Why Apple Wins? (Part 3)

8/17/2012 11:31:55 AM

NOT UNLIKE THE iPad today, it was deliberately presented more like an appliance than a computer. You weren’t supposed to tinker with it, or think very much about it at all; you were supposed to take it as it was and let it assist in your work as transparently as possible. Pondering which model to choose or installing a new graphics card wouldn’t get your work done; why would you want to waste your time on the computer itself?

Description: New iPad, 2012

New iPad, 2012

After Steve Jobs was ousted in 1985, having released just five computers in a decade, the product range expanded to accommodate dozens of Macs and a variety of peripherals. When Jobs returned, he cut out all but the core. Printers, scanners, hard drives, the Newton - everything that wasn’t a Mac was dumped, and the number of Macs was severely pruned.

Even today, with iPods and iOS devices expanding the Apple line-up, the dedication to simplicity is clear. There are only two OS versions (plus Server), for example, compared to Windows, which has at least three desktop versions depending on how you’re counting, a mobile phone version, and now two similar but different tablet versions.

At the HP UK store for laptops, you can choose from 21 machines of various screen sizes and specs, and that’s before you even pick your processor, memory, graphics and hard disk options. Apple has two clearly delineated notebook ranges, each available in two sizes, plus the Retina MacBook Pro. Last month, it updated every model at the same time, an approach that avoids confusion and leaves buyers’ choices feeling familiar and consistent for as long as possible.

Not tweaking every model at every opportunity for the sake of a ‘New!’ sticker does mean some products can fall behind the latest specs. The current iMac is a year old, for example, and the Mac mini soon will be. PCs from the likes of Dell are updated much more frequently. Yet the likes of Dell are struggling to get them off the shelves, while Mac sales are rising. Apple chief financial officer Peter Oppenheimer recently reported that Mac channel inventory stood at three to four weeks, indicating stock is turning over quickly despite the lack of updates and there are no stockpiles old machines that nobody wants. Specs really aren’t everything.

Description: Public service announcement Apple advertises experiences, not specifications

Public service announcement Apple advertises experiences, not specifications

THE CYNICAL VIEW of Apple’s success in hardware is that its machines are nothing special, but are cleverly marketed. For all the talk of innovation, critics suggest, Cupertino is still peddling a WIMP interface on an x86-based PC; what’s really changed in the last 20 years except the colour?

The first problem with this argument is that it’s pretty difficult to point to any manufacturer that’s innovated more than Apple. Sony, Dell and HP have tried new things here and there, but none has stuck. All-in-one computers existed before the iMac, but 1998’s translucent blob changed the way people looked at PCs, ditching cumbersome legacy components for good measure; and neither the white polycarbonate G5 nor the aluminium unibody Intel iMac have been surpassed. The likes of IBM and Sony had thin and light notebook PCs before the MacBook Air, of course, but the Air still drew gasps with its knife-edge taper, and the current generation of Ultrabook PCs is, at its best, a direct and shameless rip-off.

When other manufacturers shout about innovation, what they tend to mean is gimmicks. Dell’s Inspiron Duo laptop, with its swivelling screen, was barely out of the factory gate before it was dumped. The HP TouchPad carried hopes of a serious rival to the iPad, but disappeared in an unceremonious fire sale. Acer’s Iconia dual-touchscreen tablet PC is just ridiculous - but available now at attractive discounts, if you’re interested.

Description: The HP TouchPad

Apple certainly does have a unique and effective approach to marketing. It’s analysed by Simon Sinek, an author and teacher of strategic communications at Columbia University, in a TED Conference talk. ‘If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this: “We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. Want to buy one?” “Meh.” And that’s how most of us communicate. That’s how most marketing is done, that’s how most sales is done...

‘Here’s how Apple actually communicates. “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?” Totally different, right? You’re ready to buy a computer from me. All I did was reverse the order of the information. What it proves to us is that people don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.’

Sinek has a point here, but also misses one. Apple marketing is at its best when it doesn’t present much information at all, in any order. The ‘1984’ TV ad for the first Macintosh, for example - aired only once, in that year, during the Super bowl - expressed the iconoclasm Sinek refers to by showing an action heroine throwing a sledgehammer into a giant screen representing Big Brother. It didn’t move on to a list of the Mac’s benefits. It said nothing about the computer at all.

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