The Simple Reason for Apple’s Success

Tim Bajarin / January 16th, 2012

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.

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.
  • Sy

    Tim, great story about the IBM PC Jr., with the cheap “chicklet” keyboard. (I am making that assumption here as I remember that time very well). IBM was famous for having the best typewriter keyboards, so nothing less than IBM’s quality would fly.

    • Mr Fergus

      IBM keyboards were built for IBM by the AMPEX corp. IBM was sued by AMPEX for patient infringement of its keyboard design. Ampex won the law suite, and was retained by IBM as a high tech vendor. The whole deal was worth several million dollars to AMPEX who had a reputation for quality second to none. I worked for AMPEX corp. during the time frame mentioned, AMPEX was also a supplier to GE of key components of the first naval radar systems during the Second World War. They also developed the first practical audio recorders, and invented Video tape recording.

  • Wasn’t IBM supposed to come out with the “Peanut” around that time, or was that the code name for the PC Jr?

  • Newbshp

    We nerds are into computers for the struggle; the triumph over technical adversity. We don’t mind glitches that require esoteric software patches. We get goosebumps when hardware may or may not support software (or vis-a-versa), and then if there is a problem we relish the ability and opportunity to reconcile the issue. We also like being the only person in the room who seems to easily use his or her computer, and we likewise like being the person in the room who can troubleshoot the issues of others. However, today we actually represent a mere minutia of the computer using population.

    Over time, Windows was developed by non-art major, non-design centric nerds, who, in the end, could give a hoot about your average user’s experience. Quality, look, and finish of hardware and software were afterthoughts at best, not core principals in the design process. This type of digital ecosystem has led to an ultimately fragmented (both codec-wise, and visually) OS that your average consumer/user, while maybe not able to articulate why, dislike their end computing experience.

    Apple isn’t interested in presenting its customers with a struggle. Apple simply wants its products to simply work. This was the foundation of Apple’s design process from the beginning. While nerds-aplenty appreciate the BSD Unix core of Apple’s modern OS, Apple could give a hoot about the nerd. Apple wants everyone in the room to feel comfortable with their computer, to admire it, to grow an affection for it, and to, in the end, not conquer their computer, but to simply use it like one would use a hammer. I think Apple has hit the nail on the proverbial head with this approach.

    While I like to use my Windows and Linux machines for the struggle, if my non-nerd friend or family member asks me what kind of computer/phone/tablet they should buy, I always point them in the direction of Apple products. I’m getting tired of being the only nerd in the room. I don’t want the calls for help with printers, digital cameras, and Android apps. I have a healthy sense of self-worth, I no longer need the affirmation.

    Thank you Apple for giving me my life back. I can now struggle on my own and not burden myself with the struggle of others…..Thank you for supplying a viable, usable alternative.

  • Newbshp

    We nerds are into computers for the struggle; the triumph over technical adversity. We don’t mind glitches that require esoteric software patches. We get goosebumps when hardware may or may not support software (or vis-a-versa), and then if there is a problem we relish the ability and opportunity to reconcile the issue. We also like being the only person in the room who seems to easily use his or her computer, and we likewise like being the person in the room who can troubleshoot the issues of others. However, today we actually represent a mere minutia of the computer using population.

    Over time, Windows was developed by non-art major, non-design centric nerds, who, in the end, could give a hoot about your average user’s experience. Quality, look, and finish of hardware and software were afterthoughts at best, not core principals in the design process. This type of digital ecosystem has led to an ultimately fragmented (both codec-wise, and visually) OS that your average consumer/user, while maybe not able to articulate why, dislike their end computing experience.

    Apple isn’t interested in presenting its customers with a struggle. Apple simply wants its products to simply work. This was the foundation of Apple’s design process from the beginning. While nerds-aplenty appreciate the BSD Unix core of Apple’s modern OS, Apple could give a hoot about the nerd. Apple wants everyone in the room to feel comfortable with their computer, to admire it, to grow an affection for it, and to, in the end, not conquer their computer, but to simply use it like one would use a hammer. I think Apple has hit the nail on the proverbial head with this approach.

    While I like to use my Windows and Linux machines for the struggle, if my non-nerd friend or family member asks me what kind of computer/phone/tablet they should buy, I always point them in the direction of Apple products. I’m getting tired of being the only nerd in the room. I don’t want the calls for help with printers, digital cameras, and Android apps. I have a healthy sense of self-worth, I no longer need the affirmation.

    Thank you Apple for giving me my life back. I can now struggle on my own and not burden myself with the struggle of others…..Thank you for supplying a viable, usable alternative.

  • Tim, you missed the iPod classic and shuffle. The classic, the direct descendant of the original iPod. The shuffle, the best seller every holiday season as it is the least expensive way to join the iPod world and so is a popular gift.

  • Nice analysis.

    And taking it a bit further with iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, “one OS”

    http://theunderstatement.com/post/11982112928/android-orphans-visualizing-a-sad-history-of-support

  • Apple stems and stays true to its first advertisement:

    “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”

    Leonardo Da Vinci said: “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” This is one of my favorite quotes, and it plays on the idea that being simple isn’t banal, it’s elegant.

    http://www.designteaparty.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Screen-shot-2011-11-19-at-10.03.37.png

  • Nigel Dessau

    Don’t let nerds specify your products – let marketing people do that. Let the nerds make it possible. Until the industry learns this lesson they will continue to loose to Apple.

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