The eight secrets that make Apple No. 1

How to succeed in consumer electronics (without really trying)
  • (Computerworld)
  • — 18 September, 2007 08:28

Last week I wrote about how Apple's growing success will trigger accusations that it is a monopolistic, copycat bully and why the company should be defended against such complaints. This week, I'll discuss the secrets of Apple's growing success and call on PC makers and consumer electronics companies to steal those secrets so they can start making better products.

Apple isn't the biggest consumer electronics company, nor the most profitable. So what do I mean when I say it's the No. 1 consumer electronics company?

Basically, you can divide consumer electronics companies into two groups: Apple, and everyone else. Apple really is that different. Its influence on global design is many orders of magnitude higher than its nearest competitors. It engenders customer loyalty significantly greater than that earned by any other company in the consumer electronics space. The Apple brand and awareness of its products in the general culture far exceed what you might expect, given the company's actual sales.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is famous for a crazy video in which he yells, "I...love...this...company." With Apple, it's the customers who shout that.

It's no accident, and it's not a passing phenomenon. Apple knows something that other companies don't. Here are the eight secrets that make Apple the best company in the industry.

Secret 1: Engineering supports design -- no exceptions

Most companies bring designers in late in the product development process to create an experience "wrapper" around all the features and technologies the engineers and marketing people created.

At Apple, designers rule. Apple's brilliant designers figure out in detail how the product will look, feel and work, and then the engineers are tasked to make it happen.

Years ago, Jeff Hawkins changed the world by creating the Palm Pilot. He designed it by walking around with a Palm Pilot-size block of wood, pretending to use the device. He took notes about what he wanted to do with the device and how he wanted to use it. He refused to be influenced by existing organizers.

By the time he gave the engineers their marching orders, the Palm Pilot was conceptually complete. He got massive push-back on it from his engineering team -- "If we add six more buttons, we can make it faster..." -- but the original conception prevailed, and an awesome product was born.

Palm seems to have lost this visionary approach to product design and is paying the price in the marketplace. Apple still has it.

Secret 2: Fewer is better

Far too many companies give too much power to market analysts as a substitute for product vision. One result is product oversegmentation that reflects the finely tailored targeting of a product to a specific market segment.

Sony, for example, just unveiled four new Blu-ray HDD recorders -- four! -- each with minor, largely irrelevant differences. The company obviously thinks consumers will dedicate an hour of their time just to consider Sony's various Blu-ray options. In reality, eyes will glaze, and people will wander away, confused. Imagine if Sony poured all its energy into just one Blue-ray HDD recorder. You'd probably want it.

That's what Apple does. It tries to develop the fewest possible number of products, each with the broadest possible appeal. Yes, there are multiple iPods, but feature overlap is close to zero, and it's super easy to learn which product does what.

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Mike Elgan

Computerworld
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