Apple’s Blue Ocean

In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when Kylo Ren uses the Force to probe Rey’s mind, he says the following about what he sees in there: “At night, desperate to sleep, you imagine an ocean. I see it. I see the island…” At the end of the movie, Rey finally sees the blue ocean she had been dreaming about. This image shows Rey in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon as she first sees that ocean.

I first read about the “blue ocean” strategy in a story (probably in Edge magazine) about the Nintendo Wii. While its competitors were fighting for supremacy in the game-console market by producing ever-more-powerful hardware capable of high-definition visuals, Nintendo chose not to join this fight. The pursuit of graphics power was a “red ocean” that was already teeming with sharks, fighting over the available fish and filling the water with blood.

Nintendo’s “blue ocean” strategy was to stake out a position where none of its competitors were present. The idea of creating a standard-definition game console in the generation when all the other consoles were moving to HD seemed ridiculous, but that’s exactly what Nintendo did. In place of impressive graphics, the Wii differentiated itself with its motion controls and a low price. It was a hit.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the blue ocean strategy in the context of Apple. Like Nintendo, Apple has made some bold moves with its products, many of which were ridiculed at the time: a smartphone without a physical keyboard, a candy-colored desktop computer with no floppy drive and no legacy ports, a $695 (in 2023 dollars) portable music player, a digital music store in the age of ubiquitous music piracy.

Unlike Nintendo, Apple has seen its competitors move quickly to imitate its innovations, turning these oceans red and leaving Apple to compete on the basis of execution…until it finds its next blue ocean.

But what is that? It’s tempting to point to the Vision Pro. AR/VR headsets are not new, but then, neither were smartphones or portable music players. The Vision Pro hasn’t shipped yet, so the jury’s still out. Let’s keep an eye on it.

I have something else in mind. It’s actually related to one of Apple’s earlier "blue ocean" changes: the elimination of removable batteries. In the beginning, Apple’s laptops all used removable battery packs. Some even let the user pull out the floppy-drive module and replace it with a second battery.

Starting in 2009, Apple began to phase out removable batteries across its laptop line in favor of batteries that were sealed inside the case and were not user-accessible. The iPod and the iPhone arguably started this trend by never including removable batteries to begin with. (The iPhone defied so many other norms that the sealed battery was less remarked upon than it might have been, but it was still noted.)

The upsides, which Apple touted, were many: lighter weight, smaller size, better reliability, longer battery life. We are still reaping these benefits today, and we Apple fans rarely question them. Today, predictably, non-removable batteries are a red ocean in many product categories. They are the norm, not an innovation.

When thinking about Apple’s next blue ocean, it’s tempting to ignore past innovations. Technological progress seems like an arrow pointing in only one direction, never turning back. But I just can’t shake the idea that a return to removable, user-accessible batteries has now become a blue-ocean opportunity just waiting for Apple to seize it.

Follow me, here. Yes, sealed batteries still offer all the same advantages they always have. And, yes, a return to removable batteries would bring back all their problems: increased size and weight, increased risk of liquid and dust ingress, decreased aesthetic elegance.

But some things have changed in the past couple of decades. Battery technology has improved, and Apple has moved its entire product line to its own silicon chips that lead the industry in power efficiency. There’s more headroom than there has ever been to accommodate a tiny bit more size and weight in Apple’s portable products.

That’s still a step backwards, right? But there are several countervailing forces, one of which is rapidly increasing in importance. The first is the fact that, as noted earlier, removable batteries are now a blue ocean. Apple would be alone among its biggest competitors if it made a wholesale change (back) to removable batteries in any of its product lines.

Second, people still crave the advantages of removable batteries that were left behind: increasing battery life by swapping batteries instead of using a cumbersome external battery pack, inexpensively and conveniently extending the life of a product by replacing a worn-out battery with a new one—without paying for someone else to perform delicate surgery on the device.

Finally, related to that last point, worn-out batteries are an extremely common reason that old tech products are traded in, recycled, or replaced. Removable batteries are an easy way to extend the useful life of a product. This leads to less e-waste, which is perfectly aligned with Apple’s environmental goals as 2030 approaches.

Of course, longer product lifetimes means fewer product sales per unit time, which seems to run counter to Apple’s financial goals. But this is a problem that can be solved using one of Apple’s favorite financial tools: higher product margins. If Apple can actually make products that have a longer useful life, it can charge more money for the extra value they provide.

It’s easy to think of product ideas that run counter to accepted wisdom; it’s harder to think of the right one. Sometimes a blue ocean is free from sharks simply because there are no fish there. But I think this idea has merit. I am not making a prediction, but I am making a suggestion.

I know some of you remain unconvinced. How can a removable battery be easy to swap and yet also be sealed against the elements? Won’t removable batteries ruin the appearance of Apple’s existing products by adding unsightly cut lines? Won’t they become unacceptably large and heavy? How can structural integrity be maintained with a giant hole cut out of the product frame? What about the risk of fire due to faulty battery connections or battery packs coming in contact with something metal in someone’s pocket? The list of problems goes on and on.

Innovation is never easy, but since when has Apple shied away from a challenge? As the industry leader in consumer-electronics design and manufacturing, Apple is best positioned to overcome the obstacles and reap the benefits of removable batteries. There’s no question it will be difficult, but if done well, it will undoubtedly be a hit. And as the company that led the transition away from removable batteries, it’s only fitting1 for Apple to be the one to bring them back.

  1. It would also be fitting if the EU helped “encourage” Apple to make this change to at least one of its product lines.