Back in 1984, one of the major PC companies, who was spectacularly successful with their business PCs, decided that they could be just as successful if they created PCs for consumers. But they wanted them to be different from their business PCs since they knew a consumer model would have to be priced much less than their business models.
So they created a consumer PC that, for all intent and purposes was a “wounded” version of their business models, with a lousy keyboard, very weak processor and the cheapest monitor they could dig up. To say that it was a failure would be an understatement. To make things worse, the only OS they had at the time was MS/DOS so that meant they were giving consumers an OS that was hard to use and difficult to learn from scratch. But they reasoned that since so many business users had their PC with DOS at work, they would gladly buy a similar model for their home and since they knew DOS from the office, it only made sense that they could use it on their home PC.
Interestingly, when it failed, they were dumbfounded. They were certain that they had a winner on their hands and some of the top management kept pushing to re-design it and take a new model back to the consumers the following year. But to their credit, some of the people in the group questioned its potential and turned to outside experts to give a 3rd party opinion on the potential of a PC for consumers at that time.
I was lucky to be one of the few outside persons asked to weigh in on this subject so I went back to their HQ on the east coast two times to give my thoughts on the subject. In my presentation and documentation I gave them, I pointed out the major difference between business and consumer users were that business users had serious motivation to go through the hassle of learning a text-based OS, while the mainstream consumer did not. At the time, PCs pretty much only had software for business use. I argued that for PCs to take off, there would have to be a major reason for consumers to buy them, and emphasized areas like using PCs for educational purposes as well as possibly entertainment as well. I also told them they needed to be cheap.
I drew them a picture of the traditional marketing pyramid and showed that at the top we would find the truly early adopters, which at this time were quite IT driven. I then told them the second layer would possibly come from the worker bees whose IT leaders would push them to learn DOS and harness the PC to make their work more productive. But I told them the third layer would come from what today we call prosumers and, even at that time, I felt it would take at least 3-5 years to get these folks excited about PCs and get the PCs to a price point that they could afford.
And at the bottom layer of the pyramid, which is always the largest audience, I said they would find the mainstream consumer, but pointed out that I felt it would take at least 10 years before this crowd would finally buy into the PC vision.
I never found out how much my outside work on this project impacted their decisions but I do know that a week after I made this presentation, their consumer PC was killed off for good.
But there was another key point that I emphasized in this document. I said that the OS had to be easy to use and the PCs had to be simple enough so that consumers did not need a degree in engineering to run them. And if you know the history of the PC business, you know that consumer interest in PCs for the home did not kick in until Windows 95 hit the market, exactly 10 years after this company killed their consumer PC.
Ironically, even though our PCs have gotten spiffy new user interfaces and are clearly easier to use, to the point that PCs have penetrated pretty much every home in the US in some way or another, the fact remains that they are actually more complicated to use. Consumers not only have to deal with the plethora of desktops and laptops to choose from, they now also have to deal with Internet connections to the home, wireless connectivity, security, identity theft, multiple passwords, personal data in numerous non-connected files, and most recently, this new thing called the cloud.
But in the end, consumers want things simple and some handholding when things go awry. I am convinced that this is really at the heart of Apple’s success. They have one phone–the iPhone. They have one tablet–the iPad. They have two laptops but except for sizes and optical drives in the Pro models, they are actually all the same. And they have one major desktop–the iMac. Even in the iPod line, they have streamlined it to the iPod Touch and the Nano. If a person needs help, they have their Genius Bars and 24-hour hotlines in which the people on the other end actually now how fix your problem.
By comparison, there are now over 80 Android phones to choose from as well as at least 5 versions of an Android OS to deal with. And in the PC space, if something goes wrong, people don’t know who to go to for help. While some of the mainstream PC vendors do have 24 hour hotlines, my experience with them has been only marginally successful. And I have even stumped Best Buys geek squad a few times over the last year with problems with Windows laptops.
While we can point to Apple’s powerful OS, industrial designs and ecosystems of products and services as key to their success, I actually think, that at its heart, the real reason for their amazing success is Jobs’ own mantra to his team, which is to keep things as simple and intuitive as possible. And he was smart enough to know that even with that, given the nature of technology and the fact that things get more powerful and complex over time, provide a place for people to get help that is easy to access and stock it with people who can help when a problem arises.
As I walked the floor of CES recently, I saw over a dozen phones at one vendor, nine new PCs from another vendor and five tablets from another vendor, all with different versions of Android on them. While choice is great, I really think that keeping things simple and easy to understand–and buy–is even more important than choice. While Apple has powerful products in many categories, the real reason for Apple’s success that they just keep things simple.