Today Apple announced additional details of AppleWatch as well as a new, slimmer (!) MacBook line at a media event in San Francisco. Apple is an iconic company and their innovation can provide helpful lessons, many of which apply to solution marketers. Which takes me to the AppleWatch: Needing to be tethered to a iPhone via WiFi, and carrying a not-insignificant price for an optional gizmo, it’s not clear how well this new product will perform I the market. But if anyone can make a go of it, Apple can. Here’s why.
Innovation primed for eventual takeoff
We live in a time of tremendous technological change. Sometimes it can seem like the future is coming at us fast and furious. Many of us have seen the future come and go – such as US human space flight program (1961 to 2011) and commercial, 3-hour supersonic air travel from NY to London (1969 to 2003). Other technologies seem to take a long time to take off into common usage – such as video phones which were actually first envisioned in 1878 and popularized by Skype some 125 years later. Or take the Dick Tracy watch phone which debuted – in concept – in 1946 and has only started to be almost practical in the last few years. Or the Quixotic chase to commercialize computer tablets, first invented in 1963 at RAND, commercially available in 1989 (GRiD Systems), followed by the unsuccessful Apple Newton in 1993, a Microsoft prototype in 2000, and then the hugely successful Apple iPad in 2010. Each of these future visions was compelling at the time but many failed to take off – or required a very, very long runway just to get aloft.
And that’s a part of what makes Apple so unusual. Unlike many other companies, Apple has been able to harness and re-think our vision of the future in new ways than we could ever have imagined possible. They’ve also used familiar paradigms to help consumers move into new areas. When you buy an Apple product, you’re buying a complete experience that is a full solution. So what is it that makes Apple so able today when others are so unable to harness – and successfully sell – futuristic products? Let’s take a look:
- Understandable and easy to use – Apple uses now-familiar metaphors (some of which they had invented earlier) that enable consumers to see how the new product will work. For example, Apple compares the Apple Watch’s “Digital Crown” to the now familiar iPod wheel. And although it’s becoming more subtle, Apple has long used skeumorphic interfaces that mimic “natural metaphors” like physical movements and physical devices (e.g., the old iPad daily diary looked like a physical diary or swiping to move to the next page).
- A sensory experience – Apple products are designed to become one with the user – connecting with users through audio, visual and now, “tap” notifications. Think of the evolution of the computer from text interfaces to the graphical UI that Apple popularized in 1984, and which has become richer ever since, and now includes video. Sensory experiences help people to relate with devices at a much deeper, almost subconscious level.
- Simple and easy to use – No surprise here, but Apple is relentless about stripping out complexity, resulting in products that are simple and easy to use. I do think that this has become more challenging as their ecosystem has grown, but still their products are relatively easy to use.
- Objects of desire – Apple goes to great pains to create hardware and software that are fully thought-out and finely crafted (especially if you like brushed aluminum). Apple’s rich promotional photography and demo animations make their product components (butterfly keys!) look like works of art.
- Good design that looks good – No surprise here, but Apple seems to follow Dieter Rams’ 10 principles – that good design is innovative, useful, aesthetic, makes the product understandable, unobtrusive, honest, long- lasting, thorough, environmentally friendly and is simple.
- Unique – Apple products are designed to be distinctive and stylish. So distinctive that the Apple brand is virtually baked into the product itself, making the Apple logo almost superfluous. I can’t tell you why, but they just look good – must be the materials, the smooth lines…
Product and technology
- Powerful, effective technology – Apple products are powerful enough to fulfill their promise, which is not always a given in the world of tech. The high def Apple Retina Display enables a level of clarity that is critical to the success of a small device like a watch. And small devices require processors that pack a lot of punch in a small space. Too slow or too big and no one will use it. Apple has missed the mark from time to time, but by and large, they deliver powerful tech.
- Continuous innovation – Just when you think that, say, standard laptops can’t get any lighter, Apples comes up with a new lightweight MacBook, with completely re-imagined batteries, more precise keys, high def display, case, trackpad, I/O and more – at just 2 pounds. They continue to innovate across the board with both existing products and new lines, constantly staying ahead of the competition.
- Manufacturing cost – It often seems that new technology is always priced high but through a relentless focus on sourcing and manufacturing, for new technologies, Apple has been able to keep costs low, prices reasonable (don’t get me started about the $10,000 watch), and margins exceptional.
Complete ecosystem and integrated experience
- Buying experience – Apple Stores provide a buying experience that is similar to the product experience – spare and simple, elegant, and knowledgeable.
- APIs toolkits – New toolkits like CarPlay, HomeKit and HealthKit to spur development of third-party auto, home and health apps.
- Third-party apps – A rich ecosystem of apps.
- Content – A full array of content, including quick hit “glance” content such as sports scores and financial and news alerts for the AppleWatch.
- Ease of deployment – The AppStore makes it relatively easy to get content on the AppleWatch. We’ll have to see what real consumers think once they begin using AppleWatch.
- Simple, emotional messages with rich imagery – Rather than get bogged down in the minutiae of features, most Apple ads focus on emotional stories that we can all relate to. In my favorite commercials, you notice people and their reactions as the device itself becomes almost – but not quite – a footnote. In other words, what people accomplish and feel is far more important than how they actually do it with specific features.
- Value – No doubt about it, Apple products command a price premium. But they also offer an enviable combination of features and ease of use for that premium, delivering a price/performance ratio that is probably better than that of underperforming, cheaper alternatives.
- Accessible pricing at the low end – While premium Apple products are expensive, they always have very attractive starting price points at the low end that may be a stretch, but are within reach for many consumers. That said, while the lower end of the AppleWatch pricing is not unreasonable, $350 to $400 is still a lot to spend for a product that is an addition, not a replacement.
For many years, Apple has been successfully created the future thanks to a relentless focus on a seamless user experience, great design, powerful and continually innovated products and solutions, a complete ecosystem and compelling marketing.
The opinions expressed here are my own.