Jag Venugopal's Blog

June 2, 2010

Lessons from Apple’s Successes

Filed under: Business,Digital Living — Jag @ 10:16 am
When the iPad was released, I swore up and down that there was no way anyone would buy a closed system that was more expensive than a netbook and accomplished less. To say that I was mistaken was an understatement — your correspondent now has the 16GB Wi-Fi version in his gadget menagerie.
I set about trying to understand what would prompt millions to put down a minimum of $500 for a device that only replicates existing functionality available through PCs and smartphones. Here’s what I learned from Apple’s experience with the iPhone and the iPad. Most of the comparisons I make are with Microsoft and its Windows-based products, because they’re the closest competitors to Apple.
1. User experience is paramount
When purchasing an Apple product, the company controls the entire user experience, right from retail, through the hardware and software to the services that are sold with the device. And in each step, usability and user experience are key issues that are addressed. Each store has a “genius bar” where you can take your questions to, whether it be in hardware, software, services or content. Apple is the sole point of contact for most issues, whether they be hardware or software.
By contrast, with a Windows product, the user experience is a mess. In most cases, there is not a working model of the product in the store, and neither are there trained salespeople to demonstrate it. The hardware, software, drivers, peripherals and OS are all sold by different vendors. When there is a problem, much finger-pointing results. The user experience is fragmented and disjoint. The same is the case with most Sony products. The Sony outlet in Wrentham, MA has all three versions of the Sony reader available… behind glass, so no one can touch and feel the device.
2. What you won’t do is just as important as what you will do
Having a Windows PC that can run all manner of software is indeed a benefit in certain circumstances. However with the Apple iPad, less is more. They won’t run Flash. And I’m inclined to give Steve Jobs the benefit of the doubt when he states that the reason they won’t allow Flash on the device is because its buggy and a power hog. You cannot download applications from all over the Internet and download it on the iPad. Developers are constrained to use Apple’s APIs and development tools. 
With the iPad, you cannot develop software on it, cannot run arbitrary applications not downloaded from the App Store, and there are no USB ports for peripherals.  The mail client does not have spam filters. The Safari browser does not have any extension widgets like Firefox has.
In the bargain, you get a device that is very fast for what it does do. The iPad is a device that is positioned for consuming content, between a smartphone and a PC. Content includes audio, video, books, news and the web. Virtually everyone that has used it agrees that it’s great at what it does (which is limited).
3. You succeed by getting people excited
When the iPad was first released, cartoonists had a field day depicting Steve Jobs coming down like Moses from the mountain, holding an iPad in each hand, with the masses waiting for him. While some levity was intended, there was a fair amount of truth, too. Before any Apple release, people can be seen lined up outside stores waiting for them to open. 
Consider another data point, closer to home: we wandered into the Apple store in Natick, MA one night. My six year old son happened to try one of the demonstration iPads in the store. He immediately got excited and declared that he had to have the device. Better still, he said, buy two. One for daddy and one for me.
While we may laugh over the fanaticism of the Apple fanboys, we also need to acknowledge that Apple has created a buzz surrounding its products that makes eager and enthusiastic fans out of customers. When was the last time people got excited at a Steve Ballmer speech? When was the last time people lined up overnight for a Microsoft product?
4. Sophistication = ease of use
Most of us conflate sophistication with additional knobs, buttons, tweaks, bells and whistles. If something has a lot of dials and buttons, it must be very sophisticated, right? Wrong! A sophisticated device ought to be easier to use, not harder. By any reckoning the iPad hardware and software are pretty sophisticated, right down to the 3-d icons. Are they more difficult to use than, say, Windows? Emphatically not!
On the other hand, the complexity of Windows seems to be about the same or increasing with each release. I can’t speak for Windows 7, but with Vista, setting up a home network can be quite the chore. Much worse, in fact, than the corresponding Windows XP experience.
5. Build it, and they will come
 When the iPad was first introduced, it was derided as nothing but an oversized iPhone without the phone and camera. But if sales are any indication, the acceptance trajectory is steeper than even the iPhone’s way back in 2007. With hindsight, I believe that the reason the iPad succeeded was because it is a paradigm-changing product. It defies conventional notions of what a computer ought to be. to Apple’s credit, they had the courage to invest in a product that no one had ever imagined, much less wanted.
Contrast this with the Microsoft Tablet PC release of a year ago. It was a thin veneer of stylus-sensitivity grafted on to the existing Windows model, without any consideration given to improving the interface for touch. For them, the stylus acted merely as a different kind of mouse. 
Most products from Sony, Dell or Microsoft incorporate incremental improvements, if that. Clearly the market values innovation, and they’re willing to pay a premium price for Apple’s products and its shares.
6. Great hardware requires great software
If I were to look at hardware alone, I love Sony. They made some of the most beautiful Walkmans (Walkmen?) out there in their day. Even with the onset of digital music, they made digital MP3 CD players and Walkmans that were a joy to hold and behold. Alas, their software sucked rocks. Those that suffered through it will agree that Sony’s Connect software singlehandedly made it a non-entity in the digital music player market. Sony appears to be repeating the same blunders with its eReaders. The Sony Pocket Reader (which I own) is an amazing little device, let down by miserable software.
Apple’s software (on-device and on the PC) is head-and-shoulders above the likes of Sony and even Microsoft. While I find iTunes to be slow, I would rather put up with iTunes than deal with Windows Media Player any day. Within the device, there is no comparison between, say, Apple’s iPhone/iPad software and any version of Windows Mobile.
 7. Touch is fundamentally different from the mouse
HP valiantly tried to make a slate device with Windows 7, before throwing in the towel. There is now talk of selling the slate running Palm’s soon-to-be-acquired WebOS. A blogger on the web used mouse-overs as an example of why touch OS’es need to be designed from the ground up. Windows 7 uses desktop widgets such as mouse-overs that have no meaning in the touch world. Neither for that matter do numerous tiny widgets such as checkboxes, radio buttons, tabs and the like. Touch is inherently imprecise. It requires larger widgets to accommodate the size of a human finger, and it requires fewer of them. Spend a week with the iPad and you will realize that every aspect of its GUI is designed specifically for touch, and not a mouse paradigm grafted over.
8. You can make good money off the consumer market
Microsoft, Dell and HP are conspicuous by their absence in the consumer space. Sure, Microsoft sells Windows 7 and the modibund Zune, and Dell and HP sell various desktops to consumers, but fundamentally, the consumer is an afterthought for them. Business sales are their bread and butter. Apple’s recent success has showed that a computer company can make money, and lots of it, by building an entire infrastructure around consumers.
 9. One tyrannical genius can produce products better than a hundred mediocre saints
Stories of Steve Jobs’s tyranny and hubris are legion. Whether it is his abrasive late night arguments with bloggers, or his total and absolute “No” to Adobe on Flash, its clear he’s in charge. However there is no gainsaying his contribution to Apple’s success (anyone remember the pre-Jobs, Gil Amelio days?). The company has put out hit after hit under his watch. Not just products, but products with revenue streams that continue long after the sale (iTunes, iPhone fees, App Store, etc).
The open source movement has a number of well-meaning, equally intelligent people. Yet, not one has come up with a game-changing idea in the mode of Steve Jobs. It can be argued that this is an unfair comparison — open source contributors often work for no money. But, keep in mind, I am not looking for out of the box implementations, I am looking for out of the box ideas. The less said about Microsoft’s many managers, the better. They have done a good job of turning Microsoft into a version of pre-Gerstner IBM.
10. Design matters
Apple’s computers and peripherals are all designed to be functional and beautiful. By contrast, anything that’s available on Windows (with the possible exception of some Sony Vaio laptops) is made of black or beige plastic, and looks like it was put together by the lowest bidder. It is no wonder that consumers of Windows compatible hardware scour around the Internet looking for the cheapest components (there’s nothing to differentiate them from the rest of the pack). Apple on the other hand, sells its PC’s for 2-3 times as much. The iPhone and iPad are not cheap either, but have people lining up to buy them. No one hears of people standing in line to buy a Dell PC, a Samsung phone or an HP handheld. They’re generic. Apple stands out for its design.
Postscript: For an example of truly ghastly design, I present you the Aluratek Libre e-Reader.

1 Comment »

  1. I could not agree with you more–especially with respect to Point Number 1! I was recently in the market for a phone up-grade…and a new “smartfone” specifically. When I’d visit all the various “showrooms” where they tether the display models, I always walk away ambivalent since virtually none of them worked at all, or very well at best.

    Then one evening I was in Best Buy and it was a “slow nite” for the fone people, so when one of the clerks saw me fiddling with one model in particular–she said, “You know, it’s a slow evening, I have a functioning fone for you to look at an try if you want.” What a great experience–I made a decision to buy within 5 minutes of being able to experience the effects; prior to this, I’d been kicking the tires for months!

    Experience–especially with the high-priced electronic gadgets–clinches the sale…In my opinion. Nice set of observations. While I don’t own an iPad yet, all my direct, hands-on observations and experience bear out the points you make. –KBM.

    Comment by Keith B Murray — June 10, 2010 @ 6:29 pm | Reply

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