How Apple is following in GE’s footsteps


A customer tries an iPad during the opening of the first Apple store in Latin America, located in Rio de Janeiro. (Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg)

In search of growth opportunities beyond just smartphones and tablets, it now appears that Apple is willing to venture far beyond the latest wearable consumer device — such as the iWatch — and experiment with opportunities in everything from medical devices to automobiles. The latest rumor making the rounds is that Apple has considered a hookup with Elon Musk and Tesla, which would give Apple immediate access to the market for electric vehicles and pave the way for renewed growth going forward.

That’s undoubtedly good news for Apple’s shareholders, but what about for Apple’s consumers? What this means for Apple’s legions of fans – the same fans that are willing to wait in line for hours for the chance to be the first to use a new Apple product — is that the company is increasingly going to look less like a Silicon Valley start-up and more like GE: a mature, entrenched company completely dedicated to improvement and incremental innovation on a global basis. With a market capitalization of nearly $500 billion and more than $150 billion in cash reserves, Apple can no longer pretend that it is immune to the same market forces that require revenue and profitability growth on a quarterly basis.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Apple turning into a company like GE. You could make the case that GE, with its market capitalization of just over $250 billion (about half of what Apple is worth these days), is one of the most innovative companies in the world, with a track record of innovation in everything from big data to the industrial Internet. GE’s products are ubiquitous on a global basis, and its management is routinely filled with A-list leaders and managers. (Chances are, you’ve heard of folks such as Jack Welch.)

Yet, GE doesn’t inspire the same rabid fan boy base as Apple. You may have GE light bulbs in every lamp in your house, a GE dishwasher in your kitchen and a GE air conditioner in your bedroom, but you probably don’t have the same emotional associations with GE’s products as with Apple’s products. You know that GE’s products work, that they deserve some kind of premium over generic products, but you’re not going to stand in line for hours to buy one.

Quite simply, it’s the difference between incremental innovation and disruptive innovative. Incremental innovation means ruthlessly churning out better products on a yearly basis and aspiring to be No. 1 in every market you enter. Incremental innovation is something that you can engineer into a business plan, checking off all the right boxes to prove that your products are always getting better. On the other hand, disruptive innovation means creating entirely new products and designing entirely new types of experiences. It also means being unafraid to fail. Who knows, for example, if Apple’s foray into wearable consumer devices is actually going to work?

You can already see signs of how Apple has become more of a incrementally innovative company than a disruptive innovation company with each new product iteration of the past two years. Each new iPhone, each new iPad, is clearly better than anything that came before – yet it’s not clear if Apple holds the same appeal for consumers as it once did when Steve Jobs was running the show. And, with so much smartphone and tablet growth now happening overseas, it’s also no longer the case that iOS has a clear lead on Android for the hearts and minds of global developers.

That’s why the potential acquisition of Tesla by Apple would make so much sense – it’s the type of bold deal that would prove that Apple is not just pledged to a future of incremental innovation and keeping pace with the Samsungs of the world, but also aspiring to be a truly disruptive company capable of reimagining everything from health care to automobiles.

There’s no arguing with Elon Musk and his track record of innovation in everything from space rockets to electric cars to solar power. Apple would be a unique type of conglomerate if it could grow even bigger (and more valuable) with highly diversified business units specializing in everything from electric cars to medical devices — the same way Richard Branson’s innovative Virgin Group is able to expand into everything from air travel to entertainment without changing the way people perceive the Virgin brand.

Clearly, the calls for Apple to do something with its $150 billion cash hoard are going to increase in intensity as investors and shareholders clamor for growth. Merely cranking out the next iteration of the iPhone and making assumptions about future growth in potentially lucrative markets such as China is no longer going to appease either investors or consumers. The trick for Apple will be making the types of acquisitions — like Tesla — that will ensure that the company remains a world innovation leader capable of creating new consumer products that feel like magic.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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