The death of Apple Computer, Inc. could not have come at a more opportune time, although the skeptics who “predicted” it in the 1990s still had to eat crow for the past ten years, and the “death” we saw at Macworld Expo San Francisco made us about as upset as if Microsoft or Dell had gone under. Or, better yet, seeing a brand stinking (I mean spanking) new Zune being crushed by a speeding Tesla Roadster.
You do remember the Zune, don’t you? You know, that “iPod Killa” thang that was being “launched” back in the fourth calendar quarter of 2006. Maybe it really did some killing after all, although it sure wasn’t the iPod.
You want a real iPod Killer? I’ll tell you what a real iPod Killer looks like: it looks just like that hot, shiny, new, super-fantastic Apple iPhone, that’s what it looks like! My 5G iPod sure wouldn’t mind being killed by that, and I certainly look forward to it. The only bad news to this whole thing? 2007 is gonna be one long year, folks. (Is it June yet?)
I’m not going to talk about the technical details of the iPhone here. We’ve got plenty of coverage all over cyberspace on that. What I do want to look at is how the entire consumer electronics and telecommunications product industries totally missed the mark. By a wide margin. Apparently, it really did have to fall onto Apple’s shoulders to be the company to bring this kind of product to market. The iPhone is simply the sexiest, most advanced, most usable, and most powerful handheld communications and computing device ever created.
Even as I write this, I’m still bemused that it is Apple, and not Nokia, Motorola, or (let’s not forget) Palm or RIM, coming out with this product. But then, I remember how clueless the industry can be.
Many years ago, when the original iMac first came out, I overheard someone who was ostensibly an “industry expert” remark that he was not impressed by “multicolored computers” and that he expected the iMac “fad” to disappear, pronto. (He wasn’t talking to me. I was just sitting nearby and wouldn’t have said anything anyway, considering I owned one of those early iMacs.) When the iMac turned out to be a sustained success (much to the surprise and chagrin of these industry “experts”), PC vendors jumped on what they thought was the bandwagon of aesthetically-pleasing-computer-enclosures to put out surprisingly superficial decorative casing.
And that’s where the problem lies.
Because these “experts” are not able to perceive the true innovating factor of breakthrough products, they can only guess at what they should be seeing, and therefore guess wrong. They superficially see only a colorful computer and conclude the secret sauce must be aesthetic appeal. Then when the new products launch they can’t figure out why the iMacs are selling and theirs are not.
Exhibit B: the iPod. With the iPod, these blindsided industry insiders again can’t figure out what the big deal is. So it’s a handheld device that plays MP3 files and syncs with the personal computer. And no built-in radio reception. They figure they have an exact duplicate, or better, and ignore the new kid on the block. When the iPod became an “overnight” sensation, they looked at the design again, which, by then, had morphed into a colorful bouquet, and began offering music players with focus on form (but sorely still lacking in innovative function).
We see this same thing happen with the MacBook rip-offs. White, thin(ish) PC laptops that run Windows XP Home. Or widescreen 17″ PC laptops that have a silvery look. Or powerful desktop replacements with completely useless psychedelic lighting that glow like a pile of radioactive waste. To make these things “cuter,” vendors add extra toppings to the OS in an attempt to cover up some of the Microsoft UI and stick their own branding into the box. Totally off base.
This lack of perception, this inability to discern the true value of a successful product (that is, raison d’être of the category breakthrough, the reason people buy the thing) is not limited to aping Apple products. Some of you might recall Sony’s attempt to Clie the Palm PDA, which only turned out to be a “Cliche.” If any of you have ever used those Clie devices, you’ll remember many of them were loaded with Sony’s “value-added” nightmare-ware, which substituted the Palm OS applications menu with a funky jog-dial-scrolling carousel. And they thought that would be an improvement. Let’s not get into the whole Memory Stick issue, which should be in the same chapter as DIVX (the disc sales strategy, not the codec) in a “stupid marketing strategies” textbook.
I can think of many other such examples, including the most obvious one: Windows copying the Macintosh user interface.
Now, in 2006 we had the Zune trying to copy not just the iPod but the entire iPod ecosystem. Unfortunately, the ecosystem reaches far beyond what the Zune team can ever deliver. This ain’t the Xbox—which, essentially, took the very successful gaming franchise that had always existed for Windows and replicated it onto a self-contained Microsoft-branded PC. The iPod is a totally different animal and actually ties back to the Apple brand as the producer of machines (Macs) that create “cool” stuff. Macs, after all, have been associated for eons with such things as desktop publishing, video editing, and fashion design, so it should be no surprise that the iPod is a truly “hip” device. Trying to Astroturf Zune marketing just won’t work because there is no way Microsoft, as a brand, is “hip.”
(I don’t see Intel trying to be hip, and Intel shouldn’t bother anyway. It is doing very well reinventing itself recently as the quiet and professional producer of powerful engines. Even the logo had a makeover around the time of the Apple partnership. The new Intel of the 2000s is more of a “strong and silent type,” as compared to the “bunnyman” brand of the 1990s.)
So, having seen examples of what I’m calling “clueless counterfeiting” throughout the history of the industry, I’m thinking the trend is just going to continue, with cell phone and PDA manufacturers trying to rip whatever they can off the iPhone “time-bomb” before it blows them clear out of the water. Macworld Expo basically gave the whole world a framework for the new smartphone. (Personally, I think we need a new “superphone” category.) With the iPhone, the so-called iPod “halo effect” just went supernova, and I think Macintosh uptake is going to accelerate even more when the new device hits general availability.
Apple’s been paving the road map of the future and it’s about darn time the company (and the folks behind it) got the recognition and reward it deserves. Many things we take for granted in computers today were Apple innovations. It’s really exciting to see the company’s influence expand and renovate a wider landscape of things we use on a daily basis. HDTVs and maybe even wristwatches are going to be next.
January 9th, 2007 marked the event horizon of a new era of ultra-usability. I’ve written earlier that the Mac has finally won the computing wars. Now I’m convinced the consumer electronics, home entertainment, and telecommunications industries are also in for the mother of all battles.
Because Apple Computer is dead.
Long live Apple, Inc.
Author’s Note: this article was written shortly after Apple’s announcement. As it went to press, knock-offs such as the Prada Phone from LG have already started to appear. It is important to keep in mind that the Apple iPhone may ultimately feature additional unrevealed functionality.