Saturday, September 11, 2010

Apple iPie

More and more people I know are trying and buying Apple products. It's not just the entry level ones either, but MacBooks Pros and iMacs. Pondering why is a good pastime and I thought I'd give my thoughts.

Let's start by following my own first steps into Apple ownership. Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979, the year when I first acquired a disposable income. The Walkman wasn't the first portable music player I'd owned. I remember hearing Itchycoo Park for first time listening under the covers to my transistor radio, and I recall carrying a laptop sized cassette player with me so I could listen to whatever Pink Floyd or Henry Cow opus I wanted. But the Walkman was much better; small, high quality, personal and cool. So, for me the appeal of the iPod was clear - the noughties Walkman. But in the early noughties I no longer wanted to listen to music on a personal stereo so it was no iPod for me. Then came the RSS feed and podcasts; I could obtain all sorts of wonderful programming on my computer - music (thank you Tartan Podcast), science (thank you ABC for Occam's Razor), business (thank you BBC and Peter Day). However, I rapidly found that listening to podcasts on my computer wasn't what I wanted to do. So I bought my first MP3 player, I think it was a Creative Muvo with a 2 Gbyte hard disk. It was great until it broke. Then I tried some number of cheap solid-state MP3 players - why would you pay ~£100 for an iPod Nano when you could buy something just as good for ~£25? What I learned was that even if once playing an MP3 the cheap player worked well, getting it to play, and keep playing an MP3 was a bad experience. So I tried an iPod - job done; happy.  

I'd like to pick out some lessons from this.

The first is that just because a computer can do something, it doesn't that the best way to do that thing is with a computer. And just because a device has a computer inside, it doesn't mean that device is a computer. If Apple is a computer company then Black and Dekker is an electric motor company. Apple understand this and the populous have some understanding of the. The iPod is not a computer. But what of the iPad?

Another lesson is that people will pay for well designed and ergonomic devices. This seems to come as a shock to some people, especially techies, who focus exclusively on function and not on form (and here I consider the ergonomics to be part of the form). Strangely enough, some of those people drive BMWs or Audis rather than Fords. 

Let's now move from the personal stereo to the personal computer. Surely no one buying a computer with their own money would buy a MacBook? Everyone knows you can buy just as good a laptop for half the price. Except you can't. You can by worse laptops at half the price. They're not as responsive, their displays are worse, their keyboards are worse, their software is worse, their battery life is worse, they look cheap and nasty, etc. For a buyer who can pay Apple prices, why would they settle for anything less?

Actually, the really interesting question about personal computers is not which one people buy, but why people would buy any personal computer in the first place. Now let's be clear, by "people" I am excluding the hobbyists, the type of people who would own a personal CNC lathe or a personal arc-welder - I mean normal people who would no more write a computer program than build their own motor car. This question is one I remember being asked from when the first personal computers appeared until, I think, the nineties when the Web and CD-ROMs became commonplace. It should be asked again because I think the answer is now that people shouldn't buy a computer, they should buy an iPad. I didn't link to Wikipedia for "iPad" because Wikipedia describes the iPad as a "tablet computer" and I don't think it is any sort of a computer. There's a great post about the nature of the iPad by my friend Richard Taylor.

  • Once technology is "good enough", product form is as important as product function
  • People don't want general purpose computers. 
and these are the basis of Apple's current run of successes. It will be interesting to see how the forthcoming iPad versus "tablet computer" war will progress. I'm expecting Apple to win this one, although based on my experience with my iPod touch, I'm holding out for an iPad with multitasking, a camera and a higher-resolution display - I don't think it will be very long before it's here.

1 comment:

omnivorist said...

Absolutely. Design is more than a set of tick boxes. And done well, it wins through; which is gratifying .... for designers, at least.

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