Apple’s Mantra: Being Best Doesn’t Mean Being First

March 19th, 2009

I suspect some of you don’t always get Apple’s method of innovation. It doesn’t necessarily mean they were first with everything they’ve done. I am sure, for example, that you will locate prior attempts at graphical user interfaces before the Lisa and later the Mac arrived.

Only Apple (and Microsoft) managed to survive, while many other attempts at more advanced — and friendlier — computer operating systems did not stand the test of time, or sustain sufficient sales to keep their creators in business. Of course, some of you might remind me that Microsoft’s anti-competitive tactics didn’t exactly help the growth of a number of graphical operating system alternatives.

These days, Linux provides a few of its own, and some are reasonably usable, as folks who have acquired netbooks can attest. It’s also true that Microsoft can’t get away with some of the nasty stunts they pulled in the past.

In any case, when it came to the iPod, you know it wasn’t the first portable digital music player on the market. Indeed, I recall testing a few for an online publication some years back, and most were downright unusable. They were slow when it come to downloading tracks to the device, and interfaces depended on standard software that wasn’t always user friendly. No, I’m not talking about the early versions of iTunes.

Apple’s contribution to the market was to provide a simple-to-use product, and a much faster way to transfer your stuff. As you recall, the original iPods used FireWire, which delivered many times the performance of USB 1.0. But when moving to the PC platform — and most iPod owners are actually Windows users nowadays — they embraced the speedier USB 2.0 standard. Removing FireWire was probably a matter of not just convenience but keeping manufacturing costs as low as possible.

There were places to buy music online before iTunes as well, but most were illegal. Apple not only made it simpler, they kept the DRM restrictions mandated by the music industry reasonably basic. In fact, I dare say most of you probably never hit the limits in the normal course of using iPods for yourself and family members. Now that we have DRM-free options for music — though not for videos and movies — you can even put your stuff on a Microsoft Zune player if you want without any file translations or other trickery. But why?

So here we see, so far, that Apple’s method of innovating was to take something that already existed and make it work better. That, and extremely clever advertising, resulted in making the iPod number one in its market segment by a huge margin. That also helped Mac sales, benefitting, in part, from the so-called “halo” effect, and the simple fact that more and more Windows users decided they were fed up with the complexities and security lapses that resulted from Microsoft’s abject failures.

Indeed, I rather suspect that many people consider Microsoft’s best days in the past, and I am actually convinced that they are on the long road downhill, an inexorable path to ultimate irrelevance.

With the iPhone, Apple used the same design strategy that made them prosperous. You already had feature phones and smartphones. They all had totally pathetic user interfaces, though certainly the BlackBerry was better than most. Despite the massed skepticism from the media and so-called financial analysts, Apple turned the iPhone from a promise until a huge success that appears to be continuing almost unabated.

Now it’s true that the first two major releases of iPhone software were lacking in some critical features. Chief among the was, of course, cut, copy and paste. You may ask why it took Apple’s developers two years to craft a feature that was introduced on the Mac in the 1980s, and was already present on other smartphones.

Apple’s reason — or excuse if you will — is that they wanted to make the central data repository, the iPhone’s clipboard, more secure so that third-party applications would only have limited access. Indeed, that access wouldn’t be automatic, since I gather apps have to be updated to support the new features.

Now I don’t pretend to know if that is the real reason why it took so long. I suppose just finding a convenient, intuitive and simple method to make it happen was also a consideration. I haven’t played with this feature on other phones, so I’m not the one to give a comparison, at least not yet. When the iPhone 3.0 firmware is officialy released, I will compare it to the versions offered on other products just to see how well Apple did. No, I’m not going to report on the beta version, since that wouldn’t be fair, nor do I wish to violate any of the confidentiality terms that Apple imposes on its iPhone developers.

If, indeed, it is a superior solution, then it’ll be clear once again why Apple may not always be first on the block with something new, but they seem to always find a better way to make things work.

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5 Responses to “Apple’s Mantra: Being Best Doesn’t Mean Being First”

  1. John Dingler says:

    Hi Gene,
    Well, it appears that God was supposedly first, yet subsequent attempts to make the best realities have seemed to have fallen short, so your analogy does not scale, you know…to the extra-macro level. Nice try, though. *S*

  2. Louis Wheeler says:

    The thing that is interesting about Apple is how patient they are. When other companies are scrabbling after quarterly earnings or acting defensively in their market share, Apple is setting into motion plans that may not bear fruit for years. A perfect example of that is QuickTime. The iTunes Music store would not be possible without QuickTime, but Apple was slowly improving it long before any money could be made from it.

    That long term perspective allows Apple to wait for the right time to introduce products. Steve Jobs is known to be persnickety; he rejected six or seven iPod designs before accepting the first one. He agonized over the look and feel of the Apple Stores, spending a half million dollars to create a mock up in a warehouse. It was just as well that he did, because Apple learned from the process and created stores which became phenomenal successes. Of course, when the first store was announced, the technical pundits were negative because Gateway proved that computer retail stores were losers.

    I’ve been thinking about Snow Leopard and what products and services that it will make possible. On another website, this came up as I disputed that Hackintosh computers, where the Mac OS is installed on cheap PC’s, were good for Apple or its customers.

    I attacked these ex-Linux users morality and practicality. Sure, they could save a couple hundred bucks by stealing Apple’s property rights, but at the risk of undercutting Apple’s profitability. I told them they were killing the goose that laid golden eggs. That Apple was able to improve the Mac OS only because of its hardware sales.

    These people had the effrontery to declare that Apple had no right to protect itself from them. They said that they “owned” the Mac OS when they purchased an upgrade license and that they could do anything they wished with it, including installing it on a PC. They said that the courts would not enforce Apple’s EULA against the Hackers.

    Besides, Apple was only going after commercial competitors who were misappropriating and misusing Apple’s Operating System software, not small guys like them. They had the belief that Steve Jobs opinions about DRM on Music in the iTunes Music Store would make it embarrassing if he adopted a DRM for Apple software. I disagreed.

    Steve Jobs case against music DRM was that RIAA was selling the same songs unprotected on CD’s, thus discriminating against Apple’s customers. I told the Hackers that Apple would get around to shutting them down and this would be possible by using Snow Leopard.

    I’ve been looking into Apple’s 64 bit security and I see far more potential to it than merely avoiding vulnerabilities and malware. I see it as part of Apple’s slow process of tying up its loopholes.

    Apple is slowly closing off its vulnerabilities and one of Apple’s greatest is that, if you have physical access, you can install new OS software and gain total control. I believe that Apple will set up a permission system to make it very difficult to subvert a computer that you don’t own. It will do this as part of its patient scheme of delivering top notch security that IT personnel want. This will also prevent loading the Mac OS on a computer which you own, but isn’t Apple hardware. Apple won’t directly attack the hackers, but the results will be the same — you won’t be allowed to subvert Apple’s EULA.

    Apple needs to be careful about this because it cares about inconveniencing legitimate Apple customers. Steve jobs attacked DRM on music because of a double standard that RIAA was running by demanding DRM on music that it sold unprotected on CD’s. I have no idea when Apple will start closing off this vulnerability and Apple never talks about its security until it has a fait accompli.

    I am sure that the Hackintoshes are a minor matter to Apple currently, but as vocal as the hackers are, this problem will grow rapidly. I suspect that Apple has a solution that it has slowly been working on.

    This problem became inevitable when Apple chose to adopt Intel’s x86 hardware, so it probably began working on it then. Apple’s 32 bit security could not be made to correct this problem, but the 64 bit security in Snow Leopard can. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

  3. DaveD says:

    The computer graveyard is filled with dozens of companies and Apple was close to being one. About 13 years ago, Apple was running out of options. No modern operating system to replace an aging Mac OS, boring beige boxes, underwhelming notebooks, and attacked on all sides by the Mac-clone makers. Apple had to assess what they were doing wrong and take the necessary steps to change or else.

    Today, Apple is more than a Mac maker and has more than $28 billion in the bank. Apple put forward products and services that consumers want. Microsoft with their monopoly position just open a money spigot and all the cash flow out from Windows and Office. Apple had to go out and get a potential customer attention. Plenty of customers like what they saw.

    When Apple makes a mistake like the Power Mac G4 Cube, it was canceled. A few years later we have the Mac mini.

    Apple unlike Microsoft has adapted and changed. It provides the leadership of putting new ideas into practice. We can see these when other companies copied them.

  4. Tom B says:

    @ DaveD:

    13 years ago, MSFT seemed invincible. During that time, they FAILED to move their code base over to UNIX. They failed to develop solid development tools, like Apple’s XCode. They failed to put much effort into consumer electronics and let Apple seize the MP3 player opportunity. They undercut their own standing as the games platform (more games was always a plausible argument for picking a PC over a Mac) by pushing the money-losing XBox franchise. MSFT can’t even field a credible web browser.

    In contrast, Steve Jobs, always a smart guy, spent his years in exile working on NeXT. And honing is “how to deal with arrogant bureaucrat” skills, by frequently tussling with Eisner in the Pixar vs Disney years.

  5. Louis Wheeler says:

    The Corporate attitude is different between Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft was always in the computer business for the money. This led to compromises which hurt them later — which is still hurting them.

    When Steve and Woz built the Apple I, their major intent was that they wanted the computer built and sold, not the money. They took the computer which Woz had designed and offered it to Hewlett Packard, since Woz as working there. Woz had signed an invention agreement which meant that HP could claim ownership. HP was uninterested.

    Before the Apple II was introduced, Woz was forced to quit HP. He resisted this because HP represented security; he had dreamed of spending his entire working life at HP. He loved the place. Woz had to leave, because even HP could see that Apple was making money. That there was a future in making personal computers.

    Apple’s attitude was to pursue excellence. This got them in trouble later, because ideas were like a candy store to the company. Apple employees were working on interesting ideas that would never bear fruit. Its major talents were off chasing dreams. Meanwhile, Apple’s management was captured by the venture capitalists and marketing people, who attempted to milk the Apple II and later the Macintosh for every dime they could get. This lack of discipline led very close to bankruptcy.

    Steve Jobs was booted out of Apple’s management and began the slow process of growing up. He created great technologies at NeXT which were ignored by the market because there were too few users and developers. The current OS’s had created a stranglehold. Steve had to accept defeat again and again. He had to scrabble to survive. He had to accept his limitations and focus on what would work. He learned to keep his mouth shut and to control his temper.

    His purchase of Pixar put too much work on his plate if he were to micromanage. He, thus, learned to delegate. Pixar employees credit much of the company’s success to Steve Jobs keeping his hands off.

    Apple was, meanwhile, digging its own grave. Microsoft had lucked onto a winning business plan through calculation and duplicity. MS no longer had to struggle, but to hang onto its monopoly, by hook or crook. IBM had invented computer FUD, but MS refined it into an art.

    Apple’s management responded to Microsoft’s rise in Windows 95 by attempting to copy MS’s success. This led close to disaster. Deep inside Apple, though, people were working on ideas which could lead to success, but they were ignored.

    When Apple, for the third time, failed to develop a modern operating system, the management became desperate enough to look around for a modern OS which had been developed six years before — NeXTstep.

    When Steve Jobs came back to Apple with NeXT, and assumed control, he supplied discipline and focus. He trimmed the product line. He cut off lines of investigation which could not immediately bare fruit. Those ideas would be taken up at a later time; they often became great successes.

    He attempted to force the Macintosh developer and user base to accept NeXT’s way of doing things in Rhapsody (NeXTstep on Mac Hardware). The users and developers rebelled so Steve was forced to cave in. Steve started the slow migration from the old Mac OS to Mac OSX by accepting compromise API’s — Carbon. Carbon was not a modern OS, but it was a bridge across which the legacy users and developers could travel toward Cocoa and the Objective C programing language.

    Steve has been forced to accept many compromises over the last 12 years, but the end of the road is in sight. Everything that Steve wanted to do in 1997 with Rhapsody will be achieved soon in Snow Leopard.

    Apple is on the best hardware system. In fact, Intel’s hardware is much better than any of the current OS’s, for now. But not for long. The Carbon API’s will remain on the Mac, but in 32 bit format while the major thrust of the Mac will migrate to 64 bit Cocoa under ZFS. This will open up possibilities which will astound people. The speed, flexibility and usability of the Mac will stand head and shoulders above Windows on identical hardware. Remember, the fastest known use of Windows XP and Vista is on Mac hardware.

    Snow Leopard is Apple’s next springboard. It is attempting to rid itself of the compromises forced on it by migrating to the Mac. Although it is described as having no new features, the news has leaked out that it nailing down its flaws. Many deficiencies in Leopard will not be in Snow Leopard. Apple is keeping much about Snow Leopard close to its vest. The best way of think about Snow Leopard is that it is 12 years in the making.

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