One of my colleagues recently said that “Apple is art; the rest is a kludge.” While the second part of his statement is arguable, the first is not – Apple IS art, and this art has been finely sculpted over decades to its present shape. The artist behind Apple is Regis McKenna, the public relations guru that shaped Apple from the launch of its first commercial computer. He took two scruffy kids, each bright in his own way, and built a mythos around them whose stories are still being told around the fire. The creation myth involved two geniuses – one purely technical (Steve Wozniak) and one focused on marketing (Steve Jobs). This was a much easier story to craft than one suggesting that each of these individuals might have additional strengths. The idea was to make each of these characters bigger than life. Woz was in the back, busily designing the future, while Jobs was in front, leading the company to the point where Apple became synonymous with “Personal Computer,” a task that was quite a challenge in the late 1970’s where several vendors also produced personal computers using the same 6502 processor chip.
Regis was successful. Apple, through its story, built a following. People became attached to their Apple II computers and remained loyal even though other options were available. Price was not a factor – the original computer with a display and disk drive cost about $2000 which, in the late 70’s was quite a bit of money. But Apple owners saw themselves as part of the future – a future where they could do wonderful things. Of course, the entry of IBM into the market with its original PC attracted business customers who had already subscribed to the IBM myth that no one was ever fired for buying IBM.
But Apple raised the bar to new heights with the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, bringing “the computer for the rest of us” to the masses. Instead of a clunky command line interface, the Mac provided a graphical user interface developed at Xerox PARC, and in one stroke established themselves as a leader in this brave new world of computing – even when competing against the products of the company from whom they had appropriated the ideas in a personnel raid on PARC. The Mac was important for another reason – it allowed the creation of the “reality distortion field” around Apple and its band of loyal customers. They saw the Mac as the ticket to coolness, and provided a sense of belonging to a global community of like-minded folks. Performance of the technology was never the issue – loyalty withstood all onslaughts. If Steve Jobs proclaimed that something Apple did was “insanely great,” then it was. No questions asked.
As one of the folks at PARC during the early days (I tell people I’ve been a Mac user since 1973), I was a big fan of Apple’s products from the start, and was one of the outside testers of the original Mac. I maintained Mac loyalty for a long time, moving to the Windows platform only when I started consulting for HP. The reality is that the Mac was a better system for many reasons. It almost always booted up each time you turned it on (in contrast to seeing the dreaded “blue screen of death” Windows users know all too well). If the number of Mac titles was small, they were generally well crafted – especially in the creative domains. In fact, there are some astounding Mac-only tools on the market today that, by themselves, justify purchasing this platform.
This loyalty has reaped amazing rewards for Apple over the years. Apple customers do not make decisions based on price – they continue to buy into the myth created decades before – a myth that has been embellished over the years. Apple’s failures (and there have been a few) are not mentioned in polite company. I say this looking at the two Apple Newtons in my basement and see them as the first pocket-sized tablet computers. Unfortunately, thay were too under-powered to generate a lot of sales.
But there is a danger with over-reliance on myths – reality has a way of sneaking up on people. Apple’s coolness in the face of Windows was due as much to the ineptitude of Microsoft as to anything Apple did. But this is changing, and changing fast.
Take the iPad – a huge commercial success even though the first version was flawed by its exclusion of a camera. Fortunately, two forces made the original iPad a success – the contiuned glow of the reality distortion field, and the absence of real competition. But now competition is emerging, and the alternatives are at least as elegant as the iPad, and are definitely not in the “kludge” category.
The rapid growth of quality tablets based on Google’s Android 3 technology is making Apple run just to stand still. Little details such as automatic backup to the “cloud,” and the ability to update the operating system without tethering it to another computer are features just added to the new version of iOS software – but these features have been in Android 3 from the beginning.
Yes, it is true that Google has an evolving mythology of its own – and the stories driven by this myth are continuing to evolve. One could even argue that Google has created its own reality distortion field.
All this means is that there will be epic battles between these titans of technology – battles in which consumers will be collateral beneficiaries as we reap the best each as to offer in our personal quest to have our personal technologies exceed our expectations.
In fact, one could argue that this growing battle is insanely great!