Why Apple Is Crazy/Beautiful
(This blog post is being cross-posted to my personal blog as well.)
My cousin’s daughter is 3 years old. As far as I know, her only interaction with Apple, and specifically with an iPad, was during a 30 minute session at a restaurant. I’d given her my iPad and a note-taking/doodling app to play with while we adults ate dinner. I recently saw my cousin a couple weeks ago and he mentioned that he’s going to have to buy an iPad. When I asked him why, he said that he’d been killing time with his daughter at the local Apple store. His daughter was playing an iPad game involving forming letter blocks into words. He hadn’t helped her with it, he hadn’t showed her how to use the app, he hadn’t actually done anything to get her oriented. Yet here she was using the iPad just fine and, more importantly, completely naturally. He said that a few days after that incident, he’d tried to show her a similar game on the computer but she couldn’t get the mouse to do what she wanted. Partly because her fine motor skills are still developing, but mostly because the mouse/keyboard paradigm isn’t natural. So Apple’s lodged another sale and they’ve just started a potentially lifelong relationship with a customer at the impressionable age of three. What’s the lifetime value of such a relationship? Pretty high, I’d bet.
So where am I going with this? Apple has been on a real tear lately. They’re killing it in the phone arena, they’re the defacto music distribution channel, they’ve pretty much redefined the tablet computer arena, and they are feeling out the TV space slowly but steadily. All this has had a halo effect on Mac computers, which are steadily increasing in market share. In short, they’ve become the ultimate consumer electronics company, leaving behind the low margin cutthroat PC industry. And not just any consumer electronics company – a premier company, much in the same vein as Sony and Pioneer used to be. But it wasn’t until their recent “Back to the Mac” event that I realized just how insanely brilliant their vision really is. I’m honestly excited and scared by their implied approach. It radically simplifies the computer experience while at the same time almost guaranteeing their dominance in the space for at least the next five years, an eternity in the PC space. Here’s why.
The Mac refreshes were minimal – a new Air (which is crazy/sexy, but not germane). The more important thing was their introduction of a Mac App Store. In one stroke, they’ve completely killed the need for a distribution agreement outside of Apple. Small software shops can now compete on equal footing with established companies – the marginal cost of publishing a title drops pretty much to zero. It also considerably simplifies the process of finding, reviewing, and buying software. No more hunting through messageboards. No more trolling the Internet and giving your credit card to small vendors with questionable data security policies. One account controls your music, video, book, and software purchases. Simple, secure, standard. Beautiful.
But speaking as the unofficial tech support member for my family, this approach also greatly simplifies support requests. First of all, I don’t have to tell my dad to go to some funky URL to download some free piece of software that supports itself with all kinds of weird banner and sidescroll ads. I know he won’t screw up by buying stuff from one vetted place. And I know that he and I will be using the exact same version of the exact same software because we’re buying the same thing and we’re updated to the latest version automatically. Can you see how straightforward that makes software recommendations? And how easy it is to troubleshoot potential problems?
The more time I spend in Windows, even Windows 7, the less enamored I am of the whole “flexibility” argument that Microsoft makes when it comes to their view of the OS vs. Apple’s. In the final analysis, Apple’s approach is just fine for at least 75% of the population, who don’t care if they’re running an “open” OS or not. They just want to be able to get stuff when they want it. And they don’t want to worry about rebooting every few days or making sure that all the downloads and patches are installed or accidentally loading a piece of software that completely screws up all their settings because every app wants to control your Windows PC (especially media apps). Of course there will always be a small population of people who want ultimate customization and flexibility – the jailbreak community. In the new MacOS Lion preview, Apple’s trying to straddle the middle ground, providing the tools power users need while presenting the simplicity that most normal users are happy with. I’m really starting to think that Apple’s got the right vision.
So what’s this all got to do with my cousin’s daughter? Well think about it – she’s being conditioned from age three that the Apple way is the right/only way She’s going to probably spend most of her formative years on an iPad, graduate to an iPod when she’s in her pre-tweens, then on to an iPhone in her tweens – by the time she’s able to make independent tech decisions, she’ll be so used to Apple that she’s going to pick a Mac. Customer for life. As far as she’s concerned, the tech war is over. Microsoft is going to have to come up with something pretty freaking amazing to counter this brandwashing, and unfortunately Windows 7 (whether PC-based or phone-based) isn’t it.
Was Apple crazy pursuing this strategy? Absolutely. It could have horribly misfired at any point. But now they’re so big and the approach is so entrenched that it’s almost running on inertia. It’s a beautifully elegant strategy worthy of Sun Tzu. My estimations of Steve Jobs’ brilliance has risen considerably. Bravo, Mr. Jobs, bravo. Well played indeed.
Guess I’ll have to tattoo the Apple logo on the other cheek.