Delay some more, to get it right

Apple's caution on product launches offers wider lesson on how quest to get it right is rewarded

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2014, 11:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 September, 2014, 12:58am

When the history of unbearable delay comes to be written, it may well include the woes of long-suffering Apple users.

They have an enormous appetite for new products and have been waiting ages since the launch of the iPad for something else from Apple. Their hopes are pinned on a yet-to-be officially named device, already known as the iWatch, a wristband fitness tracker.

I apologise to Apple aficionados who might detect a hint of cynicism here, but having opted out of the scramble for the latest hi-tech thingamajigs, I'm a poor judge of the urgency engendered by their lure.

However, I do understand why Apple is taking its time in launching this device, because it places a higher value on getting its products right than on getting its products first into the market.

I am not a great Apple fan, but I admire the company's insistence on trying to perfect new products before taking them to market. It is hard to argue with this strategy, which has done wonders for Apple's reputation.

Most of Apple’s iconic products have not been brought to the market at … peak buying periods

Some business pundits have castigated Apple for the current delay, which means it will miss the lucrative Christmas buying spree, but then again, most of Apple's iconic products have not been brought to the market at times of the year coinciding with peak buying periods.

Presumably some buyers were lost, but the phenomenal success of devices such as the iPhone tend to suggest that in the longer run not that much was sacrificed in terms of sales.

It is, however, possible to think of many products the launch of which was accelerated to meet the Christmas market.

I vividly recall the fuss surrounding the rushed launch of the first British-based Sinclair portable computer, which broke new ground for lightness and convenience but seemed to require an advanced computer science qualification in order to understand its mind-bogglingly complex operating system.

Initial sales were good, but disillusion set in very rapidly. Sinclair subsequently improved this product, but the image of an overcomplex and user-unfriendly computer proved impossible to shake. And here's the nub of the problem, because once a product or service gets a poor reputation at its launch, it is very hard to lose it. All too often, that reputation is derived from a rush to get the product to market.

Corporations, especially larger ones, often experience a tussle between their sales and marketing departments and the less glamorous bods down at the research and development end of the company.

The people selling the goods push hard to launch new products as soon as possible, while the people who designed them are all too well aware of the problems and glitches that crop up when something new is being developed. Taking pride in their work, they prefer to wait until they have got everything as right as possible, while sales keep pressing for something new to sell.

Yet demand for the new has, if anything, accelerated. Consumers seem to be obsessed with the idea that new is better or, at the very least, more desirable.

Even in my industry, the supposedly sleepy old food business, we are always being pressed for something new. This is not unreasonable, because people get bored with eating and drinking the same old things. Indeed the food business can be as fad-driven as any other.

Even the humble sandwich has been subject to something of a revolution, with customers demanding that a meal stuffed inside some bread should come in the form of wraps, panini, toasties, not forgetting all manner of new kinds of breads and buns.

When a new and seemingly more exciting form of sandwich comes along, it takes little time before new outlets are launched, specialising in whatever is the latest fad. Most don't last long, while traditional sandwiches stubbornly and consistently continue to find a market. The reason is simple: the basic sandwich is a good, convenient and flexible product that still commands demand after alternatives have been tried.

As many companies have learned to their cost, switching away from what is proven to work and embracing what looks better and more exciting can prove to be costly. Meanwhile, at the more refined end of technological development, my experience is that it is often better to buy the former generation of whatever device you need, because most of the glitches will have been ironed out and, crucially, it is likely to be cheaper.

Cheaper is better for the consumer, but companies don't exist to make as little profit as possible. They are reluctant to miss a chance to sell newer products at higher prices. If this entails rushing new goods into the market, many corporations are tempted to take a gamble on product launch speed.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and broadcaster