Sorting out the wheat from the chaff


If you’re trying to judge the prospects of your current employer — or one you’re considering trying to move to — you need to be cognizant of their true situation.

Let’s take Apple as an example, since, with the iPhone 5 product launch last month, it’s been in the news a fair bit lately.

If you judged the company by the technology press, the iPhone 5/iOS 6 was an abject failure. Article after article has appeared criticizing the company for simultaneously not pushing the envelope much farther than it did — the new product is evolutionary, not revolutionary — and for making any changes to the existing product.

Writers in the technology space get paid to anticipate possible trends. Much like the whisper numbers used in the stockbroking community to anticipate corporate results, the ideas these writers put out there take on a life of their own. Then, on product announcement day, what appears is “how the actual item compares to the mythological one worked up over the past few months” as opposed to how it might do in the market on its own merits.

Result? A lot of press about how the company is making mistakes and on the road to ruin.

Lost in the noise about “missing revolutions” and “changed ports” is the actual sales data — two million day one orders, compared to one million for the predecessor product. Does this sound like a company in trouble to you?

Now, buried in all this noise was one item of solid, real critique that did provide a weak early signal of trouble, and that’s the changes to the Maps application. Apple switched from using Google Maps to one of its own design — one with major flaws and a loss of features from what had been shipped earlier.

Apple and Google, of course, are competitors. Both know that there is revenue potential in controlling access to a mapping application — linked advertising, for one.

Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, has issued a public apology for the poor state of the new Maps application. That shows damage control at work. Since Apple can push updated versions of the app out through the App Store update process, and through software updates to iOS, it can now follow that apology with fixes designed to close the gap their move created.

But what does a smartphone business depend on? The developers of other apps — and this hasn’t disturbed that in the slightest.

So the ups and downs of the share price, the bleatings of the technology press (already the articles are appearing about what features iPhone 6 should have), and the like are noise. Apple’s response to their true stumble (and all firms have them) with Maps is the signal buried within it.

One of the last places you’ll get a decent signal out of the noise, by the way, with this particular market is with the carriers. All of the carriers have announced the new iPhone in their retail outlets — there’s a clear difference to their business if they don’t have this product (or are thought of as not having it) — but right now their advertising and counter staff are busy pushing competitive products.

Why? Apple has been the most effective manufacturer at controlling their product in the carrier channel. It doesn’t get carrier additions put on it. Everyone sells it at the same price. No one gets to brand the product and subsume Apple’s brand.

In other words, the carrier makes a little more money if they can direct you to another product — and maintains, a little longer, their control of the channel to market.

You can apply similar thinking (and there are many other factors not discussed here that are also a part of that) to any market segment and any set of companies in it. From that, you can begin to see if you are in the right division with a firm, in the right competitor within a market, or whether the segment itself has troubles and it’s time to consider moving on before the troubles hit.

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