Apple, Competitive Advantage, and the Fall of RIM

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There’s been a lot of talk lately about Apple’s competitive advantage, and how we’re standing at some sort of mobile precipice that might find Apple on the receiving end of the same treatment Apple gave to RIM a while back. It’s good to stop and think about these kinds of things, and that’s important.

But in this case, I don’t see the case being adequately made.

I think we are at a technological inflection point, but in a lot of cases, it’s Apple pushing the marketplace forward, not sitting still. The first of these cases is Apple Pay. The state of payment structures in the US is antiquated and terrible. We pay with plastic cards with magnetic stripes that are easily duplicated, a technology that has been subject to fraud since before I left college more than 15 years ago.

Europe banded together years ago with Visa and Mastercard to create the EMV Chip-and-PIN system to build better cards. I’ve had one in my American Express since 2001 or so. But only within the last year have I ever used it to make a payment. Why? Because no one’s incentivized a movement away from the stripe payment system. This past year, a change in liability for fraud started to push more contactless and chip reader terminals to the forefront.

I’ve spent the past three months on a project replacing all of the old stripe readers with new chip and contactless systems for a client with a large venue. We’re now four big events in, and I can tell you more about the problems in the payment space than I thought I’d ever be able to. The biggest problem with chip card transactions? Time and User Awareness. If you get a user that’s never used their chip card before, even with the best terminals on the market today, you’re adding 30 to 60 seconds of frustration and delay to the transaction. And that’s with the best terminals on the market today!

What about the mom and pop shop on the corner that has no control over that experience?

It’s pretty bad.

Even with the shiniest new terminals, they’re still not the bulletproof credit card swipers that we’re used to, the ones that rarely if ever malfunction, because their software was treated like the software to keep astronauts alive: it can only fail safe, it can only be changed rarely. It was ossified technology for good reason: it worked, and it worked well, and it worked for people who didn’t want or need to understand every moving part behind it. The credit card industry had made it simple by taking on the technical requirements and adhering to them in an act of ironclad religious devotion that you might find admirable in a cargo cult.

Sure, contactless is a better experience, thanks to Apple Pay, because they put a lot of thought into the user experience, but it’s still a vanishingly small percentage of commerce. Apple can do better here by evangelizing the ease of use to both commercial institutions and users alike. This needs to be better if we’re going to complete that changeover. In addition, these transaction times need to get better and not worse.

But, if you want to see what the future looks like for payments, read what happened when a Buzzfeed writer lived only off contactless and bitcoin for a period of time.

Let’s slide onwards here to another advantage that Apple has: research and engagement with the scientific community. Last year, they released ResearchKit, designed to provide the research community with necessary and almost futuristic backends for collecting complex data from layman users. It was a huge project, to the point it was released in a keynote by now-COO Jeff Williams last year.

Better still, Apple both open-sourced ResearchKit, and then released CareKit to help medical environments make apps that can persist outside of the care environment.

Apple has an unquestionable commitment to medical research with iOS devices as tools to help gather data.

Meanwhile, Android has ScienceJournal which looks like a tinker toy.

So, I don’t think that Apple is nearly as poised to fall as quickly as RIM fell, especially not with their massive cash reserves and revenues. But it’s important to stay agile, and I expect Apple won’t disappoint. Even if I don’t want a Siri bridge for home, it would make sense to build it elsewhere if only to help mollify concern they’re missing a crucial interface.

So, it’s not all bad. Even if the markets make it seem that way. Apple is best when they have to compete for their lives. I look forward to seeing them hungry and behind. It’s when we get the best work from them.

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