A Philosopher and A Businessman

Musings on Business and Philosophy.

The Real Reason for iPhone's Success

Much has been said about the iPhone’s success. The obsessive attention to detail in hardware and software design, and the unboxing experience is legendary. The developer platform and app store binds people to the Apple ecosystem. Tight integration with the Apple Watch somehow helps, although I’m too old to understand how. Procurement strategies keep margins high. The iPhone even has a functioning antenna so you can make phone calls. On it goes.

However, having observed iPhones in use over the last few years, I think there’s something more subtle and fundamental going on.

Before we get into that, let’s take a look at some basics around products and markets. I like the Lean Canvas framework that’s been heavily promoted in the startup community over the last few years. It captures the essence of a business on a single page.

The most important parts in the early days are:

  1. Identifying the customer segment
  2. Identifying the problem that you are attempting to solve for that customer segment
  3. Your unique value proposition, or promise, for how you will solve that problem

For the iPhone, then, we could look at a customer segment:

  • Customer Segment: Business Traveller
  • Problem: Can’t respond to email on the go
  • Unique Value Proposition: A phone handset with built in email client. Blackberry already did that, and better

OK, that didn’t work. Let’s try another:

  • Customer Segment: Teenagers
  • Problem: Can’t listen to music when hanging out at skate park
  • Unique Value Propositon: An mobile music player where it’s easy to add new music. We already did that and called it an iPod.

Let’s try the same segment with a different problem:

  • Customer Segment: Teenagers
  • Problem: Too disorganised to get enough people together for a party
  • Unique Value Proposition: A mobile device that not only plays music, but also connects to our favourite social networks so we can organise things as they are happening rather than ahead of time

Not bad, but it’s a reasonably small market segment for a huge product like an iPhone and affordability may be an issue.

Where could we possibly find the massive market needed to make Apple shareholders incredibly wealthy?

Here’s a clue. According to PWC, global entertainment and media revenues will hit US$2t (yes - t for trillion) per year around about now. That isn’t much different from the size of the oil industry at today’s (early 2016) prices. It’s huge. And the problem this huge industry solves is simple.


Boredom is fascinating (at least, to a philosopher). What is it about the human condition that means we can’t sit still for a moment and be comfortable with ourselves?

From a marketer’s point of view, boredom is also a wonderful thing. It’s the perfect pervasive problem affecting 99.99% of the world’s population for many of their waking hours. Once we have satisfied basic needs, such as food and shelter, we spend most of our time looking for ways to entertain (or distract) ourselves. We obviously have movies, TV, books, music, magazines, theatre, vintage car collecting, trainspotting, adventure travel, art etc. But even food, shelter and careers are, for many of us in developed countries, a source of entertainment.

Our ability to distract ourselves continuously throughout the day has been limited in recent times. In the 60s and 70s, if you had 5 minutes between jobs, you could keep yourself occupied with a cigarette. Then they were renamed “cancer-sticks”, became unfashionable and more or less banned (at least in places they were most needed - on trains, eating out alone, queuing in the bank etc).

So now we have ourselves a serious business opportunity:

  • Customer Segment: The vast majority of the world’s population, provided they can pay.
  • Problem: The entertainment we need to distract us from having to face the reality of our existence is not available every moment of the day.
  • Unique Value Proposition: The promise to provide continuous entertainment of whatever flavour you want (social media, music, surfing the web, watching funny cat videos) whenever, wherever and for however long you want with the absolute ease.

All the fancy innovations (multi-touch user interface, iTunes integration, working antenna, app store) are enablers for this core promise.

Image credit: Steve Davidson

There you have it. The world’s most effective way of filling in those moments where there’s a slight risk we may become aware of how insignificant we really are.

iPhone: The ultimate remedy for existential angst.

And that, in my opinion, is the secret to its success.

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