“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day." -- E.B. White
There was a time, during the PC Wars, when Apple customers had a special passion for Macs. It was derived from the industrial design of Macs and the OS, but propelled by the fact that businesses wanted to buy the cheapest PCs for their employees. Fast forward to now when every Apple competitor seems able to copy the iPhone and iPad. Where did all that Mac passion go?
It wasn't very long ago when Apple was not a player in modern consumer electronics. In 1999, Apple's strength was quickly becoming the industrial design of its Macintoshes. Gone were the bland, even ugly Performa models, and with Jonathan Ive, Apple was able to excite its customer base with exciting new products like the PowerMac G3, a curvy beauty that made PCs of the time look ridiculously bad. For reference, here's a video of the PMG3's introduction.
Later, as I recall in one memorable demo, Phil Schiller demonstrated how, with no screwdriver, using only a single finger, he could open the side of the PowerMac G3 and lay out its innards for easy access and upgrades. That stood in stark contrast to sheet metal aluminum PCs that were screwed together.
Apple PowerMac G3 from 1999
Meanwhile, businesses, locked into the loving attention that Microsoft provided with Windows, Outlook and MS Office, were buying the cheapest PCs in order to keep costs down. There was a common thread back then: employees doing word processing and spreadsheets didn't need the fastest, most expensive, exotic Intel CPUs. The very low end, mundane PCs of the time were sufficient for their work, managers claimed. This wearied and frustrated corporate employees who used a boring PC by day but many went home and used a glorious, beautiful PowerMac by night.
Remenber these crappy PCs from 1998? Credit: Nicospilt.
There was much passion in the Apple world about that.
Fast Forward to the Consumer Era
While it made sense for Apple to take the high road in the 1990s and early 2000s, Apple was forever bound to single digit market share and constrained growth. Something had to change, and the story has been told over and over. Steve Jobs introduced the iPod in October 2001. That changed everything.
In this new era of consumer electronics, Apple became fabulously successful with the iPod, then the iPhone and then the iPad. But what Apple gained in financial success and the dawn of the Post-PC era, it lost in its leverage against the business mentality of cheap PCs. The era of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) started to emerge, and businesses were all too happy to dispense with the cost of providing their employees phones and tablets.
In concert with the BYOD era was the fact that Apple's competitors no longer had to focus solely on supplying cheap PCs to business. Instead, they could copy Apple's iPhone and iPad. The copying got so bad, as we know, that Apple had to take competitors to court for copying their iPhone and iPad designs.
While Apple pursues this litigation, today's mobile devices share many similarities making it harder to differentiate through industrial design alone. The physical differentiation, then, isn't nearly so great as the PC comparison above, and that can be deceptive.
I am getting the feeling that the lack of stellar physical differentiation has analysts worried about Apple. It's one reason why observers, new to analyzing Apple, see Apple as having peaked. Based on the observed facts of design, pricing and features, it appears that Apple has been overcome by the mighty manufacturing of Samsung and the mighty idea machine of Google.
Apple's Mantra Continues
In any industry, with any product, customers come to understand which companies simply make the best. For example, GM makes very nice, high performance, luxury Cadillacs. And yet, the BMW 3-series sedan made the Car & Driver Top Ten list for the 22nd year in a row in 2013. No Cadillac was on the 2013 final list, even though the Cadillac XTS was nominated. The BMW 3-series still has that special something; the whole is more than the sum of the parts. It affects the customer perception. It's not how it looks, though the BMWs are beautiful, or the features, but how it feels to drive it.
The same is true of modern consumer electronics; it's not a question of features. We know from modern-day analysis that competing on features alone is not going to win the day for Apple. Touching two S4s together or a rarely usable NFC chip makes a few geeks feel smug and might seduce some buyers into believing that Samsung has taken the lead in smartphones, but by and large, there is another effect going on.
Just as the BMW has that hard-to-pinpoint feeling of satisfaction, the iPhone's OS, display and feel in the hand define the iPhone as the best-in-class. That's Tim Cook's mantra, expressed frequently. Apple only wants to build the best products in the world.
The next generation of products will sort itself out in time. Sometimes, we need a technology breakthrough in order to make that next leap. Unfortunately, many observers believe that Apple has to somehow create a new product category, the Next Big Thing, right now, in order to surge ahead again and explicitly fuel our passions. See, for example, "The Source of Craving for Apple’s Next BIG Thing." However, we know that whatever Apple comes up with in the consumer space, it will always be copied. So that's a bankrupt approach.
Apple is dealing with this on two levels. The first, as I mentioned above, it to always build the best in a way that telegraphs to the customer what Apple is all about. This alone is fueling Apple's success. For example, Tim Cook has described how the optics of the iPhone display create a subjective impression of quality that people can't quite put their finger on. (No pun intended.) This quality factor is just one vector that affects how people feel.
For example, the way I imagine it is to invoke an often used technique: create a vector for each of the major factors for customer selection: price, features, quality and security, like this:
Orange: Android devices, Purple: iOS Devices
While competitors may be able to equal Apple on some vectors, good price and good features, they cannot compete on all vectors. The area under the polygon can be taken to represent a subjective feel for the product as a whole. This is why Apple must continue to maintain that walled garden of security and why Apple must make the best, not the cheapest product: to maximize that area under the curve, that subjective feeling that this is the product we want. Go back and look at Jonathan Ive's opening comment in the video above about the PowerMac G3 at timestamp 0m47s. He points to a Mac and describes the reaction that he wants the customer to feel: "I really want that."
That's why, despite a recent, long lull in new product introductions, millions of people were going into Apple retail stores and thinking, "I really want that!" It fueled Apple's continued financial success in early 2013.
Ive in 1999 when he had hair. From the YouTube video above.
"I really want that!"
The second approach is for Apple to utilize its heritage and R&D capabilities to accurately judge where we need to go from here. You can almost sense that in Apple's recent TV ad, a video vision statement if you will. While Apple keeps making products that people look at and want right now, internally, they're working on the next thing that most people will really need and will want. That can't be said of Google Glass today.
All of the above explains why Apple continues to succeed. And thrive. Despite the misplaced angst of some observers, the aching for the past when Macs simply embarrassed PCs, Apple's vision continues unabated. It's there, baked into every Apple product, if you know where to look for it. If you can feel it. The thought, "I really want that!" is the passion that's overlooked today in a frenzied desire for tomorrow's Next Big Thing.
Teaser image, kid in longing via Shutterstock.