In a recent post, my colleague Ben Bajarin wrote a post on how the seamlessness of Apple’s iCloud is a bit like Amazon’s WhisperSync in the way it invisibly does its job. I’d like to take a deeper look at the design philosophy behind this and why it is a key to Apple’s success. In a word, the key to making the iPhone and iPad a better experience than their competitors is integration.
The iPhone’s new iOS 5 software has a couple of important tricks. Siri, a voice driven personal assistant, lets you accomplish much of what you want to do an an iPhone simply by speaking to it. iCloud creates automatic links among iOS devices, Macs, and, to a limited extent, Windows PCs. But the important thing is that these new features are built into the heart of the operating system, not whizzy add-ons. That means their function becomes a natural extension of the device itself. As developers do more to hook their apps into these services, their usefulness will explode.
I just finished up a project that required including a number of iPad and iPhone screen shots. I wrote the report on an iMac and in the past, getting those pictures from the devices to my Mac would have been a pain. Fortunately, the iCloud feature called Photo Stream came along just in time. Once Photo Stream was activated, I could create a screen shot on the iPad and within a minute or so it would just appear in iPhoto on the Mac with absolutely no intervention on my part. This is not magic, though it looks like it. But it does require deep integration of iCloud services into the operating system to work as seamlessly as it does.
Apple is actually late coming to the cloud and its early efforts, notably MobileMe, were not terribly successful. But in typical Apple fashion, the company is making up for lost time with a vengeance by pushing cloud connections deeper into its products than any competitor. Google may be the ultimate cloud company, but Android is festooned with an assortment of cloud services that never feel like part of an integrated whole.
One big advantage of Apple’s integration is that these services can be made available relatively easily so third-party developers can use them. Apple has already published an iCloud application programming interface and as Ben noted, developers are already finding interesting ways to use it. Apple has not yet published a Siri API–the service is officially still in beta–but once it does, I expect the usefulness of a natural language voice interface will explode.
At Apple, it’s never about the technology, but always about the user experience. That philosophy is likely to keep iOS a step or two ahead of its competitors for some time to come.
4 thoughts on “The Apple User Experience: Integration Is the Key”
I just don’t understand why other companies don’t put the same emphasis on the user experience that Apple does. Customers pay the salary of every person in a company, so customers should be seen as #1. I guess other companies are more focused on things like market share or stock price, but Apple’s success suggests the others have got their priorities misplaced, and I could say the same thing about Amazon. When I buy a product, I don’t want the manufacturer thinking about what their market share is, I want them thinking about what my experience with the product is. This is so obvious that I’m mystified why more companies don’t appear to make their decisions on this basis.
This is the great mystery of the business. I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that a lot of engineering-driven companies (like, say, Google) really don’t get user experience. They don’t have project managers with the ability to understand UX from the perspective of the typical user, and they don’t really care. (You see this reflected among Linux enthusiasts who cannot understand why the Ubuntu UX still isn’t remotely good enough for the mass market.)
A second reason, specific to Microsoft but affecting all products that run MSFT software, is a reluctance to get rid of legacy stuff because enterprise customers demand it. This tends to make products cluttered and ugly.
But the bigger, sadder, and stranger reason comes down to money. When I have asked OEMs why they didn’t imitate something or other that Apple was doing, the answer usually is that it would be too expensive. That, for example, seems to be why no one in the Windows world has come up with something like Apple’s Magsafe power connector. I don’t think you can really wrap something that simple and obvious in prohibitive patents, but other PC makers don’t want to add a couple of bucks to their BoM. Of course, the great irony is that Apple’s margins are much, much fatter than anyone else’s. Apple figured out a long time ago that you can indeed charge a premium price for a premium product
I’ve been mostly impressed with iCloud, but I think Apple can integrate the experience a bit more to truly make it groundbreaking. For example, I would like documents created on my Mac to automatically show up on my iOS devices. I would like Contacts, which I had to cobble together from gmail and other sources to remove duplicates and help me start fresh with iCal and my new .me email. These transitions are hard and this functionality doesn’t make it as seamless as it could be. Productivity apps (and gaming) should really shine with iCloud, and if Apple pulls of the workflow experience, they’ll truly be a leg up on MSFT and GOOG.