The more I think about it, the more intriguing it becomes. How on earth can a company get everything – just about everything – right, in the mind-mindbogglingly complex world of consumer electronics, with established deep-pocketed players, a demanding and hence extremely fickle consumer mindset and booming technology that renders every novel thing “so yesterday” in a few months (or even few weeks) time?
I am talking about Apple. The half-eaten fruit that has fully eaten up many players, digested them and thrown them out of its arse.
Let me begin with some quite shockingly iconoclastic traits that the Apple devices possess:
- When everyone is asking for more features to be packed into the tiniest of packages, how can an iPod have just one clickwheel, no in-line recording and no FM radio?
- When it’s all about showing off your personality and hence the colour of your device, how can you have a music player with just one colour (the colourful iPods came much later, it was just plain white for a very long time)
- Apple has legendary marketing and branding skills. We all know that. But then, how can you create probably the only portable device in the entire history of portable devices that doesn’t have your name and logo on the front of the device (and lose the opportunity to have it appearing in photographs across the print media when a new device is launched)
- When variety is the flavour of the season, how can you have just one kind of iPod for a long time? Even today, there is only one iPhone. One look, one set of features. (if we ignore relatively minor things such as OS upgrades, internal memory etc., that is). Look at Nokia. Look at just their N series. How many varieties? How can just one phone model give all other high-end phones a run for their money?
- Today standardization and flexibility is the name of the game. Give us standard micro USB chargers and USB interface. Give us standard bluetooth control. Standard memory cards. Standard video support (e.g. DivX support). In such times, how can you create a device that doesn’t support any standard video formats, doesn’t allow you to put a memory card of your own, doesn’t support standard bluetooth control features, doesn’t allow you to replace battery or memory and doesn’t have a standard USB interface? How?
I have probably said enough. Apple is by far one of the greatest iconoclasts of our times that has repeatedly proved several trade pundits (who tried to predict consumer preferences and market trends) wrong, left, right, top and bottom. I can’t help but marvel at the ability of Steve Jobs to make decisions that in retrospect could have looked like an organized suicide.
Now-a-days, every time a new top-end phone is launched, News headlines go ballistic crying “iPhone killer” all over. Let alone killing, these phones are not even within close distance of iPhone, a phenomenon that it is. While most of these much-publicised devices have failed to latch on to consumer sentiments, iPhone has only grown. And grown fast selling millions each year. There are phones out there with all kind of features that are in vogue today. In contrast, iPhone releases just one feature at a time and still consumers suck up to it. And every time it releases a new feature, it makes a lot of money charging for additional features. Like the recent OS 3.o upgrade for iPod touch owners.
How can you get ideas seemingly from nowhere on how to wade through this horrifyingly complex business and get it right every time?
Thinking simple. That’s all I can make out with my humble brain. Quite surprisingly, Apple works for all the reasons that one would predict it would fail for.
Here is why apple works:
- Simplicity in features (or rather lack of features) with a very high focus on design, usability along with a big price tag makes apple devices exclusive and help them clearly stand apart in a race of features (No more “Does your player have recording facility? Mine has”) People who own iPods just have iPods. Not a set of features cobbled together in a device.
- Limited variety (just one iPhone, just one kind of iPod..well for the most part) generates more media focus, instead of being dissipated across multiple model launches. It also helped create an astonishingly large array of iPod/iPhone compatible accessories (such as docking stations, arm bands, cases etc.) creating a further consumer pull. Others, because of their varied models, lost out on accessories.
- On the software front, developers are going crazy over Apple software because both iPod touch and iPhone have the same software in them and are of the same exact size. This creates a large ecosystem of users who they can target. Multiple sizes / software wouldn’t have worked this great
- Avoiding working with multiple partners: Sure Apple doesn’t provide GSM services. But look at it…it has its own music store, own music transfer software iTunes, own hardware and own OS on that hardware and its own Application Store (talking about flexibility, you can’t put a software on your iPhone unless you hack it and void the warranty). It therefore has an incredible control on th quality and features that it delivers to its customers. All that an iPod ever needs by way of service is a reset. Nothing goes wrong in that device or its software. My other mp3 player died in an year. I have vowed not to touch anything but iPods, at least for the foreseeable future.
- Inflexibility for greater profit and feature/quality control: You allow people to replace batteries and they would put cheap Chinese ones. Allow them to put memory cards and they would put corrupt or virus inflicted ones. Limiting experimentation on the device make sound sense for greater control on device design (how can you expect a shiny polished flawless steel back-cover if you wanted a replaceable battery?) and build quality. It also helps prolong the life of the device and earn extra bucks for Apple through supply of original Apple spares / accessories.
There is only one rule to reach the top. Break all the rules. You will either sink or you would lead. You won’t drift at least. If you just drift, you can never lead. Large companies (I could mean the Sony’s, Samsung’s and LG’s) may not be breaking too many rules today, but they must have on their way to become what they are today.