- The iPhone has become an “irreplaceable device,” says author Michael Gartenberg.
- The tool and its services seem to be the most popular among users and cannot be replaced.
- But one day the challenger canceled, he said. Here’s how to spot the signs of that change.
The iPhone — along with iOS and the App Store — has held that dominant position in the mobile industry for so long, it has achieved the status of what is often called an “irreplaceable device.”
Irreplaceable infrastructure is something that users own and cannot be replaced by a competitor. It has the following features:
- Replacement costs are high.
- All or nearly all orders in an organization or market.
- Strong third-party and customer support.
- It acts as a core technology for other services and applications.
The New Jersey Turnpike is an irreplaceable infrastructure. I probably wouldn’t, even with the help of some billionaires building high-speed subways, stop driving up there. Coke and Pepsi are examples of substitute structures. I can drink Diet Coke in the morning and Pepsi that evening. It doesn’t pay for switching brand loyalties (but I still decide that Coke tastes better).
Apple today benefits from the image of the “safe choice” for users. They have created a positive feedback loop that guides its customers into its creations: They buy other devices designed to work better with their Apple devices such as the Apple Watch and AirPods, and Apple services such as Apple Music and Apple TV+.
Many say that the power of Apple’s ecosystem of devices, operating systems, and services, all tied together with the power of the App Store, is unstoppable. Since no challenger today is able to topple Apple’s market position, they predict it will only get stronger over time.
Despite this, the iPhone and the Apple ecosystem cannot be replaced by anything else.
Empires rise and fall, from the Egyptians and Romans to the Ottomans and the British to technology empires like IBM or Microsoft.
That’s an unfair metaphor, I know. Apple is not going away, neither are IBM and Microsoft. The latter two, while powerful and effective, are nowhere near the market leaders or the positions of opinion they once had. No one is saying that we will destroy IBM or Microsoft like they are arguing today about Apple.
To explain how Apple will be defeated, I offer a framework for the emergence of technological change, a change that has been sustained for a variety of technological innovations, from heating to audio technology.
Technology changes over time and goes through five stages:
- Many companies produce different technologies that serve the needs of the same users.
- Market forces lead to a standard emerging as an irreplaceable structure. In many cases, it is not the best technology that wins the market.
- That standard is attacked by pseudo-challengers who imitate but fail to change, because there is no meaningful difference or flaw different from the technology they are trying to eliminate. (But pseudo-challengers have a lot of value in surviving and coexisting with great technology.)
- The standard emerges stronger than ever and seems immovable.
- When a new and better technology comes out, it supersedes the current standard.
iOS is in stage 4. It has achieved dominance and discretion despite being challenged by the Android operating system and a host of devices from the likes of Google and Samsung.
In order to replace the Apple juggernaut, new technologies that come to the market must meet the following criteria:
- It must deliver tangible and demonstrable value and differentiation that can be directly used by end users. One reason the iPhone replaced flip phones was that it had a real monitor with a touch screen and a pinch-to-zoom button. So use the internet as you would on a PC on a mobile phone.
- Economical products must be delivered to the marketplace of consumers. The iPhone introduced applications, a new market for new software developers.
- There should be a clear economic benefit to equipment buyers. If conditions one and two are met, hardware vendors will have a strong incentive to build systems that utilize new technologies and drive innovation.
I won’t try to predict what will replace the ecosystem “at” Apple. That’s a stupid thing to do. No one predicted the rise and birth of Apple under Steve Jobs. No one singled out the iPod and its influence on Apple sales. Of course, no one predicted the iPhone and the impact it would have on the industry.
Others greeted the iPhone with complete skepticism and more than a little sarcasm.
But as chips get more powerful, network speeds get faster and artificial intelligence, the technology that powers the iPhone is already out there. The bigger question is: Will Apple produce it?