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  • So What is Apple Really Selling?

    March 31st, 2011

    On the surface, Apple is very similar to other high-tech companies. They build and sell hardware and software and, they hope and expect, make profits from them. That ought to be sufficient, and it is for most companies. But Apple, by word and deed, seems to have a far more expansive purpose. You can say, “change the world,” without being patronizing about it. But it’s true that many of their products become cultural icons. Can you say that about Dell or HP, or even Samsung?

    You can easily witness Apple’s game plan in their ads, not to mention the way their products are presented during their special media events. Whether CEO Steve Jobs, or a member of the company’s executive team, the demonstrations and the classy ads all attempt to explain what Apple’s gear can deliver to your digital lifestyle.

    Take that AT&T spot for the iPhone. A man receives a call from his wife, who subtly reminds him about their anniversary. Of course he didn’t forget! Sure, right, but he uses his iPhone to get something for his wife to prove that he remembered. Not only did AT&T demonstrate their main advantage over Verizon Wireless, which is the ability to talk and access data services at the same time, but you saw someone dealing with a practical problem about one’s relationship with one’s spouse that can happen to everyone.

    When you see an Apple product on a TV show or in a movie, they are often used to get something done, not just hang back as part of the scenery. As some of you recall, a 1990s Mac PowerBook was used to save the world in “Independence Day,” by “beaming” a computer virus to the alien computers. All right, it’s highly implausible, but the key point is that you don’t buy an Apple product on specs alone. You buy Apple gear based on what they can accomplish for you, for your business.

    Those amazingly popular iPad TV ads are devilishly simple. They show someone paging through different apps on the iconic gadget to play music, read a newspaper, play an action game, accomplish all sorts of neat stuff. After all, the iPad is nothing without the apps with which to accomplish something. But this is lost of most of the competition.

    Now Microsoft, in their pathetic round of Windows 7 spots, appears to be making a lame attempt to demonstrate what you can accomplish. But they end up looking foolish.

    So we have someone bragging about being able to pin document windows on the sides of the screen. To convey the impression modest features of this sort are something customers actually clamored for, you’ll often hear someone announce, “I invented it.” There’s another ad touting cloud-based services, as if this is something altogether original and unique in Windows.

    Those awful Motorola Xoom ads, however, show where the rest of the tech industry is truly out of touch. You have this science fiction themed atmosphere, where someone takes the Xoom tablet, shakes it, and implies that’s something unique, impressive. Yes, I suppose you shake a tablet to play a game, but what purpose does the Xoom truly serve? That’s a difficult question to answer, with only a few dozen Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablet-optimized taps available so far.

    Motorola, however, hasn’t figured out that you can’t sell specs with a lifestyle product. You have to make it crystal clear, in those precious 30 seconds, what real people can do. They failed there just as Verizon Wireless failed with those “Droid Does” promotions. Does what? I’m not altogether sure watching those ads, which also espouse a robotic theme that might have also been lifted from a science fiction film.

    Yes, they want us to believe we do live in a science fiction world, surrounded by robots, spaceships, dark skies and lightning. But what are those Droids and Xooms used for anyway? Why can’t they answer the question, rather than pretend to be special effects wizards?

    This doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish useful tasks with Android tablets, Windows PCs, or smartphones featuring an assortment of operating systems. Unfortunately, the people who run the companies who build that gear have serious problems getting a credible, compelling message across to their target audience.

    In contrast, Apple’s announcements are simple, direct, understandable. They are also relatively free of loud histrionics designed to divert your attention from the product that’s being sold.

    As I’ve said before, I’m quite certain Microsoft, Motorola and all these other tech companies are peopled with brilliant designers and engineers. If they were allowed to express their creativity with few restrictions, you mind find a whole assortment of innovative products, rather than cheap imitations of someone else’s gear. I wouldn’t presume to offer any “business school” advice, since I am not an MBA, nor do I play one on TV. But it would seem to me that they’d fare far better if they would actually try to build a better mousetrap, rather than imitate someone else’s.

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