For Apple, the hits keep coming. The company launches a new iPhone and 5 million people snag one over the weekend. An iPad Mini, expected to debut later this month, could get into the hands of 10 million users before the end of the year. And this is despite the fact that competitors offer a far broader array of smartphones and tablets, with a price, size and feature set to match the needs of almost any discerning customer.
The extraordinary popularity, and profitability, of Apple's products is in part based on the quality, consistency and simplicity of the offering. Apple avoids the pitfalls of the paradox of choice, a theory by psychologist Barry Schwartz that suggests too much choice makes it difficult to choose at all. No need to choose between Apple model 7844PQC, 6533PHX or the 5055PDQ or decide what operating system you should buy.
You want an iPhone 5? It comes in one size and two colors, with a few options for storage and networking. If you already know how to use an iPhone, this new version won't challenge your skills. How about a tablet? Apple has a model with a 9.7-inch screen and your choice of connectivity options.
Apple doesn't try to offer the most feature-rich or advanced mobile devices available. The way Apple chief designer Sir Jony Ive tells it, "Our goals are very simple -- to design and make better products. If we can't make something that is better, we won't do it."
Bigger than a 4-inch screen is not better for a smartphone. Apple has decided you should be able to operate your phone with one hand, and will only offer you a 4-inch iPhone 5 screen, or its 3.5-inch antecedents, the iPhone 4S and 4. Better is an iPhone 5 that is 18 percent thinner, 20 percent lighter, up to twice as fast and slightly longer than its predecessor, a flawed Maps app notwithstanding.
"Most of our competitors are interested in doing something different, or want to appear new -- I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that's what drives us -- a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better," Ive said in an interview with the London Evening Standard.
Whereas Apple offers limited choice, competitors are in the multiple choice business. They offer many more price points and feature options, including a variety of screen sizes, operating systems, cameras, networks and chips. And, they are doing more than just something different or new.
Motorola, for example, recently introduced three new Android phones, including a $99 unit with a 4.3-inch edge-to-edge display, a model with a 4.7-inch HD screen size and one with up to 32 hours of battery life. Samsung says it has sold 20 million of its Android-based Galaxy S3, with a 4.8-inch HD Super AMOLED display at 1,280x720-pixel resolution, in its first 100 days on the market.
There is a payoff in offering a broader selection of mobile devices for Apple's competitors. Google's Android platform dominates the market, with more than 60 percent share, compared to less than 20 for Apple. As RIM's BlackBerry and Nokia's Symbian platforms decline, Microsoft is putting its prodigious marketing muscle behind its Windows 8 platform as an alternative to Apple's iOS and Android. Nokia, Samsung, HTC, Huawei and other will deliver Windows 8 smartphones and tablets following the Oct. 26 launch.
While the purveyors of choice are largely competing against each other, Apple has been extracting the majority of the profit for mobile devices and apps, making it the most financially valuable company in the world.
Apple prides itself on inventing the future, as it did when it introduced the iPhone and iPad, and famously shuns focus groups in designing its products. "It's unfair to ask people who don't have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design," Ive stated.
As the market for mobile devices matures, however, Apple's devotion to its "less is more" and "we know better" product strategy can be counterproductive.
Apple's current smartphone revolves around one-handed usage, and the company will milk the iPhone 5 for profit and market share and hope for a perfectly timed replacement that repeats that formula within a year. But the popularity of larger screens has to be a factor that impacts how long Apple can ride the iPhone 5. If the majority of smartphones sold in 2013 have larger than 4-inch screens, Apple isn't going to miss the market opportunity by sticking too long with its one-handed phone design.
An iPhone 6 can be "genuinely better," as Ive demands, and available in more than one screen size without making customer choice a maze of options or its supply chain and financial engine less efficient.
It's likely that the Microsoft Surface and the parade of "convertible" or hybrid tablets coming out for Windows 8 is being closely watched by Apple, despite Tim Cook's statement, "You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going be pleasing to the user."
If those hybrids start to gain momentum, Cook may reconsider the idea of perfecting an "iPadbook" that combines the best of the Macbook Air and iPad.
There are signs that Apple is more than ready to adapt and follow the pack with the rumored introduction of an 7.85-inch iPad Mini later this month. Apple's has good reason to deliver a holiday iPad Mini, given that its hold on the tablet market has slipped from a market share of over 80 percent to a still impressive 52 percent in the last year, according a Pew Research Center survey. An iPad Mini would allow the company to soak up some of the demand created by Google, Amazon and Barnes & Noble for smaller, cheaper tablets.
The majority of the two billion people online are not members of the smartphone or tablet tribe. Apple and its competitors have a massive opportunity ahead to develop products for an increasingly mobile and digital population. Apple isn't assuming that its brand, design sensibilities and nearly 400 stores are sufficient to insulate it from dynamic market changes. The expected iPad Mini is a sign that Apple is beginning to think different, and an iPhone 6 cannot be too far behind.