This post may focus on hardware, but the implications for anyone designing a product are pretty abundant. If you can design a product with appeal that overcomes reason, you’ll always do better than one with better features:
Remember when we all used to salivate at the thought of the next Apple convention? What did Steve have up his sleeve? What amazing piece of kit would he reveal that would have us all ignoring Apple’s rather large price premium and just slap down our cash to have a slice of that amazing Apple cool? Year after year, product after product they seemed to do it – iPod (multiple versions); iPhone (fewer versions); Macbook Air; iPad… the list was amazing and made even Mac-sceptics like me feel the urge to just get me one.
What Apple Did Well
There wasn’t much secret to it, in true Apple style it was simple, they just made fantastic products that worked in perfect harmony with each other backed up by a beautiful OS. The trick is that it’s really hard to do well. Google (with Android) for all of its dominance was far too fragmented to match Apple in that compelling human way. Its OEMs were far too focused on that bane of the OEM – features. Bigger screen this, faster processor that, brighter, more colourful etc etc etc. People bought these things certainly, but deep down really they just wanted an Apple because their devices worked better.
But something has changed… at least that’s how it seems for me. Less than a year or so on from the untimely loss of Steve Jobs, Apple has continued to release fabulous products – Jobs made certain there was a few years worth in the pipeline – but something is different. As I see it, they’ve taken to marketing them in a really misguided way. Apple has now fallen into the features trap, it seemed to start with the “New iPad
” with fab new screen but not much else to speak of, and has continued with the recent launch of the new Macbook with Retina Display
. Don’t get me wrong, both are excellent devices; powerful, beautiful and functional. Fanboys and tech geeks adore them and there’s no shortage of evidence of sales
, but it’s a dangerous road that Apple has taken themselves down.
The Features Folly
Why should this be a problem? When you play the features game you get yourself into a margin-destroying arms race, and whilst Apple is king right now, this advantage can be very quickly chipped away by hungry and capable competitors like Samsung who have already taken top place in Mobile sales
, have blitzed iPhone in terms of performance, and can’t be far away in terms of desirability. Likewise HTC are doing a reasonable job of a come back with the HTC One. Previously Apple traded on its desirability and the “lifestyle” aspects of the brand to retain dominance, but now Apple has decided to play the feature game, how long will this residual goodwill last (especially when brands like HTC roll out campaigns like this
for the HTC One). I’m not saying that Apple won’t see a spike in awareness and sales whenever they release a new product, this is natural. But the longer they play the feature game, the shorter those periods will last. The inevitable grind of the product cycle demands this; the market for smartphones has now caught up with Apple, it’s only a matter of time before the same happens in other categories.
The Benefits of… umm… Benefits
Which brings us back to the subject… what is the opposite of the feature game? In marketing terms it’s the “Benefit” game… and we’ve just had a Jobs-like demonstration
of this from Google with their Glass. In one self-deprecating swoop, Sergey Brin and his tech guys and assorted extreme sports buddies at Google have just laid siege to Apple. Sure their Nexus tablet may not knock the iPad off, but with Glass, Google have done what iPad did, created a market, showed everyone in a real and highly compelling way the benefits of Glass (and mind-bending Hangouts are just one potential of the device) and induced the I WANT ONE factor at a level not seen since people twigged to the iPad. True it’s not everyday you get to demo a product like Glass, but the principles are the same – show people how their lives can be better using the product rather than getting all fetishist about the product itself.
This won’t happen overnight. Jobs did remarkable work and has build a generations-worth of product goodwill, so Apple may hold out for a long time to come, but if Google have really figured out what made Apple so desirable, then it’s just a matter of time before things get really interesting.