No One Expects The iPod

John Gruber linked yesterday to a May 2001 Businessweek story titled “Sorry, Steve: Here’s Why Apple Stores Won’t Work” that Gruber deemed “deservingly notorious in the annals of claim chowder.”

A bit contra Gruber, what I think is striking about the piece is that it’s not really wrong. Cliff Edwards’ big point is that this move will not supercharge Mac sales and if Apple wants to grow rapidly it can’t rely on better marketing of its existing line of computers. It needs to break into new markets. And that’s all completely correct. Eleven years in the future it’s still true that the Mac share of the PC market is small and the retail wizardry of the Apple Store hasn’t changed that. The reason Edwards looks ridiculous is that in the interim Apple invented the iPod the iPhone and the iPad.

I think there’s a good case to be made that the near simultaneous rollout of the Apple Store was part of what made the iPod and its successors successful, and there’s a very strong argument that the existence of the Apple Store was important in leveraging the iPod’s success to get customers to take a closer look at buying a Mac than they otherwise would have. So Edwards really was wrong about the stores. They were a good idea, well-timed to the company’s launch of a totally consumer-focused hit product and to the overall evolution of the brick-and-mortar retail universe. But it’s Edwards’ failure to foresee the iPod that drives the whole failed argument.

And yet who could have foreseen the iPod?

That’s why this kind of forecasting is a bit of a fool’s errand. I was reading something yesterday about how Apple’s future is bleak because since Steve Jobs died they don’t roll out fundamentally new products anymore. But no company rolls out fundamentally new products every six months. And the nature of a fundamentally new product is that you’re not going to guess what it’s going to be and the companies working on them aren’t going to tell you about them. The next iPod could be released six months from now or it might never come, and you’ll never be able to know.