, working on other projects. The Apple acquisition rumors never cease; nor do the confident statements that the company definitely, absolutely, certainly has a magical innovation in the works that will spring full grown like Athena from the forehead of Zeus any day now. I’m here to say, I don’t think there’s a nascent warrior goddess hiding in there,” Wood writes. “Its quailing decade-long attempt to build a streaming service would be sort of comical if there weren’t clearly so much money being thrown around, and so tentatively at that… Even if the streaming service actually arrives, can it really compete against YouTube, PlayStation, Sling, DirecTV, Hulu, and just plain old Netflix? … Analysts are, at this point, outright begging Apple to buy a studio or other original content provider, just to have something to show against Netflix and Amazon originals.”

MacDailyNews Take: Analysts also begged Apple to make a low cost netbook, among other inanities.

“Smartphone sales may be slowing, but Apple is still a beloved brand, its products are excellent, its history and cachet are unmatched. But that doesn’t mean it has a plan to survive the ongoing decline in global smartphones sales,” Wood writes. “The guys in charge are the same guys who have been in charge for decades: Tim Cook, Eddy Cue, Phil Schooler, Craig Federighi, Jony Ive—all have been associated with Apple since the late ’80s or ’90s. (I mean, has there ever really been a time without Jony Ive?) You see what I’m saying here: brilliant team with a long record of execution and unparalleled success. Possibly not a lot of fresh ideas.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Even though we wrote the following in a pique, it was, as always, meant as a wake-up call:

Good luck, Tim!

And when your SVP of marketing is naming your most important products after “fast cars,” your SVP of Internet Software and Services is falling asleep in Siri meetings, and your Chief Design Officer (over whom you obviously have no control and who is totally unaccountable) seems more obsessed over Apple Park door handles than designing an Apple TV remote that actually works well for users – or, God forbid, a Mac Pro that actually works for professional Mac users and that isn’t FIVE+ YEARS OLD – you sure as hell are going to need all the luck you can get.

Old, tired, wildly-overpaid, far-too-comfortable blood with misplaced priorities kills companies.MacDailyNews, January 11, 2019

We know for sure there are large projects inside Apple including, but not limited to autonomous vehicles, augmented reality eyewear, and a streaming service featuring a large and varied selection of high-quality original content. Apple is just not sitting around milking the iPhone.

Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma deeply influenced Steve Jobs. It’s a very safe bet that Tim Cook knows the following quote by heart:

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. The products, not the profits, were the motivation. Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything. — Steve Jobs

At Apple, as it was under Jobs, it’s still the products (and services) that come first, not the potential profits.

Apple talks a lot about its great people. But make no mistake — they are there only in service of the mission. A headhunter describes it thus: “It is a happy place in that it has true believers. People join and stay because they believe in the mission of the company.” It didn’t matter how great you were, if you couldn’t deliver to that mission — you were out. Jobs’s famous meltdowns upon his return were symptomatic of this. They might have become less frequent in recent years, but if a team couldn’t deliver a great product, they got the treatment. The exec in charge of MobileMe was replaced on the spot, in front of his entire team, after a botched launch. A former Apple product manager described Apple’s attitude like this: “You have the privilege of working for the company that’s making the coolest products in the world. Shut up and do your job, and you might get to stay.”James Allworth, Harvard Business Review, October 24, 2011

Apple Inc. still works this way. We know this from current Apple employees.

Wood criticizes Apple too soon. Before the iPod, before the iPhone, and in fact, before the Mac and, much later, the iMac, the same laments were pervasive. “Apple, where’s the next big thing? Apple has lost its mojo Etc.” Innovation takes time and groundbreaking disruptive products and services do not arrive every year, or even every five years.

Patience, padawans.


  1. If by disruption you mean cheap products with quick cycles, then yes, Apple will be disrupted. They didn’t get to where they are now, by listening to what others are saying they should be doing or what marks they need to be hitting.

  2. Don’t worry, if you’re waiting on something innovative and “the next big thing”, you’re in good hands with Tim Cook.

    Cook brought us the Apple Watch, hell, who even needs an iPhone now.

    If you’re looking for a guy who’s not going to sit on his laurels and milk old products from a dead icon, you can’t find anyone more capable than Tim Cook.

    Even more so than Jobs, Cook has always looked out for Apple consumers, making sure he delivered more value than we were actually expecting.

    If you don’t believe me, just look at all these MDN Cook supporters waiting to pounce on anyone who even thinks anything bad about our leader.

    I think Apple is in good hands for at least another 8-years…


    1. Well at least we know that in ZeroRandy, the next big turdd has arrived and has been stinking up the Von Stobbee Place for some time now, Doop Snoggy.

      What next for ZeroRandy? A good flushing.

  3. Molly should just let Horace Dediu write about the Innovator’s Dilemma, as he works with Christensen, and he’s not been afraid to point out that Christensen was wrong about Apple.

  4. Wow, netbook. That’s a word I haven’t heard in a long time. Probably since Apple completely disrupted that trend with iPads and ultra-thin notebooks with full-sized keyboards and displays.

    1. Look past the label. The 12” Macbook is a netbook. It doesn’t have the power or connectivity to do hardly anything locally. It is specifically designed for coffee shop culture: net apps, email, and surfing. But it is still infinitely better than an iOS device which has no decent file system.

      The only thing keeping reviewers from including Apple’s MacNetBook in their Netbook reviews is the price tag, which is 200-300% over the functional equivalent netbooks from anyone else.

      Apple tried the same overpricing strategy with iPhones in 2017-2018 and sales tanked. Thus Apple is pushing a trade in program in an attempt to obscure their horrible iPhone situation. Cook tells investors that the XR is the best selling iPhone but he ignores the fact that customers are getting them for massive discounts after turning in a perfectly good iPhone 7 or 8. Then people have regrets as its not pocketable, it’s no faster, and it has an ugly notch. Then Apple has to dispose recycle or refurb the old phone. Apple makes more money selling new iPhone 8 models without the trade in gimmicks. Most users would be further ahead refreshing the old iPhone battery and handing it down to their kids.

  5. It is tired writing to cite Clayton Christensen. His book was excellent, but even Clayton has moved on.

    Two major points. One is that many of the examples cited were industrial products which were chosen by purchasing agents. They didn’t give a rat’s ass about anything but cost and minimum specifications. Consumers will spend more for a quality product.

    Second, the iPhone is not a specific product like comparing radial tires and bias ply tires. The iPhone is a platform. It absorbs all sorts of other products. The original iPhone is almost unrecognizable compared to the XS Max. I imagine that in ten years the iPhone XX Max will be similarly different.

    Apple may in fact be in a precarious position, but it is lazy writing to say that Apple is sitting on its laurels regarding the iPhone.

  6. “Analysts also begged Apple to make a low cost netbook, among other inanities.”

    What is the iPad if not a more tuned, intentionally limited, and much more expensive netbook. And that’s a compliment.

    1. applecynicked knows netbooks so well because he has an Intel Craptom for a brain. Never one to say anything of value, applecynic is an Intel 4004 processor in 2019’s A13 generation.

      One cheer for Applecynic for using the power of free speech to illuminate his or her small minded thinking every single day.

      S/he is a great example why free speech must never be dulled, it serves as an excellent advance warning of where the loonies live, speak and spew their hatred.

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.