May 8, 2012

6 Reasons Why Apple is so Successful

Most people have a working understanding of the fact that Apple lost the PC wars to Microsoft, and only nominally understand that when Apple created the iPod and then the iPhone, the company started to go in a new direction. And anyone who’s gone into an Apple store knows full well that Apple’s customer service and stores represent the gold standard for selling and supporting tech gadgets. But beyond that, the reasons why Apple is really successful are still a mystery to many.

1. For any product that Apple creates, the people who create it have to want it themselves

So many times with projects I do with other tech companies, the goal is almost always based around the technology first, followed by whether or not people really want to use it. Geeky engineers are dazzled by the technology at their disposal and often create something because they can. But Apple’s approach is quite different. The engineers who are creating Apple products actually make them for themselves. And Jobs was the chief “user” of Apple products when he was alive. All of Apple’s products are based on the fact that Jobs represented the real customer. And his engineers had to come to grips with that when designing a product. It has to be something that they personally couldn’t live without.

2. The products have to be easy to use

Jobs was a stickler on this point. While industrial design is a critical component of any product Apple makes, if it is not easy to use, it is considered worthless to the consumer. This is what drove the company’s user-interface designs from Day 1 and is still the mantra pushed to the software and hardware engineers every day they go to work. All of the products they create have to be intuitive and easy to understand and learn. As technology has become more intricate and users want more features, the task of keeping things simple is sometimes difficult. And Apple creates tools for power users and rookies, which can mean a broad range of ease-of-use issues. But even with that, Apple is the only company I deal with where ease of use is more important than the product itself. Apple makes this a critical goal of its approach to creating anything for the market.

3. Keep things simple

One conversation I had in particular emphasizes this keep-it-simple point. We were discussing how to compete with Apple — a major pastime for all Apple competitors and carriers these days — when the question of why Apple is really successful came up. And one exec nailed it when he said he felt that the real reason Apple is successful is because it has one product; in this case the iPhone. It minimizes the decisionmaking process for the consumer by making things simple. The person speaking was with a carrier in France, and he said that in their stores, they have to have as many as 25 different models of phones available. That makes it hard for his staff to be really knowledgeable about all of them all of the time, and their customers just have too many options to choose from.

4. Offer great customer service and in-store experiences

Jobs understood one of the major conundrums of technology: even if you create products that are easy to use, the variety of things that people want to use technology for often creates complexity. Because of this, consumers at all levels may need some hand holding from time to time. I was one of the most vocal critics of Apple when it introduced its first retail store in Tokyo in 2002. I thought it was crazy for Apple to try and go into retail. At the time, and even today, tech retail stores are in decline while big-box stores like Costco and Walmart sell products on price and nothing else. I thought that if price were the issue, an upscale retail store would be DOA. Wow, were other naysayers and I wrong about Apple’s retail strategy.

5. Apple only makes a product if Apple can do it better

Apple normally doesn’t invent a new product or product category. Sure, the company did invent the first commercial PC with the Apple II, and the Mac improved on PCs with a graphical user interface and mouse input. But since then, all of Apple’s other products have been recreations of existing products. Apple did not invent the MP3 player; Apple reinvented it and made it better. Apple did not invent the smart phone; Apple reinvented it and made it better. And Apple did not invent the tablet; Apple reinvented it and made it better.

6. Apple stays at least two years ahead of its competitors

This is the one that scares Apple’s competitors the most. While those competing with Apple are just getting products to market that are competitive, Apple is already working on the products at least two years out. For example, the new iPhone that will most likely go to market in October was designed and signed off on two years ago. And the iPhone the company is working on now is for the fall of 2014. The same goes for the iPad. The new iPad that we will most likely see next March was signed off on two years ago. The one that’s being worked on now we will probably see in 2015. This is a nightmare for Apple’s competitors and will continue to be for some time.

These six principles may seem a bit simplistic given the fact that Apple also has great software, industrial design and a powerful ecosystem of content, apps and services as part of the company’s success equation. However, I can tell you that from my three decades of following Apple, it’s these six key principles that are what really makes it successful. And as long as it adheres to them, it’s pretty likely that Apple will continue to grow and command a relatively large share of the market in the company’s product categories where it competes.


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