Friday, January 25, 2008

How to Compete with Apple (Chapter 6)

Hello, corporate-computer-company CEOs. Welcome to the "How to Compete with Apple" seminar series. This is presented as a public service to try to drum up some kind of competition for my favorite company so they don't get all spoiled and complacent.

Well, alrighty then. Since nobody asked, and since I have no real reason to give a big whoop, here's how to compete with Apple. Now let me preface this by saying your company doesn't have a snowball's chance in Guatemala of catching up technologically in less than about five years. By then your computers will be harder to find than a tricked out Yugo. On the other hand, if you're in the computer business and you'd like that to continue, you'd better get started.

As this is primarily a humor blog about computers by an Apple stockholder who can't program a universal remote, I'm pretty sure it will get just about that kind of attention. Also, even if it's widely read, none of this will ever get out of committee. I don't figure to endanger Apple's fortunes in the slightest.

Add in the fact that Steve Jobs has explained these concepts numerous times in the public forum, and you can see that you, as a corporate executive, are just not equipped to gather or use important information. Stick around anyway, though. At least as long as you're busy with this, you aren't doing something dangerous or stupid. Don't run with those scissors, please.

With all that in mind, please pull your heads out of your asses and listen. I'm not going to repeat myself unless I can't think of something to babble about later. That could happen, but I'm pretty good at thinking up asinine topics, so don't hold your breath.

1. Forget about selling computers. Concentrate on selling technology.

Apple took the word "computer" out of its name for a simple reason: It isn't what they're about. The Macintosh is a thing for letting you do stuff. Apple takes care of the computer stuff for me. The Macintosh is a convenient hub for all the other things I want – phone, music, movies, internet, email – and it will also do a spreadsheet (on the off chance I'd ever want it to).

By contrast, a Windows computer is great for rebooting and running all of your cool anti-virus apps. Windows forms the foundation for the bulk of the tech support industry. Your Windows machine will also hold down a stack of loose papers next to an open window on a breezy day.

Note: Most Mac tech support is online. Because generally when our computers aren't working quite right, we can still use them. When your Windows machine heads south, you need to call somebody on the phone. I'm willing to bet you couldn't get a job at Geek Squad with Macintosh as you're only computer expertise. (When I say "generally" it means I'm about to make a broad generalization. Sometimes those generalizations are wrong. I don't care.)

Linux is cool. Linux is good. Linux is for people who like to fiddle around with the computer's innards. Linux is not a valid operating system for Joe Insuranceadjuster's home needs. That is unless Joe is a spare time geek hobbyist. And even if it was, there are too damned many flavors to make it any kind of cogent choice. Oh, yeah. And it's open source. Pure open source is really nice, but nobody is in charge. There isn't anybody to sue when you lose your entire digital life to a keystroke. Accountability and warranties are important.

With a Mac, you don't have to care much about tech support or command lines. If you want to compete with a Mac, you'll have to build a device that just works. All the geek shit has to happen before you ship it. Joe Shoesalesman just wants to watch an episode of Cheers and listen to his Tito Puente albums.

Apple doesn't sell computers. They sell ways to do things I want to do. The computer is just the toy box in which those things are packed. Easy to use toys are "technology."

2. Build the whole widget.

Apple can innovate faster than Hillary can change her mind because they build both the hardware and the operating system. Dell and Sony can't innovate. Can. Not. All they can do is build innards that will run Windows. If you can't change it, you can't improve it.

Then make everything that works with your widget work predictably and well.

For example: People wanted ways to use their cell phones with their computers. Apple fiddled with it's hardware and software to accommodate them. The user experience was incredibly variable – all over the board. Every phone had its own little quirks that needed special care. Enter the iPhone. It just works with Apple's stuff. It's part of the widget. That helps Apple sell the Macintosh and the iPhone, not just one or the other.

3. Learn how to design products that look as good as they work.

Remember you're trying to sell something that Mom won't mind having in the living room. Apple does. Make it look nice.

The industrial design of most other companies' computers is enough to make you weep. Especially Dell's. Damn. Apple's industrial design is about minimalist function that looks classy. Nothing extra or unnecessary. Everything fits tight and smooth. Dell's cases look like they were designed in a particularly rowdy trailer park. They have all kinds of useless pieces and moving parts that fit together wrong and with visible gaps. On top of that, they're fugly. That's not a typo. I mean FUGLY.

4. Pay attention to details.

In industrial design, how the software and the hardware work together, how the windows look, make it be right – all the time, every time. All the windows should look as close to the same as possible. The fonts should display exactly on an application's page as they do on the printed page and on the web site. Exactly. The same. The acronym WYSIWYG was coined in the early days of Mac. It has gone out of common usage. WYSIWYG is kinda like pregnancy. It's a one or a zero. If it isn't 100%, it isn't real. It only exists on Macs. It has been the standard on Macs since 1984. I still get glitches on the Dell at work where what I see on the screen is different from the print version. That's absurd.

If you think those details don't matter, well, Apple is about to eat your lunch. And steal your milk money. And beat you up. And give you a wedgie and a noogie – in the hallway, in front of the girl you just asked to the Homecoming dance.

5. Listen to your customers.

Apple listens to us. That doesn't mean that every preference is addressed, but if enough of us bitch, things change. I'll bet you the contents of this doggy bag from Applebee's the translucent menu bar is either gone or optional in the next fix of Leopard, just to name one example.

6. Trust your customers.

Most of us are honest folks. If you think that isn't so, you must have missed the news about Ebay. The concept that most people are honest is the entire basis of Ebay. It seems to have worked out okay. Oh, yeah, and you missed the release of Apple's new OS, too. Not copy protected or serial-numbered.

Apple doesn't copy protect or DRM their software. There's a registration code for QuickTime Pro, but other than that, nothing. When His Steveness said he'd drop DRM the second the labels let him rings true. It isn't some karmic altruistic platitude. Most people are trustworthy. Most people will pay the price for the things they want and need. We also tend to resent not being trusted.

When you sell me something that clearly questions my trustworthiness, I'll be as untrustworthy as you expect me to be. I've installed hacked copy-protected versions of software I didn't even want, just to beat the system. Not in the last ten years, though. Too lazy.

The money you'll lose to piracy is nothing compared to the value of the goodwill of trusting your customers. The money you'll save from piracy with copy protection is chump change compared to what you'll lose from resentful customers. Frankly, the piracy will continue. The only people that are really thwarted with copy protection are honest people. It pisses us off, too.

7. Quit trying to copy Apple.

Apple makes stuff up. You have to make stuff up. New stuff. Apple doesn't rehash other people's ideas. Sometimes they buy them, and maybe sometimes they just take them, but then they improve them. For example, iTunes may have started out as SoundJam, but it wasn't a copy. Apple found a piece of software that did what they wanted done. They bought it. It doesn't look like SoundJam anymore. You can still see the resemblance, but iTunes is the grown up version.

There you have it. If your company can do all that, you can compete with Apple on their turf. Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Boys and girls, can you say, "pwned?"

Time to throw another log on the fire.