Stop the Noiz

Apple's 'On Target' Design Sets It Apart

Frank Fox - 2009.04.30 - Tip Jar

Some people have no clue when it comes to Apple. First they want Apple to lower the cost of its products, then they want Apple to make a cheap netbook, and all the while they want to predict that Apple is doing everything wrong and isn't making money.

On Target

If you step back, you can see that Apple is more interested in targeted growth, not the shotgun approach where you make a bunch of different products and hope that at least one succeeds. Apple's approach creates strong product categories that don't steal market share from related Apple products.

In business, you want to worry about the competition, not your own products competing with each other.

Along with the targeted approach, Apple separates products into unique categories. In my opinion, Apple goes so far as to pull out features just to differentiate products. For example, Unibody MacBooks have no FireWire, while MacBook Pros and the MacBook White do. The iPod touch has no camera, but the iPhone does. Apple certainly knows how to include these features on any product it wants; when it's left out, it is on purpose.

Each Apple product has the Apple ecosystem - Macs, iPods, iPhones, OS X, Apple apps (including iTunes, Safari, and QuickTime for Windows), and the iTunes/Apps Store - as the primary focus. The "halo effect" is not a chance deal. Since the iPod is tied to iTunes and QuickTime, Apple creates demand for more of Apple's products. That is the value of integration. Apple isn't the only master of product integration, but it had to sneak past its old friend/enemy Microsoft in order to spread into new markets. (The competition was left playing catch up.)

Apple Netbook Requirements

Clearly, a netbook from your average PC vendor does not meet these requirements. If Apple sold one like that, it would steal market from the $999 MacBook White. Apple has to create something that is both more and less than a MacBook in order to safely sell one without loss of revenue from the other.

Too often people clamor for Apple to release a netbook so they can save on the cost of buying a new MacBook. How is that supposed to help Apple, except for the naïve idea that you have to "sell more to make more money"? (Check out Microsoft financials to see how useful all those new netbooks were to the bottom line.) Apple would be better off releasing a new product that you want in addition to a MacBook, not the other way around!

What can Apple do that Asus and Dell can't? For starters, Apple has its own operating system, iTunes, the iTunes/App Store, and happy customers who already own a Mac. That is a strong position to maneuver with to gain an advantage. Apple wants to sell something that adds to it ecosystem, not something that competes with it.


The easy way is to create another semi-tethered device or service like the iPod, iPhone, Apple TV, Time Capsule, MobileMe, etc. A semi-tethered device requires a Mac or Apple software to sync but gives users freedom to roam and work away from their computers. I would guess that Apple's preference for a single button interface with a configurable screen would be high on the list of design features.

The question becomes what to leave out? It has to have wireless, maybe even Bluetooth enabled. Does it need sound output - speaker? audio-jacks? Does it need to connect to a larger monitor? Not if you dock it with a regular Mac (or even a Windows PC). Will it be touchscreen? Yes, but that means touch sensitive, not pen-based like a tablet. Will Apple go for handwriting recognition? Not unless it is working a lot better than the Newton ever did.*

In many ways it will appear that Apple has crippled the device by introducing these selective limitations. But again, like the iPod touch, MacBook Air, or Apple TV, Apple will have a purpose in what it includes and doesn't include. Another company can come along with tons of features (like the G1 phone), and consumers will either validate Apple's choices or not by choosing between the two.

Meeting Needs

Apple has succeeded because the majority of customer's actual needs match what Apple provides without a lot of fluff.

Obviously, I like Apple, and I've generally been happy using its products. That doesn't mean I will always mindlessly pick them. I still have no iPhone (but my wife does), because I don't like the AT&T phone rates, nor have I bought an iPod touch, since it is missing the built-in camera that I want. I would also rather buy a used MacBook than get one without FireWire.

When Apple doesn't sell what I want, I wait or buy something else.

Apple's Appeal

At the same time, I believe that Apple does find a combination that will appeal to many people even when I may not want it. Apple may be able to find the right mix of features to make a netbook that isn't "junk". I may buy one or wait for something better. But you can be damn sure that it will be something different from what others have to offer, even if the differences are what it's missing: buttons, satellite radio, FM tuner, etc.)

If you want to predict the next amazing device from Apple, don't forget to include all the things that will be missing and how Apple will make you buy it anyway.

Personally, I'm hoping for one of those PADDs (Personal Access Display Device) from Star Trek. But then again, I guess I'm just on a Star Trek kick these days. LEM

*Editor's note: The handwriting recognition in the early Newton was good enough to work with real handwriting - user's didn't have to write characters a certain way - most of the time, but not good enough to be error free. Newton OS 2.0 greatly improved upon that, and that technology, known as Inkwell, has been part of Mac OS X since version 10.2 "Jaguar" was released in August 2002, although the Axiotron Modbook is the only Mac that uses it. Other than that, it only works with external tablets. dk

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