Strategizing for NASA, Part 7: Apple and Counteracting the Forces of Technological Obsolescence

The birth, near-death, and comeback of Apple is a topic of interest for a variety of reasons. Whether it is the leadership style of Steve Jobs, or the development of a lock-in model that increases the willingness to pay on the part of consumers, Apple is a rich, fertile ground for exploring a variety of business case studies. Today’s examination of strategy covers none of these. Instead, today’s focus is on technology, its evolution, and the difficulty of keeping pace in today’s world – with Apple as a key example. This examination of technological obsolescence has a direct implication to a future strategy for human spaceflight.

A 2012 case study1 of Apple examined the waves of technology generation that occur with time, and observed how extremely difficult it is to maintain a strategic advantage from generation to generation. Apple succeeded early with one of the first commercially available computers with a graphical user interface targeted for the consumer in the mid-1980’s, then rapidly lost ground to the highly successful Wintel duopoly of the mid-1990’s through early 2000’s. Today, the Wintel duopoly is struggling with the latest wave in computing – mobile – whereas Apple is succeeding with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. As for the next wave of technology, is wearable computing next? Who will succeed, and who will fail? The answer to that question is tied strategy; the conclusion drawn from the Apple experience is that those who evolve strategy to ride the next wave are more likely to succeed than those who do not.

In considering waves of technology evolution and human spaceflight, there are numerous examples to explore. One such example is the Mission Control Center complex in Houston. Built in the mid-1960’s, it contained state-of-the-art command, control, and computational capabilities for its time, and remained near the forefront of those capabilities for almost 30 years. That’s how advanced it was for its time. But times have changed. Instead of leading, most of the capabilities available today in it and other similar Government-provided command, control, and computational facilities often lag the current “state-of-the-art.” This is due to a variety of causes: large fixed cost investments constrained by tight budgets, lengthy procurement cycles, and general bureaucracy. (An example of the latter is compliance with Section 516 of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013, Public Law 113-6, which prohibits the purchase of information technology from any firms with ties to China.) The change of position relative to technology in this example is not due to any fault of the dedicated workers. Instead, it’s a sign that it is extremely difficult to keep pace with the rapid advancement of technology and waves of technological obsolescence under the current strategic framework.

The key point is this: it is critical for an organization to recognize that whatever constitutes strategic advantage will eventually change. Strategy, to remain successful and relevant, must evolve with the waves of technological advance. Applied to human spaceflight at NASA, it is fair to assert that leaders must lead the way for evolving the human spaceflight strategy at NASA to push it to the technological forefront. Failure to develop a strategic direction to counteract the forces of technological obsolescence may lead to obsolescence of the organization itself.

Next Time: Conclusion

Previous entries in this series:
Part 1: The United States Postal Service and the Porter Five Forces
Part 2: Disney and the Resources Based View
Part 3: DARPA, Kodak, and Wiring Innovation
Part 4: The FBI and Transformational Change
Part 5: Veridian and the Role of Reputation and Culture
Part 6: Walmart in China and CAGE Differences


1Rossano, P. & Yoffie, D. (August 14, 2012). Apple, Inc. in 2012. HBS 9-712-490. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

Strategizing for NASA, Part 7: Apple and Counteracting the Forces of Technological Obsolescence