10 Things We Can Learn From Apple

apple_logo_rainbow There’s no need to restate the high reverence (or pangs of envy, depending on where your loyalty lies) of Apple. They have innovated, floundered, and in recent years, risen from the ashes to make one hell of a run in computing and electronics devices. Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that they are adored by their fans. Their brand has reached that highly sought-after place in the world of marketing: they can do no wrong.

So how did they get there? Is it dumb luck? Or are they just much smarter than the rest of us? The most common reason given is Apple’s rabid devotion to design. That is, without a doubt, a key component of Apple’s success. But I think there’s more to it than that. Here are ten reasons why I think Apple is so successful today, and what we can learn from them:

  1. Understand The Total Experience. Apple is not a software company. It’s also not a hardware company. It’s an experience company. Software and hardware just play a part in the broader experience. Imagine your iPod without iTunes. Hardware and software are industry demarcations that the masses could care less about. By ignoring that separation and focusing on solving real problems in a cohesive way, they obliterated the portable music market.
  2. Less Is More. You see it in all of Apple’s interfaces. That “clean” look. Sure, the power is there, but wherever possible it’s hidden away. As for controls, there’s hardly a single button on an iPod. Hell, there isn’t even a power switch. It seems counter-intuitive to the engineering mind. Less features and less controls appeal to people more. But it makes sense. With less, there’s less room for error. Less to digest. Less to learn. In other words, a shorter path to enjoyment.
  3. “He’s Got His Father’s Eyes.” Take a look at an iPod. Then take a look at the Apple remote. Load up iTunes. Then visit apple.com. Nearly all of Apple’s products share common genetic characteristics. One of the most striking examples is a previous version of the iMac that actually looks like an iPod. Why is this important? Two reasons. First, by reinforcing common conventions, the learning curve is flattened. Second, these familiar profiles reinforce Apple’s signature. You could probably pick an Apple product out of a line-up that you’ve never seen before.
  4. http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/albums/userpics/10001/handshake3.jpg“I’d Like To Introduce You To Some…Thing.” How many other companies do you know of that introduce a product line personally? Rather than a press release. Or a meme that starts out among a collection of bloggers. Or some sort of email list. Apple personally introduces their products to their loyal fans. Often times, it seems like magically, their web presence is simultaneously updated – sometimes allowing for purchase of just-introduced products.
  5. Control The Hardware. This isn’t even a secret. Steve Jobs said it bluntly at the iPhone introduction: if you want to build great software, you have to control the hardware. This is precisely why the iPhone feels four or five generations ahead of any portable device available today. Phone carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile fish around looking for sexy, powerful hardware from electronics manufacturers like Samsung and Motorola. Microsoft will go to bed with just about anybody to promote their software platform. Apple knows better. To create truly compelling experiences, you need to have a hand in all the pieces of the puzzle. The iPhone is a great example of that synergy.
  6. back_ipod Hide The Screws. This is a classic Apple move. Mimic real world artifacts and make things feel less like technology devices and more like something you’d find in the real world. Pick up your iPod. It has no visible screws. It isn’t even clear how the device comes together. Hiding the ugliness of technology makes these toys more endearing. Features like coverflow and the upcoming time machine further this notion of pulling design inspiration from the real world.
  7. retail-fifth-ave-pr2 “Go Ahead. Touch It.” People are scratching their heads wondering why the Apple retail stores are so successful. Gateway tried it years ago and their stores are all gone now. Dell is trying to sell through retail as well…through Walmart. Somehow, I don’t think finding Dell laptops across the aisle from 60 lb. bags of fertilizer will amount to the same shopping experience. Above all else, Apple stores are designed to allow you to touch, play with and interact with every one of their products. You’re implicitly invited to approach an iPod or Macbook and just play with it. This evinces a confidence in the ease of use of their products, and more importantly, a confidence in you.
  8. Feeling & Thinking. Good functional design and thoughtful product management is a struggle to appeal to and connect with others at a cognitive level. While that’s important, Apple understands there’s more to it than that. Their products have a welcoming, anthropomorphic quality about them. They lack the rigid right angles and black tones that dominate so many computer devices. They appeal to our emotions as well as our intellect.
  9. Colour corrected by ChrisHAu 22 May 2005 Great Design = New Invention. The MP3 player was around for years before the iPod hit the scene. While others were vying to somehow coax consumers towards this new way of carrying and listening to music, the iPod reset everything. It was, for the great majority of people, the real invention of the portable music player. Apple understands that great design (not just good design) can have such a staggering impact that it can introduce a product to the uninitiated masses. Another example is Spaces, one of the new features on their upcoming operating system. Virtual desktops have been around for years, but one look at Spaces and it feels brand new.
  10. 07hands It’s About People. The one over-arching theme that seems to penetrate everything Apple does is their basic understanding that every single thing they sell will be touched by a person. They don’t build API’s. They aren’t integrating with back-end systems. They aren’t making sure machines talk to machines. They’re creating things that people are going to touch and, at the risk of sounding hokey, have relationships with. Every bit of their philosophy – from how a box is opened to how a clickwheel feels – reinforces this unavoidable fact.

Ultimately, the points listed above are really lessons about design. If we think through what makes a great design, it’s something that someone else connects with – whether emotionally or intellectually or both. When they connect, it’s a great feeling of achievement and connection with the creator. Never mind the features and wiring and CPU’s underneath. They’re all a means to that single, common end. Apple understands this better than any other company in the world. And we can all learn a lot from them.

This post was also published on the Arc90 blog.

45 Comments 10 Things We Can Learn From Apple

  1. Kalli

    Pretty good points, but one thing I take issue with: technology isn’t ugly. It’s only the execution technology that’s ugly. Open up some average x86 box and, sure, it will probably look ugly. In fact, it might remind you of the interiors of an Apple II, except shinier.
    Look into a PowerMac (and probably a Mac Pro too, although I’ve only seen photos of its insides) and technology is beautiful. And this doesn’t just apply to electronics or Apple.

  2. Lionel Barret

    Don’t quite agree with you.
    Apple has a very strong strategy, that’s true but it is focused on a relativley small demographic.
    Ipod is a kind of anomaly. It entered the world of the “device you must have”. Huge fads based on a good product (most fads product are shitty) so it doesnt’ go down.
    That why the rest of the Apple line-up if succesfull is not as successful as the Ipod.
    For many people, the price is still the discriminant, (you talk only about the quality of the product) and Apple computers are expensive.
    The IPhone could be a way for apple to redo the Ipod HoldUp. That’s would be cool but would transform Apple into a device/gadget company.

  3. Liam

    @ Lionel – Apple products are expensive only in terms of the price tag but not for what they actually contain, here you can find a good article about that.
    Click Me
    The same theory applies to ‘its not expensive to eat well but only to eat bad’.

  4. Ben

    “Apple is not a software company. It’s also not a hardware company. It’s an experience company.”
    Steve jobs described Apple earlier this year as a software company. He used a quote from the late 70’s, something to the effect of “if you’re passionate about software, you make your own hardware.”
    He said the iPhone is essentially software. iPod? Software. Etc, etc.

  5. Frank Z

    Wow, has someone drunk the kool-aid, or what? Look, I’m not going to dispute that apple has done good things in terms of streamlining and simplifying design, but a few of these bullet points above border on the ridiculous.
    People aren’t scratching their heads over why apple retail stores are successful– they’ve got a firm hold over their niche market; the Ipod’s success wasn’t really so much due to great new design, but rather to timing and an effective barrage of slick marketing; and I hate to burst that bubble, but it’s not about people, it’s about money, and you’re kidding yourself if you think Apple’s approach is oriented on any other priority.

  6. Rich Ziade

    Nobody said it wasn’t about money. In fact, a well-executed design results in a lot of money being made.
    As to Apple stores, I’d respond with a question: what exactly is their “nice market”? Laptops and portable music devices? Take a look at Dell, Gateway and your local Best Buy. That market isn’t so niche. It’s what a lot of companies are going after – and in the retail space – have failed on to date.

  7. Budigelli

    Liked some of the points but you know its gets harder to introduce you products saying “I’d Like To Introduce You To Some…Thing.” when you become bigger. Interesting to see how long Apple could maintain the attention to detail if i may call it.

  8. carefreeliving

    Found you through DailyHub.com. Excellent article.
    Particularly like the genetic “his father’s eyes” concept. What’s particularly impressive about this is that not the same people likely worked on all the Apple products — it’s not from the brain of one person, but they’re able to pass the genetic code of the products down across generations and platforms.

  9. Ranting Jerk

    Apple is successful in a NICHE market like a previous commenter said, the NICHE market is the one they have *always* catered to. Non-engineer types who don’t want features and advanced capabilities, they want something that just works, that makes them look cool and illustrates their conspicuous consumption. This is the prime demographic that apple sells to.
    Their design strategies work excellent for catering to this crowd, but you must realize that this is a niche market, apple will never be able to dominate the computer market, because they don’t want to… Its more effective for them to cater to a specific TYPE of person.
    And apple’s success with the iPod came out MORE from its PRE-EXISTING fanboy userbase spreading the kool-aid of beautiful design. than anything else.
    Other companies would find it very difficult to adopt this strategies and employ them in other markets, just as there are plenty of people who enjoy having no buttons or screws on their devices, there are just as many people who enjoy having 2000 extra buttons and being able to take their devices apart and hack on them.
    Know your demographic, market to it, don’t make the fallacy of assuming marketing for one demographic is successful for all types of business.

  10. ranting engineer

    I’m an engineer. I own an iPod and use it every day. I bought it because after doing a lot of research I couldn’t find anything that worked as seamlessly with as many features as an iPod with iTunes. Yes, they should put a FM receiver in as standard, but apart from that they are top of the line in flash based MP3 players (I didn’t investigate HDDs).
    I work in an engineering consultancy. We run our entire information system on Macs (apart from the photocopier). We don’t use Macs because we don’t like to see the screws or because we were convinced they were trendy. We use them because they work – my MacBook Pro crashes or hangs about every other month. At my previous workplace my PC crashed once or twice a week.
    Do I fit the demographic? I’m trying desperately to fit in…

  11. Rich Ziade

    Ranting Jerk (heh):
    It sounds like you’re talking about the Mac. What about the iPod? That product nailed it across demographics (and then some).
    I distinctly remember walking into Best Buy this past holiday season. People were calling ALL portable music players “iPods.” It had reached synonym status. And these weren’t technophiles. This was the electrician and the wife coming in to buy Christmas gifts.

  12. farid

    APPLE…who dont love it….i like the idea, their ads, steve jobs, imac, design….
    BUT…seriously….when u need to do work (heck NOT ALLOF US ARE GRAPHIC DESIGNERS or in the Design industry) so seriously.. work related.. issue….
    we use a PC..with windows XP…
    how many people who use mac complain when i recommend a freeware that is good.. but.. not available for mac…
    my workplace uses PC.. not the ones by dell or HP, the ones that custom build by shops…
    they cost cheap and u customize the specs.. and they are reliable….
    so i need more ram.. no problem. go to any pc hardware shop and u can find…
    my cd rom died, replace with a dvd-burner.. which is cheap now days…
    i dont think u can do it.. that easily with a mac…
    web development…most are written for windows…
    desktop application… u would rather write for PCs…
    steve job reliase this.. this.. when he launch safari3 beta.. he knew..he needed to go to windows market….for it to actually matter…

  13. Rob ...

    [i]so i need more ram.. no problem. go to any pc hardware shop and u can find…[/i]
    I go to any pc hardware shop and by it
    [i]my cd rom died, replace with a dvd-burner.. which is cheap now days… [/i]
    I go to any pc hardware shop and replace with a dvd-burner.. which is cheap now days…
    BTW – I own a MAC (3 of them)

  14. jeremy

    Ranting Jerk, the scary thing (as Ranting Engineer points out) is that it’s not just non-engineer types who are buying and loving Macs now. OS X is a very stable, very powerful operating system, built on top of a unix-flavor that provides engineer types with all of the power they’d get from using a PC and then some.
    What’s magical about the newest stuff they’re doing is that it’s *both* beautiful, easy-to-use, and sexy as hell AND powerful, capable, and built for work.
    Farid, there’s nothing wrong with using PCs at an office, and definitely most of them still do, but I use a Mac in an office that is dominated by PC users, and there’s nothing anyone here does that I can’t do on my Mac. Matter of fact, many people here are switching because they’ve found that they can be more productive on a Mac.
    If I cared more, I’d be tired of the old memes that keep on bouncing around:
    * They’re so much more expensive!
    * They just aren’t useful for work.
    * I can’t get software for it.
    * I need a second button on my mouse.
    It’s like people are living in 1987.

  15. alistair

    Nice article. Indeed, design-wise and marketing-wise a lot of companies stand to learn quite a bit from Apple’s strategy.
    Don’t forget how Apple also simplifies their product line-up. With their computers, for instance, there’s two main kinds: portable, and desktop. Within each line, there’re two lines: ‘consumer’, and ‘high-end’ or professional. Four choices in all.
    Of course, in some lines you have additional models with some feature variation but by the time you get there you’ve already made the most important choice (to Apple, at least) – and that is, to get an Apple.
    @farid: Being a long-time Windows user and now OS X fan, for every Windows ‘freeware’ product you have there’re two open-source applications out there that don’t natively run on Windows – at least, not without major tweaking/hacking (Cygwin). Or not without having to depend on someone else to do the compiling and packaging for you. On OS X, more often than not all it takes is “configure; make; make install”.

  16. macacanadian

    WhT kind of “work” are the PC guys talking about? Anything that can be done on a PC can be done on a mac.
    Anything. End of story.
    I work with both and have for years.
    Hands down, mac wins. It’s no contest.

  17. Psylo

    Macs are not as expensive as most think, while helping a friend decide betwean a dell laptop and macbook, I discovered that for the dueling machines, which were exactly alike except for processor and os of course, the difference was fifty dollars in price.

  18. canopus

    PCs are designed to make life easier for engineers, programmers, and assorted other techies. They achieve this by making life difficult for the user, and then blaming the user for the resultant confusion.
    Techies have problems with Macs because the burden is placed back on the techie – be transparent, and get out of the user’s face.
    Example: error messages… “You have performed an illegal action” i.e. YOUR fault, not ours (yeah, right) versus something like “Oops, I’ve screwed up – sorry, I need to bug out and try again”
    Then again, that seldom happens on a Mac anyway.
    One of the greatest con jobs in business history was to convince people that Windows is an opeating system. It’s not. PCs run on DOS. Windows is just lipstick and heels to cover up the laughable reality that those big, cumbersome boxes run an operating system that was originally designed for a short-term project (hence no concern about allowing for the end of the millenium) an was originally named Q-DOS “Quick and Dirty Operating System”.
    Apple’s message to the PC world is simple and devestating… Lead, follow, or get the Hell out of the way

  19. Dwindle

    Apples are just cute little toys for rich kids. They are outrageously overpriced, barely functional, and annoyingly difficult to use.
    No, Apple is not a hardware or a software company. They are a corporate conglomerate that, unlike any other system, requires you to be controlled entirely by one company.
    Don’t be fooled into thinking you can use an Apple like a Windows machine, because the dozens of drawbacks of even the most expensive systems outweighs the few mild advantages.

  20. Macpomme

    While Apple does focus on the statement below. Jobs didn’t have the insight to realise it to begin with – I think David Olgivy may have said it first, but could be wrong. An extremely important factor is:
    “How the customer feels about themselves after they have purchased your product.”
    Apple customers, for the most part, feel better about themselves after buying the Apple product they just purchased. Now “better” can be extrapolated to mean a whole bunch of things and can be characterized, in part, by the 10 points you raise in your article.

  21. mike sanders

    Interesting thread:- Dwindle has clearly never had the joy of using a Mac and his comment does not bear responding to.
    How many times have I bought products, peripherals and the like and compared the installation instructions for PC and Mac, PC average three pages Mac one or two sentences, as usual just plug and play.
    Jobs makes great machines and the truth is, though it is hard for the PC brigade to admit, there is nothing you cannot do on a Mac and usually better/faster.
    Vista is a klutz and reflects badly on the people at Edmonton, 1.2giga bytes for an OS, come on and it still crashes.

  22. oneforthemacs

    At the risk of making even more people angry, here is my analogy. Apple is the Oakland Raiders of the software/hardware game. Either you love them or you love to hate them. There is no in between.
    Its no secret that Macs are more appealing in their hardware and software design. The core group of users for the last few decades have been designers.
    If any company is not a software company, its Micro$haft. Every pathetic attempt they make to catch up to the features of OSX just sets them further behind. How many years did it take to develop VIsta? And long gone are the days where there was no competition for Office.
    Its only the computer illiterate that keep this joke of a company alive. The people who don’t know better than to use Internet Explorer (total rewrite needed) and can’t even figure out how to upgrade past version 4.01!

  23. Rotten Apple

    apple sucks… and anyone talking about beauty over quality is nuts… try browsing with safari & maximize the screen… did it maximize right? & does sites like calendar.google work ? Mount to install an app?!!! case closed/// now go ubuntu or vista….

  24. John C. Randolph

    Ranting Engineer,
    Perhaps your previous experience with Windows has desensitized you, but if your Mac is crashing or hanging as often as once a month, it’s broken. Take it to an Apple Store to get it checked out.
    The most likely culprit is RAM that’s not quite up to spec.

  25. Lexi

    I am a mac fanatic. I learned how to use one when I was three and use one every day now. I was just in the Apple store nearest to me the other day. While you do get to touch and explore a pc in many stores, it’s not the same as touching a mac in the apple store. As soon as you walk into the store you understand what Apple is all about. They don’t litter the store with signs telling you to buy their product. They give you a white space that perfectly compliments their machines. They realize that the computer will sell itself. You can look at their software on the machine you would run it on and watch video demonstrations in the theater. If you have a question you can ask and someone who actually knows what they are talking about can answer it. One of the best things that we should learn from Apple isn’t even on this list. That is if you are going to sell a product, hire someone who is passionate about that product. The people in Apple store are passionate because they use that product in everyday life. The kid working in Wal-mart uses a computer everyday but he doesn’t necessarily use a Dell and odds are it is a love/ hate relationship.

  26. J

    Yeah, my MacBook Pro is great… it’s so pretty and shiny… it’s just a pity the CPU whines like crazy and the fans buzz when they hit a certain speed and it crashes every other day with no explanation or hint about what might be wrong. If only they cared as much about the inside as they do about the outside.

  27. studio804

    I take umbrage with the comment that Macs are toys for rich kids. I am the president of a video production company that does high end work for well known corporations. We are a Mac ONLY shop by choice. After futzing with Windows boxes that were always (yes, always) breaking down in the middle of important, time-sensitive projects that were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to us, we decided to jettison all Windows boxes and go with the platform that was reliable – not perfect – reliable.
    As for cost, do the math on Total Cost of Ownership. We have Macs that are 7 years old still crunching on video projects, albeit a bit slower than the current models, but you won’t find a 7 year old Windows box still in service in video production today – and it damn sure won’t be running something like Sony Vegas on Vista. Our old Macs can run the latest OS X version and Final Cut Pro with no problem.
    If you like tinkering under the hood of your computer, get a Windows PC and have at it. Personally, I like to be productive and make a profit.

  28. Gene

    You get what you pay for. I’ve been and still am a PC user ever since I started using a computer and then about a year ago, I switched to using a Powerbook. I must admit, it takes some time to unbrainwash yourself from the environment that PCs usually present, but after that, you’ll notice that Apple’s workflow is A LOT more efficient than what PCs have to offer.
    Ford or Porsche, Take your pick.

  29. macacanadian

    People equate the simplicity of mac, ipod and iphone with not having features and somehow, mac users not being able to understand technology.
    In reality, it’s more like what the 2nd point said: “In other words, a shorter path to enjoyment.”
    I’m a tech guy. I’m equally fluent on a mac and a pc. Mac blows the doors off of everything else out there.
    It is the shortest path to enjoyment.

  30. Scott

    I’m a long time PC user (since DOS and Windows 3.11) and recent Mac adopter. I used to think that Macs were cute little toys that might do graphic design OK but weren’t very good at anything else. Boy was I wrong. What sold me on the Macs was OSX with Unix at the core. I’ve been using Unix/Linux for a long time for web development and believe there is no better platform out there for servers. It’s very powerful and flexible, but it is ugly and not user friendly.
    Apple took the best OS core, Unix, and put a beautiful front-end on it and made it super easy to use. Any user can pick it up and start working with it. Advanced users can launch a terminal and do anything they need to. The Windows command line is absolutely no comparison and is quite useless. The Mac is more powerful than Windows, the power is hidden away until you need it so you can just simply be productive instead of fidgeting with settings.
    All the development tools on the Mac are simply better and make me more productive. Applications are designed simpler and provide you what you need when you need it. I love my Mac for development and I don’t want to go back to Windows. Unfortunately I have to use Windows to develop software for it. Sadly most people use Windows so my clients want things to work on WIndows. However I try to write things to be as cross-platform as possible.
    It wasn’t easy switching to Mac at first. When I went shopping for a new laptop I wanted the best one I could buy. While Dells, HPs, and Sonys were relatively cheap, they couldn’t match the looks and power of a Mac Book Pro. The design is so simple and pure. The other PCs look like the old 486 laptops in comparison. I figured if I didn’t like OSX I could format and install Windows. I’ve been using OSX and haven’t looked back. I do occasionally run VMware or Parallels to run WIndows or Linux for software testing but have no plans to replace the main OS. You can not get better laptop hardware than the Mac Book Pro.
    “Rotten Apple” said “Mount to install an app!!!?” as if that was a bad thing. Imagine clicking a download and having it present you with a single icon. Click the icon to run and evaluate the program. You don’t like it? Simply unmount the download and delete. Love it? Simply drag the icon to your applications folder. Your program is now installed. So simple and easy to install and application. App files are a beauty in themselves. The complete application is contained in a single file. Want to uninstall? Simply delete the .app. Note, some residual settings may reside on the hard drive but those are also easy to remove and nothing like the horror of the Windows registry. It’s a simple thing but completely changes how you think about downloading, evaluating, installing, and removing software. This is how it should have always been.
    For me, Mac and OSX is the way to go. It’s simple and pure design is what software is supposed to be. Everything you need and nothing else. With nothing cluttering the system you can get to work and be productive.

  31. (L)SD

    I took my 20″ imac back. I WANTED to like it, it’s sturdy and stylish, but it’s Very Much Different in the way you navigate around, what things are called, where they reside, etc. Apple, inc. is a bit mis-leading about how easy it is to switch.
    After a 2 day headache, I realized “why bother re-learning a whole new system just to do the same tasks I already can do easily and quickly in Windows”.
    (L)SD – Dallas, Tx

  32. me

    Niche Market?
    Only Dell and HP are outselling Apple computer right now. Number 3 is not a niche market. That would be like saying that Ford is a niche market in the auto industry. Oh, and Apple is gaining market share rapidly against the big two.

  33. Jeff

    All the Mac haters on this thread really make me chuckle. I get the same usual crap from nearly all my new-hire programmers, but typically it’s only a matter of a week or so before they’re completely sold. I grin every time I hear them come in and say one of the following:
    1. My next computers going to be a Mac/I just bought a Mac
    2. I spent 6 hours last night installing hardware X/resolving conflict Y/downloading driver Z,
    and my personal favorite:
    3. Yeah, I said that, too. Give it 6 weeks max, and you’ll never want to use a PC again.

    Of the dozens of people that we’ve hired, there was only one person who refused to use a Mac for work. She was an ex-Microsoft employee, actually, and made it known that she “couldn’t” do her job on a Mac, so we got her a brand new PC. Incidentally, she washed out within 2 months by packing up her stuff and literally sneaking out of the office literally 15 minutes before a client meeting for which she was completely unprepared (she had 2 weeks to pull 8 reports for 1 client on the success of an online media campaign). As it turned out, and this is the point, the account executive that was left holding the bag rescheduled the meeting for the next day and pulled the reports in about 2 hours – on her Mac.
    What’s the larger point of that story? It’s that there’s a big difference between I “can’t” use a Mac for work, and I “won’t” use a Mac for work.

  34. Rob

    First, If every industry had a company that “requires you to be controlled entirely by one company” and that company’s products worked as well as Apple’s, that would be the company whose products I chose. Not a problem.
    Second, that assertion isn’t even true. Even the vertically aligned products that Apple offer usually give you non-Apple options. Example? iPod > iTunes can be run on Windows machines. Mac OS > Mac hardware? Hell, you can boot in Windows on your frigging Mac.
    Third, it is exactly the need/software/hardware/outcome alignment that makes Apple great.


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