how the bell curves; or how to notice when platforms die

Michael Mace puts RIM up on the operating table and explains with utter clarity why their success was so remarkable and just what kind of peril they currently face.

When I worked at Apple, I spent a lot of time studying failed computer platforms. I thought that if we understood the failures, we might be able to prevent the same thing from happening to us.

I looked at everything from videogame companies to the early PC pioneers (companies like Commodore and Atari), and I found an interesting pattern in their financial results. The early symptoms of decline in a computing platform were very subtle, and easy for a business executive to rationalize away. By the time the symptoms became obvious, it was usually too late to do anything about them.

The symptoms to watch closely are small declines in two metrics: the rate of growth of sales, and gross profit per unit sold (gross margins). Here’s why:

Every computing platform has a natural pool of customers. Some people need or want the platform, and some people don’t. Your product spreads through its pool of customers via the traditional “diffusion” process — early enthusiasts first, late adopters at the end.

It’s relatively easy to get good revenue from the early adopters. They seek out innovations like yours, and are willing to pay top dollar for it. As the market for a computer system matures, the early adopters get used up, and the company starts selling to middle adopters who are more price-sensitive. In response to this, the company cuts prices, which results in a big jump in sales. Total revenue goes up, and usually overall profits as well. Everybody in the company feels good.

Time passes, and that middle portion of the market gets consumed. Eventually demand growth starts to drop, and you make another price cut. Sales go up again, sometimes a lot. With revenue rising, you and your investors talk proudly about the benefits of reaching the “mainstream” market.

At Apple, when we hit this point we called our low-cost products the Macintosh Classic and Macintosh LC. At Palm, it was the M100.

What you don’t realize at this point is that you’re not “reaching the mainstream,” you’re actually consuming the late adopters. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to tell when you’re selling to the late adopters. They don’t wear signs. Companies tend to assume that because the adoption curve is drawn as a smooth-sided bell, your demand will tail off at the end as gradually as it built up in the beginning.

via Mobile Opportunity: What’s really wrong with BlackBerry (and what to do about it).

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