Apple Watch and the Platonic ideal

Malcolm Gladwell and Spaghetti Sauce

I’ve been thinking recently about the sheer range of Apple Watch options, and the departure this represents from Apple’s past product strategy of a single SKU at launch for a new product. As I did so, I was reminded of several TED talks I’ve watched over the years on the subject of choices, and I went back and re-watched some of them. One in particular that seems very relevant to this topic is Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 talk, Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce. I’ve embedded it below in case you want to watch the whole thing – there’s also a transcript on the TED site in case you’d prefer to read the thing. I’m a Gladwell fan, generally speaking, but I know not everyone is. However, this talk is a good example of his ability to tell a good story around an ostensibly uninteresting topic, and in the process draw out some key messages.

This talk, if you haven’t seen it before, focuses on the work of a man named Howard Moskowitz, a psychophysicist (don’t know what that is? Neither does Gladwell). Moskowitz’s chief contribution to the world, as Gladwell sees it, was the invention of a concept called horizontal segmentation as applied to the food industry. The key idea here can be summed up by saying that he brought variety to product lines that had hitherto only featured a single product. The mistake, Moskowitz and Gladwell argue, that the food industry had made was to assume that there was a “Platonic dish” – a sort of ideal version of every food product that would be universally accepted as the best possible version of that thing. In reality, of course, people have different tastes, and one person’s ideal is another person’s nightmare, so you need several versions of your product to appeal to different segments. Hence the mention of spaghetti sauce in the title of the talk: Moskowitz was the one who convinced the owners of the Prego brand to diversify their offering, and specifically to introduce an extra chunky version, which became a huge success.

36 flavors of Ragu, 38 flavors of Apple Watch?

So how does all this relate to the Apple Watch? Well, what struck me as I thought about all this is that Apple has very much taken the Platonic ideal approach to its most important device, the iPhone. For seven years, there was only a single new model each year, which you might argue represented Apple’s conception of the ideal phone at that point in time. Next year, that ideal would have moved on a little, but there was still only one. A year and a half ago, Apple introduced the iPhone 5C as an alternative, but really this was just a revamped version of the previous year’s phone, and this past year Apple introduced a different spin, with two roughly equally capable phones in different sizes. Though it’s diversified a tiny bit, it’s largely stuck with the Platonic ideal approach to phones.

But now we come to watches, and the Apple Watch. One way of looking at this is that Apple has not just one Platonic ideal of a watch, but many different versions. In fact, there are 38 versions listed on Apple’s Watch gallery page, which coincidentally is quite similar to the 36 versions of Ragu Gladwell cites in his talk.  This reflects the fact that, when you move from a purely technology product to a an accessory or piece of jewelry, personal taste becomes much more important. As such, the horizontal segmentation approach comes into play, and you suddenly get an explosion of options to meet people’s different tastes and preferences (as well as body size and income).

However, I think the right way to look at all this is that there’s still just one Platonic ideal when it comes to the Watch – in terms of its functionality. The $17,000 Edition contains exactly the same technology as the $349 Sport, and it’s really just the outward appearance that’s different. In that sense, the Watch is a lot more like the iPhone than it is like the MacBook line, where there is a real difference in functionality/capability between the new MacBook, say, and the various flavors of MacBook Air and Pro. Of course, with the iPhone there are also color variations and so on to suit personal tastes, but the basic form factor remains unchanged, so no-one talks about three different “versions” of the iPhone in the same way that they’re talking about 38 versions of the Watch.

Everyone else treats devices like food

Despite the fact that Apple has largely stuck with the Platonic ideal approach for its devices, others have a different strategy. Samsung might well be the Ragu of the devices world, with many different variants designed to appeal to various market segments. Or perhaps a better analogy is the spaghetti rather than the sauce, being thrown against the wall to see whether it sticks. Apple’s approach is focused, but also limiting – I’ve often said that Apple is characterized by the limits it puts around its own addressable market. However, there are significant downsides to the opposite approach too, and not just in terms of the financial cost of a lack of scale around a single product. Another TED talk on choice comes from Sheena Iyengar, and it talks about the difficulty of making choices when presented with a myriad of options:

Interestingly, part of her talk focuses on strategies for making a plethora of choices less overwhelming, among which are categorization and concretization: i.e. divide a large number of options into broad categories, and make the category names (and therefore the differences between them) meaningful. Take a look at Apple’s 38 options and you quickly see that they’ve done both: three broad categories, with names that mean something: Watch as the broad middle category, Sport as a low-end option that could be worn while exercising, and Edition using a common descriptor associated with luxury goods. So even where Apple does offer lots of choice, it’s clear that it understands the psychological impact and has optimized for minimizing the negative impact while helping consumers to choose what’s right for them.