Why Steve Jobs Was Right?
It may be hard to imagine, but back in the seventies you would be considered either crazy or a visionary (or perhaps both) if you predicted that computers will be as common as kitchen appliances, yet this is exactly what Steve Jobs was predicting back then.
Needless to say this vision has materialized, perhaps more than anyone could have imagined. Computers are so common and even so crucial to modern day society it is hard to imagine living without them. In fact, a lot of us owe our livelihoods to these machines and what they are doing for us.
While not the only visionary in the history of the computer industry Steve Jobs certainly was among the very few who were willing to think differently and stick to his crazy ideas. Perhaps it is fitting that people often say that he lives in a reality distortion field, a world of his own in which different rules apply. This is usually meant in a negative sense, but it’s so far proven to be a positive thing for Jobs in so far as this ability to follow his gut and stick to his guns allowed him to persevere even through the toughest times and end up creating one of the most unique, and most world changing mega-corporations in history.
It would be nearly pointless to talk about how Steve Jobs was right about the mass proliferation of personal computers, as this is something nobody can in their right mind dispute anymore. Same could be said about the Macintosh line of computers. Jobs’ persistence with the Macs got him thrown out of the company, only to become the backbone of the revitalized Apple when he came back (at least before the iPhone hit the scene).
However, there are still some things about the way of Steve Jobs and Apple which not everyone is inclined to agree with or admit, regardless of the tremendous success that Apple has had with them. As the crucial ones among them I would highlight these:
- Treating computers as appliances
- Merging “liberal arts” with technology
- Refusing to compete on price
I would argue that in all three of these methodologies Steve Jobs was right. He was certainly right about making these the defining characteristics of Apple, but I also think that he would be right to advise these same principles to much of the rest of the computer industry as well.
Don’t get me wrong though, it is good to have a variety of different approaches in the industry, with different points of focus. I wouldn’t say that every company must emulate Apple, but I would say that given the current state of the PC industry not enough of them paid serious consideration to what Apple was doing, which left the entire PC industry vulnerable to both Apple’s potential dominance, and inability to move forward as fast as they may be required to. An article recently published by Ars explains this quite well.
In a nutshell, while Apple was cashing in these three principles to the bank, and defining the new digital age in the process to such an extent that it is now poised to dominate it, others were busy gutting their margins in an endless race to the bottom, now finding themselves almost unable to compete on the terms now set by Apple. I’m talking about ultrabooks of course, and the rapidly moving trend of replacing bulky PCs and notebooks with them, as well as tablets and smartphones. This trend, largely spearheaded and dominated by Apple, requires a massive transformation of the rest of the computer industry if they are to continue holding their own to Apple. If they fail? Well, you will be seeing a lot more Apple logos around than you already are.
What makes Steve Jobs right about these three key approaches? Let’ see..
1. Treating computers as appliances
There appears to be a bit of a disconnect between what a lot of people say and what they do. Most people will say that they like openness, flexibility, and having lots of choice, but then end up lining up in droves to buy products that don’t quite fit that bill compared to alternatives. I’ve seen vocal open source advocates and developers buy Macs, and then try to justify this by saying that Mac OS X runs a lot of open source software (which is the case for Windows as well), and that it is based on BSD which is an open source OS. A lame excuse if you ask me. Actions are louder than words, and money talks.
Furthermore, all the talk about how important and necessary openness is comes from a relative minority of tech savvy people. Most people don’t really give a damn, as Desktop Linux advocates know so very well. They just want something that works. In other words, they want an appliance, and Steve Jobs knows this. Yes, masses of people still buy standard Windows PCs, of which there are so many variants that they typically need some geek friend to pretend to make some sense of and advise the best purchase for them.
And once they do purchase it, there’s hardly ever a guarantee that things will “just work”, so that geek friend of theirs needs to do some maintenance on a brand new machine. You know the drill: remove all the crapware that the PC vendors insist on pre-installing (in addition to all the ridiculous stickers all over the place), install an antivirus program, make sure there are drivers for all the peripherals they may use etc. Why doesn’t everybody just buy Macs then?
Well.. that’s easy: Macs are expensive, and they’ve been coaxed to believe that all that matters is how many gigamajigs a computer has, and pay that much less respect to build quality, reliability, and heaven forbid the design of the thing. As a result, they do compromise on their need for an appliance-like computer that just works, because they save some money in the process.
That’s fine, but it doesn’t prove that people don’t want appliances, only that they’re willing to compromise on what they want to save money. Those of you who wouldn’t like to see Apple dominate the industry, pray that Apple doesn’t knock down their prices! People will flock in droves to buy them, because now they won’t need to make this compromise.
2. Merging “liberal arts” with technology
I would argue that this idea is primarily responsible for all of the major Apple breakthroughs, from the Macintosh with its first graphical user interface to the iPad. It is far easier to market something that is simultaneously beautiful and functional as opposed to marketing something that is merely functional. This is why Apple was the one to pioneer the mass adoption of the GUI. This is why iPhone brought touchscreen smartphones to the masses, and why the iPad did the same for tablets.
In all of these cases there were others who had the technology, and even some products on the market, but they didn’t care for the look and feel of these devices the way Steve Jobs and Apple do. The typical thinking of someone who tends to underestimate the importance of design and the user experience would be thinking about something as valuable solely because it has a certain functionality. So some of them come up with a touch screen tablet and think it should be a big hit because it has a touch screen and it is a tablet! “Wow, we have a Star Trek technology in our hands right here! Why doesn’t anyone care?”
They don’t care because it is ugly. Yes, ugly. And just because the functionality is there doesn’t mean it feels good to use it. This is why most of these other tablet attempts are all but forgotten while the iPad is shooting for the stars.
Nobody cares only about the function, but similarly as with the openness issue above, everybody will claim that function is the most important thing. Yet when they are actually offered a choice they will always choose a device that is more beautiful and which feels better, over an equally functional one that isn’t, all other things being equal. Of course, and like I argued above, price can compel people to compromise on this, but it is a compromise.
It is the early Macintosh, the iPhone and the iPad which prove Steve Jobs right about insisting on making digital devices feel good, and not just function good. One contributes to the other, and one also sells the other, to the point of inciting people to adopt entirely new form factors en masse!
3. Refusing to compete on price
As mentioned above Apple’s premium prices put Apple products out of range of some people, but this tactic actually helps Apple quite tremendously. They effectively took the “high road” and declined to participate in this race to the bottom that is now putting PC makers in trouble. Sure they sell less at first, but they get more room to maneuver, and eventually outmaneuver those who effectively allowed the price war to press them against the wall.
The higher price is justified by everything that makes Apple products unique, which simultaneously happen to be the things that other manufacturers largely ignore, and things which I talked about above. As a result people don’t just look at Apple as an overpriced computer maker, but a “premium” computer maker, therefore justifying “premium” prices. Being premium, however, is completely relative to everything else. If everyone else makes “cheap crap”, it is easy to establish a “premium” brand.
This way Apple ensures continued success without sacrificing their margins, which increasingly puts them in an unique position that they’ve just about reached today. All the investment they made into the things others tend to ignore is beginning to pay off, and all the money they made allows them the possession of a kill-switch of a sort. Create an entirely new category of laptops that manufactures can’t produce at the same price and as fast, and enjoy rapidly growing sales. If you think MacBook Air is difficult to catch up to, wait till its next iteration.
Like I said above, those who don’t want to see Apple dominate the computer industry of the future should pray that Apple doesn’t cut their prices (while simultaneously offering better computers). But the fact is that if there is anyone in a good position to cut prices without sacrificing on quality, it is Apple. Considering that other manufacturers can barely compete with the MacBook Air as it is, you can imagine how hard it may be if Apple becomes even more price competitive now. Apple is now perfectly positioned to make a killing.
And before anyone complains, yes this is “just” a new category of laptops, but it is a category that is slated to replace existing ones as the drive towards mobile computing continues. It is simply a matter of who will dominate the future, not who dominates the present. The present quickly passes, but the future is the one which you have to worry about.
Simply contrasting the situation in which the PC industry is finding itself today with the situation which Apple currently enjoys should prove that Steve was right about this one as well.
I know I’ll sound a bit corny for saying this by now, but.., does “Think Different” ring a bell for anyone? Yes, Steve Jobs was right about these things, but not just these things. We could talk about his stance on Flash, or the phase out of various technologies from Apple computers, the latest one being the optical drive, and so on. Let’s just hope that Apple continues to have that kind of foresight and thoughtfulness, and if not, let’s hope someone worthy takes their place.