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:
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.