Thursday, September 06, 2007

Apple is E.F. Hutton

None of these things look like the other yet each of these things belong. (Screenshot from the Apple Store page)

I'm not going to talk about the iPod (or iPhone) that were just announced. I'm sure you've had enough already.

If you're old enough, you may remember commercials for a stock brokerage called E.F. Hutton. If you're not old enough, I'll tell you that this company was mainly known to the non-financially-oriented-set (that used to be a lot more people than nowadays where everyone from servers at McDonald's to your granny play the stock market) by its commercials. These ads featured crowded, noisy places (such as packed to the gills restaurants with a loud murmur of chatty people) and one person at one table would say something like 'E.F. Hutton says... ' and the whole room would go quiet. This was followed by the tag line, "When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen."

One can't help but notice that Apple is the E.F. Hutton of the computer industry. When they roll out new products, every major and most minor news sources cover not only the actual announcements but also announce that there will be an announcement. This is in rather stark contrast to most other computer hardware makers such as Dell where the release of new models is mainly covered by computer industry news sources.

As someone who has used a Mac since my earliest days as a computer user (I started with a 128K Mac in college and moved on to a Mac Plus for personal use a bit later and am now on my 11th Mac now), I've seen Apple spend far more time as the media whipping boy than as its darling and it leads me to wonder how Apple made the transition from the company that could not possibly survive because of its proprietary hardware and small market share to the company whose every product release people perk up their ears for and whose products are so desired that people are willing to pay a premium for them.

The obvious answers as to why Apple is the company everybody listens to and watches are the "iPod" and "Steve Jobs". While it's true that the release of the iPod has put a stylish Apple product in many hands and Mr. Jobs has put a strong figurehead with consummate sales and showmanship skills out there as the voice and face of Apple and Apple would not be where it is today without these two factors, I think the attention Apple's releases get are due to more than Steve and the iPod. I think one of the bigger reasons is that Apple has such a heavily pruned (or streamlined if you prefer) product line that new releases are considered events. Unlike Hewlett Packard or Dell, which offer relatively bland, highly-customizable and varied models, Apple has a very limited range of products - Minis, iMacs, Pros, MacBooks (and Pros), iPods and only recently iPhones.

It's not only the fact that there are just a few products though. It's also the fact that, by and large, each product has a very distinctive form factor. Different Mac models actually look different from one another in an instantly recognizable way. Different Dell models tend to have small variations in color aside from the obvious differences in size based on type (tower, mini-tower, notebook). This has nothing to do with the value of the computer inside, of course, but Apple's design and style are more about making you feel like each machine is a piece of art or stylish furniture rather than boring you with options for maximum RAM capacity or expansion slots. It's not that these things don't matter to serious users but they don't matter to most average consumers who use their machines for relatively mundane tasks.

In the case of Apple, less is more. Since new products are rarely released, announcements of upcoming products generate a lot of buzz. Everyone is wondering if we're going to see something fresh and innovative or a revamp of older models. The former often brings excitement and praise (though there are always detractors and nitpickers). The latter sometimes brings disappointment because there's always hope that Apple is going to wow us with something new rather than spruce up something old. If you read tech blogs, you find that people are so intensely interested in all new design changes that they're analyzing things like possible changes to keyboard and mouse designs. When was the last time anyone got excited about the way a Dell keyboard looked? Apple has seriously got the whole business of using select design to drum up interest and excitement down pat and only they can manage it because they have always been seen as a maker of elite (and possibly elitist) machines. This used to work to their disadvantage but now they're using it to their advantage.

It's no surprise that each new release is talked about and greatly anticipated though I guess the down side is that the news when it finally arrives almost never lives up to expectations. It's a little like seeing a beautifully wrapped Christmas gift and being more excited about what might be inside than what is actually within. It's not unusual to be a little disappointed when the gift is finally opened. This is probably one reason why Apple's stock usually drops after the release of a product even if that product is almost certainly going to sell well.


Luis said...

I see it as similar to the switch from the Model T Ford ("Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black") to the styled and stylistic forms of cars today--which, you have to admit, have droves of people being just as superficial, oohing and ahhing over cosmetic changes. Before el Jobso got his hands on PCs, they were just functional boxes, very little in the way of consumer design.

But design can be a huge selling factor. If they made a car that got great mileage and superb performance, but it looked like a giant turd on the road, who would buy it? It may be superficial, but then again, so many consumers are superficial. The exact same margarine is packaged in economy, quality, and deluxe packaging and sold at different prices, and people buy the expensive form, thinking it's simply better somehow.

That said, Apple does deserve credit for focusing on the user experience. You have to admit that most of the conveniences of use and operation have come out of Apple; even when Apple stole them from elsewhere, Apple did popularize them, like it did with the GUI.

Apple spends a lot of energy trying to tweak the user experience. Sometimes it creates better functionality, and sometimes it's just vain fashion, "Oh look at me, I'm so cool."

But one thing you can't deny, that was a central point in your writing: Apple *is* good at it.

Shari said...

I think one thing Apple has realized but PC makers (and users) are slow to understand is that the technology behind personal computing has advanced sufficiently that differentiating yourself at this point in time is largely a matter of style. All Apple has to do is price such that the appeal of their computers is just enough to push people to buy a slightly more expensive Mac over a cheap and utilitarian PC. It's working, albeit slowly.

Apple does focus on the consumer experience but I can't say that's all they focus on mainly because of the DRM issues. I think Apple's hands may be tied in this regard (particularly in terms of getting content providers to sell via the iTunes storefront) but it's still unsettling for their actions on this front to be so corporate-oriented and not consumer-oriented (and here I speak of recent changes to the iTunes software).

Part of the power for Apple has always been their user interface guidelines (which software developers are supposed to adhere to) and their control over both OS and hardware for good integration. For a long time, these were drawbacks but, with Windows playing catch-up on the interface and usability and the bulk of the market being less concerned with geekiness and more concerned with functionality, Apple is starting to look better to a greater number of users.

The only thing which I'm not fond of is the focus of the company on the whole on iPods and iPhones because that's where most of the profit comes from. Sometimes it seems like the Mac itself is the red-headed step-child that Apple doesn't devote as much attention to as would be nice.