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What Apple Can Learn from Airwalk

When I was a teenager in the 1990s, Airwalk shoes were all the rage. They were a mandatory accessory for grunge-oriented youths, along with plaid shirts and corduroy pants. The company was founded in 1986, and in its heyday in the 1990s, it had grown to be the third-largest sneaker brand, behind only Nike and Adidas. Today’s teens have undoubtedly never even heard of Airwalk sneakers, which are now found on the bargain rack at Payless Shoesource. What happened?

Wait, this is TidBITS, not a fashion magazine, so why am I talking about shoes? Keep reading. I’m about to tell you a story that may sound chillingly familiar.

Airwalk began as a niche shoe for professional skateboarders. Skating legend Tony Hawk (who starred in an eponymous video game that ran on the Mac, along with many other platforms) was one of their first customers, and actually suggested the name. Much of Airwalk’s early popularity was due to getting input from skaters to create superior skateboarding shoes that wouldn’t cause blisters or crashes.

Airwalk had a healthy business, but it didn’t hit the big time until it hired advertising firm Lambesis to run an ultra-chic, counter-cultural ad campaign. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “The Tipping Point,” Airwalk was a $16 million company in 1993. In 1994, it was a $44 million company. In 1995, it was a $150 million company.

To satisfy the vast influx of teenage customers while keeping skateboarders and boutique shops happy, Airwalk developed a two-tier strategy. It sold cheaper, consumer-grade shoes to mainstream retailers like Footlocker while continuing to provide pricier, professional-grade shoes to boutique shops.

But Airwalk’s success didn’t last. The company’s troubles began in 1997 as production problems led to limited back-to-school supplies. Meanwhile, its lineup had become stale, with few new models. Worst of all, Airwalk abandoned its professional line of shoes. Serious skaters dropped Airwalk, causing the brand to lose its cachet with teens, and it wasn’t long before Airwalk’s time in the sun was over.

A smallish company exploding due to quality products and a hip ad campaign. A product line that split into both consumer and professional tiers to provide different price points and features. A company that was later plagued by production problems, stagnant product designs, and ignoring its professional market. Does that sound like another company you can think of?

Airwalk might have skated along for a while with its old designs and made peace with retailers, but abandoning its key market of hardcore skaters was what drove it into market irrelevance.

In terms of managing supply chains and industrial design, Apple has a pair of superstars in Tim Cook and Jony Ive (to the extent Ive is still involved in product design, anyway). And Apple no longer worries about disappointing retailers, having opened hundreds of its own stores. More concerning is how Apple is treating its professional users. Let’s itemize a few of the ways Apple has moved away from the professional market over the past five years:

  • Killing the Xserve
  • Dumbing down Final Cut Pro with Final Cut Pro X
  • Replacing the pro app Aperture with the consumer-level Photos
  • Increasing burdensome restrictions on Mac App Store apps
  • Releasing a new Mac Pro without internal expandability
  • Failing to update that Mac Pro for over 3 years
  • Delaying updates to the MacBook Pro line for nearly 18 months
  • Releasing a new MacBook Pro that has drawn criticism from professionals
  • Showing a lack of support for automation by eliminating the position of Product Manager of Automation Technologies

We’re not alone in saying that Apple is now the iPhone company (see “Understanding Apple’s Marginalization of the Mac,” 21 November 2016). That’s where most of its profit comes from, and so that’s where most of its resources go. Fair enough.

But, here’s the thing: the Mac and the capabilities it provides to professionals are the foundation of that iPhone business. Die-hard Mac users kept Apple afloat in the dark years before the iPod and then iPhone. And even now, regardless of all other professional uses of the Mac, developers need Xcode on the Mac to create iOS apps.

Apple still has many things in its favor: $241 billion in cash, massive profits every quarter, one of the most popular brands in the world, and nearly 500 successful retail stores. And it might seem odd to criticize Apple now, especially when the company just broke a quarterly record with the most iPhone and Mac sales ever (helped by new iPhone and MacBook Pro models, plus the holiday shopping season, see “Apple Sees Apparent Return to Growth with Q1 2017’s Record Results,” 31 January 2017). But as we saw with Airwalk, things could go downhill fast if professional users were to leave the platform, taking with them all the people and organizations they currently keep loyal to Apple

I don’t want to be too hard on Apple. The company is still incredibly strong and is doing better in some areas where it has been weak. By many accounts, Final Cut Pro X has improved greatly since its initial release, and some professional movie makers are giving it a chance. App Store review times are plummeting, and Apple is planning to allow developers to respond directly to App Store reviews. Swift is an exciting new programming language with a bright future, and it’s suitable for both compiled apps and scripts.

You might argue that Apple and Airwalk aren’t comparable. For instance, although it may have gotten its start providing athletic shoes, Airwalk ultimately became a fashion company. But isn’t Apple similar in many respects? Apple opened its doors with the Apple I hobby kit, and by the mid-2000s, the iPod and its white earbuds were fashion mainstays. The Apple Watch is clearly intended to be a fashion item today. Even the MacBook, with its prominent usage in coffee shops, airports, and other public places, makes its own fashion statement.

Despite these similarities, Apple is a much, much larger company than Airwalk ever was. Plus, Apple is making so much money and has so much cash that it can afford many more missteps than a plucky young footwear company. Perhaps most important, Apple can learn from the example of companies like Airwalk that fell from grace after losing sight of their most influential users. Here’s hoping Apple realizes the danger of diverting too much attention away from the Mac and its professional users.

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