- The iPhone has become “an irreplaceable infrastructure,” says author Michael Gartenberg.
- The device and its services seem too popular with users to replace it.
- But the person who challenged will one day dethrone himself, he said. Here’s how to spot the signs of that change.
The iPhone – with iOS and the App Store – has maintained such a dominant position in the mobile industry for so long, it has reached the status of what is known as “an irreplaceable infrastructure.”
Intangible infrastructure is the thing that holds most users, a competitor cannot get them to replace it. It has the following features:
- High replacement cost of replacement.
- Total or near total valuation within an organization or market.
- Strong third-party and vendor support.
- It serves as the underlying technology for other services and applications.
The New Jersey Turnpike is an intangible infrastructure. I can’t, even with the help of a few billion building high-speed underground tunnels, stop driving through them. Coke and Pepsi are examples of tangible infrastructure. I can drink a Diet Coke in the morning and a Pepsi that afternoon. There is no cost to change brand loyalty (except that I always conclude that Coke tastes better).
Apple benefits today from the image of being the “safe choice” for users. It has created a positive feedback loop that leads its customers to move forward with its infrastructure: They buy other devices designed to work better with their Apple gear like Apple Watch and AirPods, and Apple services like Apple Music and Apple TV+.
Many say the power of Apple’s ecosystem of hardware, operating systems, and services, all combined with the power of the App Store, is unstoppable. Since no competitor today can topple Apple’s market position, they say it will grow stronger over time.
Apart from this, it is inevitable that the iPhone and the Apple ecosystem will be replaced by something 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 imperfect metaphor, I know. Apple will not cease to exist, and neither IBM nor Microsoft will disappear. The latter two, however, while powerful and profitable, do not have nearly the leading market or mind share positions they once had. No one is suggesting we break up IBM or Microsoft like they are promoting Apple these days.
To explain how Apple will fall, I provide an outline of how technological cycles take place, a cycle that is involved in a variety of new technologies, from refrigeration to sound technology.
Technology changes over time and goes through five stages:
- Many companies produce different technologies that serve the same user need.
- Market forces lead to the emergence of a single standard as an irreplaceable infrastructure. Often, it is not the best reproductive technology that wins market acceptance.
- That level is attacked by pseudo-challengers who imitate but do not effectively remove it, as the pseudo-challengers do not offer a sufficiently plausible difference or have different flaws than the technology they are trying to remove. (But fake opponents often have enough value to survive and coexist alongside dominant technologies.)
- The level reappears stronger than ever and seems invincible from removal.
- New and better technology emerges and displaces the existing standard.
iOS is in stage 4. It has achieved dominance and mind share despite being challenged by the Android operating system and a host of devices from the likes of Google and Samsung.
To replace the Apple juggernaut, any new technology that hits the market must meet the following criteria:
- It should provide visible and tangible value and differentiation that can be directly exploited by end users. Another reason the iPhone took over flip phones was that it had a real browser and a touchscreen with a pinch-to-zoom feature. Make surfing the internet feel like you’re on a PC rather than a mobile phone.
- It should provide economic benefits to the seller’s marketplace. The iPhone provided apps, a whole new market for existing and new software developers.
- It must provide clear economic benefits to hardware vendors. If the first and second conditions are met, hardware vendors have a strong incentive to build systems to take advantage of new technologies and drive improvements.
I will not try to predict what will eventually replace the Apple “i” ecosystem. That is a fool’s errand. No one predicted the rise and rebirth of Apple under Steve Jobs. No one predicted the iPod and its impact on Apple’s sales. Of course, no one predicted the iPhone and the impact it would have on the industry.
Some even greeted the iPhone with great skepticism and a little sarcasm.
But as chips grow more powerful and network speeds get faster and artificial intelligence gets smarter, technology beyond the iPhone may already be in its infancy. The big question is: Will Apple be the one to produce it?