Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Applessence

So, on the eve (actually morn) of Apple's latest -- and ostensibly greatest -- announcement (of the so-called iSlate or iTablet), and possibly the Great Steven P Jobs' last significant product launch gig before he passes on to his reserved throne on Mount Olympus, here are my thoughts on what Apple has wrought, over it's 35-odd year history.

Most people associate Apple with innovation, and more narrowly, design. Since, "to innovate", by definition, means to bring something new into being, most people assume or claim that Apple, being an innovator, is the first out the gate with some category of product. Microsoft, on the other hand, always follow someone else's lead, usually Apple's and is therefore an imitator, not an innovator, goes the argument. Such reasoning, unfortunately, oversimplifies the reality; indeed, the situation doesn't merit even simplification for this obscures or confounds the truth.

Apple has never been the first out with any category of product: before the Apple ][ (or even Apple I) there was the Altair, and several other personal computers; Apple didn't invent personal computing. Before the Apple Macintosh and desktop publishing was the Xerox Alto and Star and Xerox laser printers. Before the iPod were several brands of MP3-based music players, most notably, Creative Labs' Nomad. Before the iPhone was the Palm Treo and RIM Blackberry. And before the much anticipated iSlate, there have been several Windows or non-Windows based tablet computing platforms. And of course, before Pixar, there was Walt Disney.

What Apple does bring to the party is not entirely new products or new categories -- in this respect, Apple is hardly better than Microsoft. Apple's most significant contribution is in designing products that look and feel and most importantly, work, better. While there is likely a great deal of earth-shaking innovation happening in Apple Labs, from a market perspective, Apple has never innovated for innovation's sake: which is why it has never been the first out with a product category. On occasion, when it has tried to pioneer product categories, it has flopped, miserably, as in the case of the Apple Newton.

Most of Apple's efforts at innovation have been to generate better designs, not new product categories, or even new markets. Apple looks at an existing market and says to itself, how can we seize or grow this market through better design? Apple looked at the portable music player market and seized it through the excellently designed iPod. They looked at the music publishing market and gained access to it through a better music distribution service, iTunes. They looked at the cellphone market and are in the process of turning it upside down through the versatile iPhone.

Apple focuses attention on markets and systematically investigates how innovation can help them enter, expand, transform and dominate existing markets through better design. Now, it might appear that this is what other corporations do: conduct market research, and introduce products that meet market needs.

It isn't.

Apple never seeks to meet market needs -- Apple's goal is to absolutely stun the market into submission through better design. Apple's products are never ho-hum -- they seek to make customers and reviewers crave obsessively for their products. Apple never comes down to the market's level -- it dictates terms to the market. Once they begin dominating a market, they begin steering it in the direction they wish it to go.

Human beings are attuned not only to functionality, but to beauty and aesthetics. Just the one or the other alone may not hold a person's interest very long, but the two in combination make for a highly potent mix. Apple also never complicates its offerings. At least initially, Apple's products do one thing extremely well. Anybody can comprehend Apple's products without even trying.


Apple is unttainable and yet Apple's products are accessible. Apple tantalizes customers with the hope that some day they might become as worthy of praise as its products; but for now, they hope that some of the shine from Apple products rubs off onto them merely by being in their close proximity.

Now that, to me, appears to be the secret to Apple's magic.

Update:

Also read Why the Apple Tablet is a Games Changer by Robert Fabricant

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