The Big 5 Year in Review: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook

Hello New York Times readers,

I have made the Apple portion of this subscription-only Daily Update free for those of you visiting from Farhad Manjoo’s column.

You can sign-up for free Weekly Articles here, or subscribe to The Daily Update to receive articles four days a week analyzing technology and its impact on business and society.


I actually intended for most of this daily update to just be commentary and analysis, without the usual excerpts. But this piece by Nilay Patel at the Verge, entitled 2015: Apple’s Year in Beta, is really good and a great jumping-off point:

The Gizmodo headline last week was blunt, in the way that the best Giz headlines are blunt: Everything Apple Introduced This Year Kinda Sucked. It’s worth reading; it is surprisingly easy to make the argument that everything on Apple’s huge list of new products and features this year sucked a little bit.

But that’s not actually true. All of Apple’s products this year were just fine. You could settle yourself totally within the Apple ecosystem and use Apple Music and Apple News on your iPhone while taking Live Photos and you would be just fine. You wouldn’t have the best time, but you wouldn’t have the worst one, either. It would just be fine…

I would go so far as to say every new Apple product or feature released in 2015 was essentially in beta. Apple released a lot of big new platforms that, by themselves, weren’t nearly complete. Apple needed — expected, really — its vast army of dedicated and passionate third-party developers to come up with killer apps for things like the Apple Watch and iPad Pro. And when it wasn’t releasing new platforms, Apple was adding new features to existing platforms like iOS in an attempt to create sticky new user behaviors which would reinforce their dominant status in the market — new features that all need far more time to develop into those powerful lock-in mechanisms.

It may not seem like it, but Patel’s piece is fundamentally optimistic. I occasionally cite what I consider one of John Gruber’s best-ever pieces (which, much to his chagrin I’m sure, is not on Daring Fireball), entitled This is How Apple Rolls, that I think nails what Patel is driving at:

Apple has released many new products over the last decade. Only a handful have been the start of a new platform. The rest were iterations. The designers and engineers at Apple aren’t magicians; they’re artisans. They achieve spectacular results one year at a time. Rather than expanding the scope of a new product, hoping to impress, they pare it back, leaving a solid foundation upon which to build. In 2001, you couldn’t look at Mac OS X or the original iPod and foresee what they’d become in 2010. But you can look at Snow Leopard and the iPod nanos of today and see what they once were. Apple got the fundamentals right.

I’m not sure I’m as much of an optimist as Patel (presuming I understood him correctly). And while I think Gruber was spot-on when he wrote that in 2010, I certainly am curious what a 2015 version would read-like. There are two big concerns I have about Apple at the end of 2015:

  1. Contra Gruber’s piece, too many of Apple’s new products have too many features that don’t work well all the time. It’s the inverse of what made Apple unique previously, and much more in line with how most tech companies operate.
  2. The fundamentals at the core of many of Apple’s new products aren’t as strong as they could be not because Apple is necessarily incompetent, but rather because they involve skills and technology that Apple is simply not good at. Specifically, Siri and services

Number one, in isolation, would certainly be concerning, but manageable: slow down the pace, focus on polish, and get back to the sort of iteration that Apple excels at. It’s number two that is the real issue: technology moves in cycles, from devices to services and back again. To be sure, these are long cycles, spanning half-decades or more, but to the degree that you can trust a mere 40 years of history, it does seem inevitable that, for the next several years, it is services that will matter more than the devices on which they run on.

And, by extension, that means Apple is at a disadvantage: the skills to make great products are orthogonal to the skills needed to create great services. That’s not a fault of Apple’s! If anything, it is the company’s dedication to creating great products — the quality that is most to be admired about the company — that is their Achilles heel when it comes to services, and I for one am glad they make that trade-off. After all, we still need devices to consume said services.

Indeed, that’s why I wrote just a couple of months ago to Stop Doubting the iPhone; Apple’s existing businesses are as strong as they have ever been, difficult year-over-year comps notwithstanding. In other words, my pessimism, such as it exists, is subtle (and, I think, gets at the difference between what I’m trying to accomplish versus, say, a stock analyst): Apples short to medium term future looks better than it ever has, thanks to the seeds that were planted years if not decades ago. What, though, of the seeds that are being planted today?

(Note: No product captures the tension between Apple’s product skill and service shortcomings more than the Apple Watch, and I think my review does a good job explaining that).

To read the rest of this Daily Update about Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook you must be a paid subscriber. Sign up below, or, if you prefer, receive free Weekly Articles via email.

To read this daily update you must be a subscriber (Current members login here.) is supported by subscriptions to the Daily Update.

The Daily Update consists of substantial analysis of the news of the day (~1800 words) delivered via three daily emails in addition to the free weekly article (four total articles per week). These updates are always timely, but also timeless in their investigation of “Why” and “What’s next.” If you love Stratechery’s Weekly Articles, you’ll love the Daily Update.

Daily Updates are also available via RSS or on this site. Please see the Daily Update Schedule for more details about delivery times and planned days-off. To give Stratechery as a gift click here.

Ben Thompson’s depth of thinking and analysis around technology trends and market disruption is pretty much unparalleled. The ratio of “Wow that’s an interesting way to think about it” reactions to dollars spent on the Stratechery subscription is off the charts.
Aaron Levie, CEO Box and Daily Update subscriber

Stratechery is one of the few websites that makes me angry. It makes me angry because Ben Thompson consistently writes things that I wish I had written myself.
John Gruber, Author of Daring Fireball and Daily Update subscriber

I love reading Ben’s daily strategy pieces. As an investor in startups and public markets, I want to hear what passionate thinkers and strategist think of all the product and feature news released by the leaders. Ben takes the time to dive deep after digesting the daily tech news.
Howard Lindzon, Founder Stocktwits and Daily Update subscriber

In a world of hyperbolic tweets and biased content marketing, Stratechery is a daily shot across the bow of tech’s echo chamber.
Hunter Walk, Partner Homebrew and Daily Update subscriber

Ben Thompson’s Stratechery is usually the smartest thing I read all day, and the first thing I open in my inbox each morning.
Mike Arrington, Partner CrunchFund, Founder TechCrunch and Daily Update subscriber

In addition to the Daily Update, subscribers get access to the Stratechery Membership Forum for in-depth discussion of tech strategy, moderated by Ben, as well as priority email access.

You can see samples of some Daily Update articles here or see a list of recent topics in the sidebar (bottom of the page on mobile). Please note that all subscriptions auto-renew monthly/annually (but can be cancelled at any time; there are no refunds).

If you are interested in ordering and managing multiple subscriptions for your team or company, please fill in the form here.


Can you create a custom invoice that meets my government/company requirements?

I am happy to create an invoice to your specification for annual subscribers; however, it is simply not viable for me to offer this service to monthly subscribers. Therefore, if you need a custom invoice please subscribe or switch to an annual subscription.

Do you offer a student discount?

Stratechery is purposely kept at a low price — thousands of dollars less than other analyst reports or newsletters — to ensure it is accessible to everyone, including students.

I can’t purchase/login.

Check the security setting of your browser: if you have disabled 3rd-party cookies then Stratechery’s membership software won’t work. Either use another browser or change your setting; after you register/login you can change the setting back for a good long while.

Can I switch to an annual plan?

Yep! Just go to your account panel and select the alternate plan. You’ll be switched after your current subscription period ends.

Can I give a subscription as a gift?

Yes! Please visit this page.