After two decades of making its mark, Apple recently phased out its iPod. Tony Fadell, principal of Future Shape, was the inventor of the iPod and co-inventor of the iPhone. He also founded Nest Labs — which was later sold to Google. As principal at Future Shape, Fadell currently mentors start-ups. In an interaction with FE’s Devina Joshi, he elaborates on his new book, ‘Build’, and the future of the tech world. Excerpts:
Q. What is the biggest career lesson you have highlighted in your new book, ‘Build’?
The biggest lessons always come from the biggest mistakes. Early in my career, I got a job at a company called General Magic. It was the early ’90s and the company decided to build a touchscreen mobile communication and entertainment device that would let you email and call from anywhere, buy online plane tickets, play games, and send emojis… it was the iPhone, 15 years before the iPhone. Genius technology but we were building it for each other, not for a real customer.
Nobody needed the thing we created, so nobody bought it. It was one of the biggest failures in Silicon Valley history as we focus on what we could make rather than why we were making it.
Q. Big tech firms like Apple and Google are trying out cars, drones and VR glasses, with limited success. How far is too far, when it comes to product innovation?
Innovation is a continuous process. I believe if you’re not solving a real problem, you can’t start a revolution. For instance, take Uber. The founders started with a customer problem — that they experienced in their daily lives — and then applied technology. When it comes to innovation; it’s all trial and error.
Most of these ecosystem orchestrators, like Google, Alibaba and Uber, don’t make the things they sell; they exist to link others together, and this makes the old positioning-based logic less relevant. They don’t have many assets, either. They create value through relationships and networks, not via physical goods or infrastructure, so arguments built around asset ownership are equally challenging. These firms are also looking to grow the market — by increasing the flow of people and goods — rather than capture more of the existing market.
Q. In India, Apple closed CY 2021 at only 4.4% of the smartphone market share. How should it approach emerging markets?
Apple is an aspirational brand; it always has been, in the developed world, too. As the smartphone reaches into every community, Apple should find new ways to make its products more accessible to those without as high a per capita GDP. These countries shouldn’t get many-years-old products, and Apple has been addressing that already with new low-cost update accessible iPhones. However, I think they can innovate further to reach much wider customer audiences. Ideas could include ‘subscription per month’ pricing, for countries where there are fewer financing alternatives due to a lack of credit infrastructure and immature lender environments. Apple has a lot of cash on its balance sheet — it can think about becoming a short-term lender.
Q. What is the intersection of technology products and Metaverse looking like?
We need to make sure we are solving real problems with AR and VR technologies —which I admire and respect. However, some definitions of the Metaverse are about building communities with real human connections. We have already seen over the past 20 years, that when we disintermediate each other with more technology and anonymity in the middle, we invite more toxic behaviours. We saw this first with toxic blog comments, then again with the photo and video focussed social networks. Why do we trust that they will get any better in the so-called ‘Metaverse’? Metaverse isn’t what we should be focussed on or spending tons of money on. We have much bigger issues like climate change that need funds and innovation.
Q. There’s Samsung’s Fold/Flip series, the Motorola Razr reboot, and Google’s rumoured foldable Pixel. Gimmicky, or are foldable phones the way forward?
When I saw the announcement about a Razr reboot, my initial reaction was, “How cool!” Then, I thought about it for 15 more minutes and said, “It’s just a gimmick, a parlour trick”. The Razr was cool for one real reason — making phone calls. But only a few people make phone calls today; they are messaging, browsing, playing, etc.
No one wants to flip open their smartphone for each of these things — the flip makes the device way more cumbersome to use. They are awakening nostalgia in customers, but not solving a pain, just creating more of it. But I do say that it may help with digital device addiction!