The retirement of Steve Jobs led me to think about what it was that has made Apple so different from all the other tech companies I have watched over the past 34 years since I purchased my first Apple computer.
I think the difference is that Apple genuinely wanted to deliver the very best experience for the customer. You may think that many other companies have the same goal, but I don’t think so.
Does Dell have that goal? I don’t think so. They have focused on delivering a product that was equivalent to their competition, but at a slightly lower price. Dell makes fine computers, but they don’t offer anything that is unique. If the price is right, any Dell customer would switch to an alternative supplier.
Does Microsoft have that goal? I don’t think so. They have focused on building a moat around their operating system and office software, so that their customers would be locked into purchasing upgrades every year or so. Their customers may be satisfied with the software, but mostly they stick with Microsoft because they perceive the cost of switching (mainly the cost of re-training users) to be too high. New versions of Windows and Office are adopted very slowly and tentatively by their major users, are clear sign that those customers are not expecting a glorious experience.
I worked for a major Japanese company, and it had a genuine desire to deliver a trouble-free product. They went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the product would not fail or confuse the customer. And they went to great lengths to ensure every technology was patented or licensed, so as to avoid any possible legal problems. But avoidance of problems is not the same as best experience for the customer.
Avoidance of problems leads to a fear of failure. It leads to conservative products, launched slowly after much technical and legal review. The products tend to be over engineered, and designed by comittee.
But Apple is different. It does not look to its competitors for inspiration. It looks at its customers, and finds areas where the customers desires are not met by the existing solutions.
The Apple ][ was unique. A solidly built PC, with generous expansion capabilities, supplied with source code for the built-in software, schematics for the hardware. For the first time, the computer user could take home a personal computer that just worked. And the computer hobbyist had almost unlimited opportunity to expand the device.
The Macintosh was unique. It introduced the world to mice, windows, and the desktop metaphor. It was unlike any other computer you could buy at the time, but went on to be copied by every other computer manufacturer.
The iPod is not merely another MP3 player. It is an ecosystem that creates a seamless environment encompassing music selection, purchase and consumption.
The Macbook Air is not merely a slim laptop. It is a radically different device – fast, light, sturdy with long battery life, with software that was both powerful, simple and empowering.
The iPhone is not merely a “smart” phone. It was a radically different device, combining the functions of a phone, laptop and MP3 player in a way that was seamless and felt natural. At launch, nobody else had any devices that were remotely comparable. But the concept was so “obvious” and immediately appealing, that every phone company immediately rushed to market a similar device. In just one day, Apple went from a complete unknown in the phone industry to market leader with everybody else playing catch-up.
The iPad was in a class of its own. Before the iPad, nobody else had been able to create a desirable tablet. Windows without a mouse of keyboard is just plain clunky. And a notebook without a keyboard is still a brick.
These products were not created by a company that is watching its competitors and trying to go 1 better. They are created by a company that ignores its competition, and focuses on the needs of its customers. Their products are not always “great”, but they were all built with a genuine desire to be provide the best experience for the customer.
The first version of each of Apple’s products mentioned above were not “great”, but they steadily improved their products, smoothing the rough edges, removing unneeded features, and streamlining the user experience. Apple hasn’t waited for the competitors to catch up – it has steadfastly ignored the competition and instead focused on the customer experience.
Perhaps companies should pay less attention to their competitors, and more attention to their customers. What do you think?