Saturday, November 29, 2008

Is it really that hard?

These days, every consumer electronics and personal computer company wants to be Apple. They have the best selling phone around, the best selling music devices, and are increasingly becoming a popular choice of computers for more than just the artsy type.

Two prominent Apple higher-ups have been hired by competing companies - Paul Mercer by Palm and Tom Schaaff by Sony. Both of these former Apple employees were highly successful at Apple, but have yet to really produce any high-level change at their respective companies. Sony, despite having a previously powerful controlling stake in the mobile phone, music player, and computer categories, is now pretty much banking on its high-quality HDTV's and the PlayStation 3. Apple on the other hand, has gone from the joke of the computing world to a powerhouse in Sony's old bastions. Meanwhile, Palm has lost plenty of ground to some newcomer despite being on the scene for nearly a decade when it broke ground with some affordable devices using touchscreen tech.

My question is - is it really that difficult to beat Apple? I mean, they're good at what they do, but they leave so many holes that people can exploit! How are so many of the iPhone clones missing the point! Include cut-and paste, don't make your whole phone into some weird button, include some haptic feedback, and soup up the battery life! Include some more flexible support with the file system, and we have a winner! How can Apple possibly be winning over me, who so boldly refused to buy anything from them for so many years? I use iTunes despite how slowly it runs on my PC. Why can't Microsoft include something that actively monitors music from multiple sources on the computer to keep a dynamic library, but keep the album art to the side and make it easy to view? These companies seem to think that taking a move or two from Apple's playbook is a sign of weakness, but really it shows intelligence! It's like a politician who doesn't play to what the people want - they end up loosing! Do what the people want, then give them some of what you think they want. That's how you win them over - when you can pull off the latter, after doing the former. Instead, Palm, Sony, and Microsoft are all trying to do what they think we want in the hopes that we will somewhat concede what we KNOW we want. If people want a simple interface, give it to them! Put the complicated stuff under the hood.

These companies thrived when the people using electronics were savvy. Now, we're moving to an era when the average consumer can use things but isn't likely to use the powertoys or care about all the easter eggs underneath. Even power users, like myself, are finding that we'd rather forgo the flexibility for shininess. If only I could get both! It's much easier to make something that's flexible into something that's shiny (
Ubuntu) than vice versa. It would take Apple a while to make something that's as flexible as Windows. Windows is getting shinier too, but not as fast as it needs to.

I find it hard to imagine that the people who Apple hires are that much smarter than the people at Sony or Palm. I know people who have worked at both companies in fact. I think the issue is much more at the core values of the company. Apple values design. If you've ever read 
Fake Steve Jobs' blog, you'll see (albeit unofficially) that Apple begins with marketing, rather than ending with it. Shouldn't everything be like that, at least to some extent? Basic business classes talk about making a new business plan of sorts for each product. And it's not like the prices are greatly different for consumer devices, though they might be for computers. This is not something that can't be solved in two product cycles. C'mon. Is it really that hard?

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