The Apple product cycle, variation 2

Most Apple fans have seen the Apple product cycle parody. Actually, it’s barely a parody. In the immortal words of Homer, “It’s funny because it’s true!” Well, Hannibal’s recent post reminded me of a well-known variant of the Apple product cycle. This one usually involves Steve Jobs directly, and it goes something like this.

  1. Some new product or technology enters the realm of feasibility. (Feasibility of implementation, that is, not necessarily of production at a reasonable cost.)

  2. Slavering Mac enthusiasts discuss how cool it’d be “if Apple made one of these.” “Discussion” becomes “rumor” within weeks.

  3. The widespread rumors cause reporters to ask Steve Jobs if Apple is, in fact, doing what the rumors suggest. Jobs says that Apple does not discuss future products, but then goes on to explain why this particular kind of product or technology is really, really stupid.

  4. Enthusiasm wanes among the Apple faithful as Jobs repeatedly bashes the rumored product idea.

  5. Jobs continues to bash the idea, but starts to change the language subtly. For example, “I can’t imagine anyone actually using such a thing” becomes “All the existing products of this type suck” or “No one has figured out how to do it right yet.”

  6. Apple either introduces the rumored product, claiming that it’s finally been Done Right™, or Apple kills the project internally.

Somewhere in that list of steps is another, implied step: “Apple starts working on the rumored product.” I suspect that it usually comes between steps 1 and 2. The final step is the really tricky one. Since there’s no public announcement if the project is killed internally, the rumor can linger on for years afterwards. (The Apple PDA is a great example of this.) Also, the cycle can restart itself multiple times for the same product idea. (cf. the Mac tablet.)

But the most important steps are 3 and 5. By step 3, you can be assured that Apple has at least considered the product idea, and may have started a project to investigate or implement it. By step 5, you can be nearly certain that Apple has a project well underway. The only remaining question is whether it’ll make it out of incubation and into the market.

This may seem like a wishy-washy list with no predictive powers, but it has its uses. For example, back in January of this year, I was arguing with Cringely over email about the prospect of a video iPod or iTunes Movie Store. Cringely was convinced that an announcement was imminent. He had a lot of good circumstantial evidence to support his position: technologies like H.264, cheaper Macs, decreased bandwidth costs, etc. I argued that the idea wasn’t ripe yet, and my sole source for this prediction was the cycle described above.

Cringely acknowledged the nature of the cycle, but he failed to account for step 5. His theory was that Jobs criticizes a product idea right up to the point where he triumphantly enters the market. But he neglected to look for that subtle change in tone. As of January 2005, Jobs had not yet softened his rhetoric. He was still expressing unequivocal doom and gloom about the entire idea of portable video. There’d been no “cooling off” period. He hadn’t yet reached step 5. January’s MacWorld Expo came and went without a video iPod or iTunes Movie Store announcement.

Granted, that’s hardly scientific, and really proves nothing. But without any inside information, my educated guesses based on past experiences with pubic statements from Jobs/Apple and the subsequent Apple product announcements (or lack thereof) are all I have to go on.

Here’s another example of The System in action. This quote from an Apple earnings conference call shortly before the introduction of the Mac mini convinced me that Apple planned to introduce a sub-$800 Mac sometime soon.

“To date, we have chosen to not compete in the sub $800 desktop market and have put that R&D investment into expanding our products in the music area and software and hardware.”

The key words were “to date” and “chosen.” These soften the statement in comparison to earlier dismissals of the “cheap PC” market. My translation of Apple’s statement was, “We plan to compete in the sub-$800 desktop market in the future.” It was as plain as day.

So, applying The System to the video iPod, we see that it’s just hit step 5. It’s nearly assured to be a real project. The only remaining question is, will it make it to market? At this point, I think the odds have tipped in its favor. I say this not just because of The System, but also because, as Hannibal pointed out, Sony has already gotten a head start in the market. While Apple has become the “Sony” of the post-WalkMan era, the last thing they want is for Sony to become the “Apple” of the post-iPod era.

Right now, the PSP is most comparable to the Rio and Archos devices in the early days of the digital music market. As a portable video player, the PSP is merely a geek curiosity. But that could change in a hurry if it attains a critical mass of content, customers, or both. If Apple wants to continue the iPod’s dominance of portable digital media, it needs to act soon.

This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.