In 2009, I took a group of executives through a strategic planning process. Following the framework of The Alchemy of Growth, the goal was to identify what products or services does the company have in Horizon 1 (the "Cash Cow") and Horizon 2 (growth stage, although not profitable yet), and then plan the investment in Horizon 3 products, or "The Next Big Thing." To explain the framework, I used existing companies as examples. As we discussed Apple, one of the participants asked what I thought Apple's Horizon 3 product might be. Somehow, I thought it might be a car. Specifically, iCar...
Right before Easter weekend Apple received a permit in California to turn three Lexus RX 450h hybrid SUVs into driverless cars, and for six drivers to take control if the cars misbehave.
Apple has been toying with the idea of a self-driving car for a while. Initially, through the internal, secretive Project Titan, and more recently through rumors of partnering or outright acquiring automakers McLaren and/or LIT Motors. However, the question was always: what software platform will Apple use to control its self-driving cars?
It seems that with the permit acquired by Apple last Friday, progress is being made. It is still unclear whether the three cars and their six drivers are about to start driving California roads Monday morning, or much later.
There is an even bigger question here.
Is Apple already late to this market, with Google, Tesla, Uber and a couple dozen others positioned to dominate it? Will Apple be a "me too" player? Can it be successful, if so?
To answer this question, you must go through the history of Apple's new product categories. Apple Computer did not make the first personal computers, but its computers gained customer loyalty and acceptance, even at higher-than-average price points due to their unique user experience and design. When, in 2001, Apple released its music player, the iPod (and dropped the word Computer from its name), it wasn't the first company to release a portable music player. But it gained loyalty and market share because of its unique, touch-screen user interface, the iTunes music platform that was part of it, and the slick, miniaturized design. In 2007, Apple was certainly not the first electronics company to produce a cellular phone, but its iPhone gained the fastest adoption rate of any cellular phone before it. Why, you might ask? User experience, App-store infrastructure, and design.
Can you see a pattern? The same could be said about the iPad, Apple TV, and the Apple Watch, maybe to a slightly smaller extent, though. Apple has a unique approach, driven by its founder, to start the development of products from a unique design, a unique user experience, and to support infrastructure that shows a very powerful understanding of the human nature and consumer preferences.
Apple doesn't necessarily have the most powerful machines or utilize the latest technologies. But user experience, design, and infrastructure, apparently, eat technology for lunch.
One analyst, Neil Cybart, believes Apple will not go into the business of building a car from beginning to end, but would rather build a "transportation platform." It is unclear what that means, but it can mean that Apple will build something that goes into cars, during production or in the aftermarket. Much like the Apple TV, which connects to an existing TV, rather than Apple building its own TV from scratch.
Why will the iCar be better?
Following the same logic, I don't believe Apple's self-driving car, once released, will be safer, faster, consume less energy, or anything like that. The underlying technology will be on par with its competitors, but I'm willing to bet that Apple will excel in the user interface, the iTunes- and App-Store-like infrastructure, and the design. I expect Apple to do things that were never done before. And for that, I expect customers to be willing to pay more.