strategy

Why Apple Is Not Building An Autonomous Car (and what it's building instead).

Barring a horrible spate of autopilot accidents the self-driving car movement is in full swing. The technology is improving at pace with Elon Musk declaring that “worldwide regulatory approval will require something on the order of 6 billion miles (10 billion km). Current fleet learning is happening at just over 3 million miles (5 million km) per day.” Every single one of the big technology and automobile players is plowing money and brainpower into being the company that ushers us into this utopian future where there will be zero vehicular accidents caused by human behind the wheel errors. Only Apple keeps denying that they are working on autonomous cars while hiring some of the best minds

But is Apple really building a car? Why would they? Why are we assuming that all that matters in this push is the actual development of the self-driving car? We forget there are a lot of aspects to the technology that is required to make that future happen. I believe Apple is building something else…

I believe Apple is building the autonomous car Operating System (OS) using the IPhone/Apple Watch as a portable telematic device: knowing where a car is, what condition it’s in and recording that information to make better decisions is something that will be required in every autonomous car. We all know our iPhones are already personal telematic devices (I hope you do). The phone tracks your location and your health (see images below).

Becoming the mobile telematic system OS is the most strategically adjacent move Apple can make. Why would a company ignore it’s most sold asset,surpassing 1Bn iPhones sold this past week, to focus on a product that is capital intensive and not it’s core competence? Why would Apple enter a space where the most talked about company in the space is one that has not sold more than 150,000 cars? Yes, the orders for the Tesla Model 3 has broken records for EVs sold but the real work will be in delivering those cars and that will be interesting to watch.

As we move into a future where fewer people will actually own cars but people will continue to buy IPhones I do not expect Apple to move away from what is working. Imagine an OS that enables any brand of autonomous car to work with the telematic system that is on the riders iPhone? Seamlessly. A standard autonomous car OS (ACOS) on your iPhone will improve routing and getting a car to you regardless of the cab/car service you choose to use — the autonomous Uber cab app will most likely only work with Uber cars — and improve customer service since you’ll get the closest available car/cab regardless of the autonomous car service provider.

Yes Apple is hiring the best automotive engineers. But it isn’t to build a car. It’s to learn from the best in the industry so that it can do to the industry exactly what it did to the music industry with iTunes. An ACOS will iTunesthe industry by

  • enabling each one of us with an iPhone to order any car or cab from any provider where you need it from your iPhone. It’s the a la carte model like the 99c single from ITunes.
  • levelling the playing field and accelerate the shared resource model where anyone with an autonomous car can rent out their own car to anyone without an intermediary and get paid through (you guessed it) Apple Pay.
  • combining with Apple HomeKit to provide a seamless convenience experience across the home and vehicle of the Apple customer unmatchable by no one else in the industry with their siloes of service.

If we accept that Apple cares about design and understands the customer then an autonomous car, with all it’s inherent business risks, is the wrong strategy.

Something else I know about Apple is that the company is too smart to continue to cede leadership in the battle for the future as being defined by Amazon (Alexa), Alphabet and Facebook (Oculus)…an ACOS for the autonomous future of the vehicle and the connected home makes too much sense for it not to happen.

It’s the only way Apple can compete in this fast approaching future...

The Future (utility) is here...

At a conference recently one utility CEO suggested that (like Mark Twain) 'the reports of my company’s death are exaggerated'. Most people in the audience, also utility industry executives, laughed. I believe they laughed prematurely...

Three things have happened in in the last few months at the layers of the industry (infrastructure, technology and customer layers) that make me believe that the pace of the change going on within the industry is accelerating. Taken separately they are not insignificant. Taken together, from a systems perspective, they are signs of a seismic (pardon the pun) power shift. The three things 

  1. Infrastructure: This layer of the industry tends to be the source of utility executive confidence about their indispensability in this industry. It’s totally understandable that this would be the case; it takes 7-8 years and billions of dollars to build a power plant. The first signs of a huge crack came in the form of Pacific Gas & Electric’s announcement yesterday that they’d be transitioning their oldest and most popular nuclear plant Diablo Canyon by 2025. The plants being phased out supply 1.7M homes in Central and Northern California homes. 1.7M homes that will now have to be supplied by alternative distributed power generation. 5 years ago the plan would have been to build or recommission the plant. It’s a new day when this is not the case. 
  2. Infrastructure Technology: The second transition happening at this layer requires some systems thinking to connect the dots 
  • A few months ago a research team from the University of Electro-Communications in Japan announced in the Optical Society research journal that they’d passed 60W of power over 300 meters of Fibre cable by modifying the fibre cladding. The team, led by Prof Motoharu Matsuura, had failed at their attempts over several years but finally got their breakthrough in 2015. It’s a short distance and not that much power but the barrier has been broken. Before Roger Bannister broke the four-minute milein 1954 or before it seemed impossible, now pretty much every elite long distance runner breaks it. It will be the same with the power-over-fibre wattage and the distance barrier as researchers will figure out how to increase the distance and power that can be passed over that distance. 
  • In Michael Lewis’ ‘Flash Boys’ Spread Networks laid 827 miles of fibre optic cable between Chicago and New Jersey at the cost of $300M. The cable was supposed to help shed milliseconds off trading times to improve returns for electronic traders. As far as I know those cables are still there.
  • Google continues to roll out fibre across the US announcing more cities at an increasing pace (see image below). 

What am I suggesting here? That the old technology for distributing electricity, transmission wires/lines, might soon lose its place as the only channel. I’m suggesting that disruption is also happening at the level where the utility continued to charge rent (you and I continue to pay the utility for power moving over transmission lines even in deregulated states like Texas where you can buy electricity from alternative suppliers). That should be scary for those laughing executives from the conference I mentioned above. But the smiles are truly about to be wiped off when we consider the customer layer of the industry.

3. CustomerI’ve written about the lack of a brand name company in the utility industry. That is about to change. On two fronts. Tesla, one of the coolest brands in the world, just proposed to buy SolarCity, one of the leaders in the residential solar industry. By combining Tesla will own distributed generation (solar), storage and some demand (Powerwall) and more demand (electric vehicles). Putting aside the likely difficulties of combining businesses and manufacturing the 400K Teslas that were pre-sold a few months ago the utilities should be worried. Bringing a brand play to this staid market will certainly shake things up. Something else missed is that a few months agoSolarCity launched their utility-scale solar (generation) and dispatchable utility scale energy storage products. In layman's terms? SolarCity was already starting to move into the terrain of some of the utilities they have slowly been taking customers from. Between Tesla’s 450K customers and SolarCity's 300K customers all captivegeneration, demand and storage customers the combined company can be considered a sizable utility. The second brand play is by Apple, the company recently applied for a license that allows it to sell excess solar energy from its campuses. Wholesale now, retail electricity to you and I soon? Time will tell.

Granted these are experiments, especially the fibre research and Tesla/SolarCity story, but some of these experiments will succeed. The time between WorldCom building all the infrastructure that laid the groundwork for the high-speed internet we know today and the computer-in-every-pocket-world we have now is a mere 13 years. The infrastructure of landlines (analogous to the infrastructure of the centralized grid) and the steady uni-directional business model (you use the phone and you pay a fee) have given way to free phone calls to my childhood friends in Lagos over WhatsApp. In 13 years business models have been upended. Financial cycles tend to be between 7-9 years so it’s taken about two cycles for phone service provider business models to change. This power shift in the utility industry started roughly around a cycle and a half ago (2006). As the infrastructure layer becomes more distributed, the technology layer becomes more fluid and the customers pay more attention to

This power shift in the utility industry started roughly around a cycle and a half ago (2006). As the infrastructure layer becomes more distributed, the technology layer becomes more fluid and the customers pay more attention to brand at a pace that the utility has up until now never had to deal with. Business models will be forever changed and new utility companies will arise.We’ll see who will be laughing then...

Zenefits, Uber and Facebook: Who Loses When Innovation & Regulation Collide?

ZenefitsUberFacebook or Internet.org. These companies have dominated tech headlines in the past few days for the issues they are dealing with regarding policy and regulation. In the case of Uber it's been the case pretty much since inception. Some of the coverage positions the regulators as the bad guys stifling innovation: 'Damn those luddites!'. Some paint the technology companies as the villains; 'Travis Kalanick is the evil baron of our time!'. In the case of Zenefits it does seem like there was a lot of negligence and disregard for regulation.

The more thoughtful commentary cuts to the fundamental issue here and that is the conflict between the purpose of government and the purpose of business. The most crucial determinant of a system's behavior (the government or the business in this case) is the system's purpose. I talk more about this in my ebook which is currently free on Amazon. Fundamentally, both sides of regulation (government) and technology (business) pursue their own separate goals. There will always be friction between what was (and how regulation dealt with that) and what is about to be (and the inadequacy of old regulations to deal with this). That will never not be the case. Another example is the inadequacy of utility industry regulation in dealing with consumer energy data in a time when every device captures and stores data.

In all these cases what needs to happen is a shift from the ‘all regulations are constraining’ trope towards helping create enabling regulations. What gets missed in the conversation is the nature of regulation; some are enabling and help to bring the innovation or benefit to life while some are constraining by putting bounds around how much can be impacted as a result of the innovation or technology. The goal is to help inform more enabling regulations, with emphasis on the word inform not influence, and also foster an acceptance that some constraining regulations are actually for our own good! The simplest examples of constraining regulations that have been hugely beneficial that I can think of is traffic control through lane demarcations. Imagine a world where there were no lane markers on the roads because car manufacturers felt it would limit how much driving people could do...

Enabling regulation comes about by utilizing a framework where regulators

  • look at the macro system,
  • make projections about where things are going at the subsystem level (and this is where the technologists or innovators can help)
  • Engage with the citizens they are trying to serve
  • futurecast about what technology wants

and factor in all this information to create policies that enable the government achieve its ultimate aim of creating a thriving citizenry that benefits from the  innovative/new technology that the other side of this conversation is selling.

It starts from working towards the same goal or shared purpose. A greater goal When goals are at odds (as is the case in the 3 examples above) the only real losers are the consumers; they miss out on the benefits the technology can provide while the regulators and businesses are distracted. During these regulation battles the businesses keep figuring out ways to run outside of the regulations (a systems trap called 'Rule Beating') to continue growing while the regulators keep regulating.

A shared goal that will yield benefits for all the subsystems involved, especially the most important element ; you and I.

One can always dream...

Don't Plan Your Career, Lay Out Scenarios Instead

I won't bury the lede on this one; don't plan your career, a better approach is to develop a few scenarios of where you believe your industry is going and acquire the knowledge and skills that will be required to thrive in these scenarios. I'll explain how to do this.

I wrote a few articles in 2015 (OK, a lot) and the ones that got the most views/responses were focused on the future of an industry or company. Unsurprisingly, I got questioned on my ability to predict the future, people disagreed in a few cases. That's fine. My response was the same every time; I'm not actually predicting the future, I'm just laying out strategic scenarios. Second most recurring question was why I felt comfortable sharing my views on where the future lies for industries that I know little about? My response; it's easy when you apply systems thinking because one should be wary of folk who predict the future with certainty.

It’s all about systems thinking. Looking at the industry through the lens of some immutable systems truths and not placing too much weight on the short term beyond where we are in market cycles. It’s the crux of my ebook as I apply it to two industries (education and energy). 

Understanding the fundamental drivers and where your industry is going will enable you acquire the skills you need to thrive in your industry whatever the outcome of your  situation with your current company or with the company itself. It's a simple process

  1. Read and gather information on the game changing technologies within and outside your industry.
  2. Apply some Systems Thinking to the information you've gathered (I give some examples below)
  3. Lay out 2-3 scenarios for where things might go
  4. Research to gain better understanding of what skills you need to acquire  to play a leadership role in the scenarios you've laid out (#SkillsGap)
  5. Go about acquiring those skills.
  6. Stay learning

Systems Thinking Concepts to Apply for Scenario building

In the Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge advocates for the value of learning organizations. The same learning mentality applies in your acquisition of knowledge about technological advancements and the skills that will be required. Some things will always hold true, regardless of whether some of the technological advances come to be, because some systems concepts (I borrow from Donella Meadows here) will always be true. Here a few that you can use to develop your scenarios

  • Honor, respect and distribute information: the business model for some industries (e.g. insurance or credit ratings) is based on lack of transparency and hiding information from customers. Such industries, and companies that are thriving in such industries, can only do so for so long because information will always seek a way 'out'. For example the healthcare industry will end up with our individual health records belonging to us and not the insurance companies or the healthcare systems. Develop scenarios that respect this systems concept.
  • Listen to the wisdom of the systems: similar to the concept above, analog industries to yours that are further along in the system cycle will provide you a sense for possible scenarios in your industry. For example; the utility industry is moving from a centralized to a distributed generation and supply structure, similar to what happened to the telecommunications industry about 15 years ago. Listen to the systems. This concept also suggests that cross industry expertise is going to be critical in any scenario you come up with as competition will come not just from within your industry but from outsiders as well. An example is Myfitnesspal (acquired by UnderArmour) which has data on the food habits of ~80M users, expect this company to compete with insurance or health care data companies in the not so distant future . The future of companies and careers will be ruled by those who combine skills from several areas of expertise and augment it with technology to achieve their goals. Develop scenarios that recognize this.
  • Expand the time horizons: In 2013 there was a lot of talk about drones. In 2014 there was a lot of talk about drones. In 2015 there was a lot of talk about drones. In 2016.. you guessed it, there will be a lot of talk about drones. This is not because people don’t have things to talk about, it’s because until a technology becomes ubiquitous we continue to be fascinated by the possibilities. When developing scenarios, extend your time horizons to include a timeframe when the fascinating technologies of today become regular parts of our lives and work. 

Using some of these concepts you will be able to futurecast, develop scenarios and define what you need to learn to cover your #SkillsGaps and it also helps you develop a learning mentality (due to the amount of research you will have to do).  Even if none of your scenarios come to be you would have learned a lot and gained skills. You’ll need it to thrive regardless of the changes that happen around you…

Get my ebook on Systems Thinking and Scenarios here or for the interactive version check out Amazon.