Why Apple Stands Apart From the Competition

Tim Bajarin / July 20th, 2012

I have been covering Apple now for 31 years and have a pretty good feel for how Apple works. Of course, how they worked changed over the years depending on who was CEO at the time, but there have been a few guiding principles that has driven the company from the intro of the Mac in 1984.

I was sitting in the third row of the De Anza Flint center when Steve Jobs unveiled the Mac. My first reaction upon seeing it was “that does not look like any computer I have ever seen.” But as he got the Mac to say hello to us and started showing us how it worked, I began to realize that Apple did not think like the PC vendors I knew at the time.

In 1984, all computers were square boxes and most of them were painted battleship grey. And when it came to ergonomics, it was clear to me that not much thought was given to its design. Although Compaq’s first PC, which looked like a Singer sewing machine, did break the mold of past PCs, it was not long before they started making PCs in square box designs and basically copying what IBM and others were doing with their PC designs.

But the Mac broke all conventional wisdom of what a PC would and should look like and in my notes of the event, I wrote that Apple clearly thinks differently then the other PC vendors at the time. Little did I know that this term, or the grammatically incorrect “Think Different” theme would eventually become a major marketing campaign for Apple as it strove to set itself apart from the rest of the PC vendors schlepping PCs that all looked the same.

Think Different, Be Different
The first way Apple sets itself apart from the crowd is to “think different” and not let what others do impact the products or services that they themselves create and bring to market. This has to be a very freeing feeling for Apple execs as they continue to put themselves in the drivers seat and create new products and even new categories of products that have driven innovation desktops, MP3 players, smartphones, tablets, and laptops over the years.

Team Players
There is another important way that Apple sets themselves apart from their competitors and that is in the way they run and control their own company. I have worked with a multitude of companies over the years and so much of their decision making process is done by committees and having to get approvals and partnerships from one of their “silo businesses” before they can move ahead. This is why many companies have so many problems keeping up with Apple and the market. Their individual businesses seldom talked to each other and getting approvals on any device or project took serious coordination between these silo businesses to get anything done.

But Apple has one central executive committee that works together seamlessly to design products and make decisions on how the company moves forward. Also, they own their own hardware, software OS, software apps, and services, as well as their new Cloud architecture so they can tie everything together neatly. There are no silos inside Apple and all decisions are made by this single executive committee. That is why all they do works together so seamlessly. This difference of the way Apple runs their company compared to competitors can’t be emphasized enough. And it gives them a big edge over the competition because of that.

But the third reason Apple is set apart from their competitors is design.

At the Fortune Tech conference in Aspen this week, former Apple executive Tony Fadell summed it up pretty well. He told this stellar audience that “great design principles are pervasive in the Apple DNA.”

In Steve Job’s Stanford commencement speech, he spoke about his love for calligraphy and how this influenced his thinking about design and how this drove him to be a perfectionist. And you can see this design DNA in everything Apple brings to market. Although Steve Jobs is not with us any more, Jonathan Ive is now tasked to embed this design DNA in all of their products and teach it to new Apple employees as the company grows.

Over the last few years I have been often asked how to compete with Apple. At the moment, if you look at pretty much all of the smartphones and even new laptops like the Ultrabook as well as competing tablets, they all are mostly copying Apple’s smartphones, tablet and thin Macbook Air designs. So when I am asked that question, I tell these folks that if they really want to compete with Apple, they need to start innovating on their own and stop simply trying to copy Apple. These folks often shrug when I tell them this and point out that Apple’s products sell and they just follow Apple’s lead. But what they are really saying is that they have companies that are run very differently then Apple, that they have little design skills and that they must lean on others to drive any innovation.

The good news is that at least a few ODM’s are getting their own internal design teams and I am starting to see some really new and interesting products, especially coming out of Taiwan and Beijing. But even with that, the OEM’s are slow to react and continue to let Apple lead while they follow.

The bottom line, unless these competitors start innovating on their own, is that Apple will continue to have at least a two year lead on them and thanks to their ways of “thinking different,” management style and design DNA, will keep their competitors following them instead of truly leading the market forward themselves

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.
  • If they were not copying, they would not sell at all. Copying is their only way out.

    I hope Apple wins some of their lawsuits definitively to put an end to this and thereby force the competition to do their own thing. As it is Apple seems to make the bulk of the profits so far.

    • The first line you just put there is exactly what Apple does. It copies design, it copies technology, and it copies everything else but does a few important things that distinguish them from common plagiarists: they market well, and they market hard. That’s what they are. Apple is an amazing marketing company.

      Think iPhone. Touchscreen phones with apps were available for a long time before iPhone ever made it there. Same with tablets, computers and so on. There is a funny image circling the internet of Bill Gates unveiling an awesome tablet back in ’02 that no one wanted to buy, an image of Steve Jobs revealing the iPad (very similar looking), and then of the current MS CEO with the microsoft tablet with a caption calling MS a copycat to illustrate this point.

      I think instead of Apple we should keep our eyes peered on Microsoft because they’re bringing a revolution in design with them. THey’re bringing a robust app store to the desktop (much better than what Apple offers) with low entry barrier to bring apps in. They’re bringing a minimalist, low distraction design to the general public. I mean, some of the crap they’re churning out right now is pretty damn awesome (the new MS Office, their new pricing system (copied from apple 😉 ), W8, W8 phone with its slick interface, MS tablet etc.).

      • benbajarin

        Thanks for the comment. The columnists in this forum are equally interested in what is happening within the MSFT ecosystem and we anxiously await this fall and 2013 to see where consumers put their trust and commit with their dollars.

        To your point of copying, I have a few thoughts that should add some perspective. Design is a limited field. There is only so much that can be done, so although, we can perceive design as being copied, it is simply the nature of the beast. For example all cars have four wheels and four doors. We don’t come out and say that Mercedes copies BMW because its design limited. We look at other innovations. Take Retina displays, mag safe power chords, ultra thin, unibody aluminum, Thunderbolt, and a host of other things Apple did which was design oriented but more importantly leading features no one else had but others followed. But it is not just design it is the experience that takes design to a new level.

        Look at Samsung’s latest marketing on the Series 9, they focus solely on how much more thin it is than the MBA. But that feature and design distinction by itself is not why people buy Macs and it is not why people will buy a Samsung Ultrabook. Rather people will choose the whole package, to which design is a part of but not limited to.

        OEMs need to go beyond design and compete on experience as well. Only that is problematic when they all sell Windows because in essence the experience is largely the same on every Windows PC. Design becomes their only differentiator and that is a tough future.

        • Hong Bui

          Agree. In general Apple’s competitors need to go beyond design and compete on the experience. And what’s working for Apple may not necessarily work for the rest because Apple is a different brand and unique core asset.

        • Rich

          I believe Microsoft’s thinking (at least at the top level of the company) runs something like this:

          “Windows is our cash cow.”

          “Windows has been enormously successful.” (But to that I would add “in the enterprise.”)

          “There is huge equity in the brand Windows.”

          “Therefore our products (excluding Xbox 360 and Kinect but definitely including Surface) will be based on Windows. We may modify the products to include modern features, but Windows must be the core of them.”

          I (Rich) believe this line of thinking is embedded at the top of the company, and is a serious impediment to dealing with the portable and mobile market in 2012. The technical people in Microsoft may recognize it as a mistake, but they are overruled by management at the highest level.

        • James A.

          To a certain degree, this is one area where Android could have an advantage, at least over Windows in the mobile sector. Because Google allows it’s licensees to create there own custom interfaces, like Amazon did with the Fire, they could compete even with other Android developers on experience.

          • benbajarin

            yes but that is largely only for smart phones and maybe 7inch tabs as I don’t believe Android has much future in 10inch tabs and certainly not in desktops or notebooks. So the OEMs who want to make PCs are stuck with Windows.

        • jfutral

          Keep in mind Jobs thoughts about design, which is where a lot of people get confused. Design is not just how it looks and feels like. Design is how it works. The problem isn’t just how much Samsung products look like Apple products, but also how much the Android OS at the beginning, worked like iOS.

          Granted, design patents are usually specifically ornamental by nature, but given what tablets looked like, how people interacted with them, and what ports, and such, they had before the iPad or even smart phones before the iPhone, that the industry is trying to capitalize on Apple’s success and imitate Apple (as much as they think they need to) is pretty self evident.


          • steve_wildstrom

            Anyone who wants to think seriously about the importance of design would do well to read two books by guys who were important in Apple’s early days: The Design of Everyday Things (originally published as The Psychology of Everyday Things by Donald Norman and The Humane Interface by the late Jef Raskin.

      • Apple is an amazing marketing company

        Apple is not a marketing company. Apple is a hardware company that makes it’s own software. Their hardware does not sell because they are good at marketing. Their hardware sells because they make better hardware than the competition with superior software integration. 550 million dollars was spent on the Lumia, and they sold 4 million in a quarter. It’s a give Apple will sell 5 times that and Apple didn’t spend 5 times more on advertising the iPhone.

        Advertising and marketing have one purpose: introduce the product to the customer. Advertising and marketing cannot make a customer buy a product if that product does not interest them. Advertising and marketing will not keep a customer if the product they bought does not satisfy the customer.

        Touchscreen phones with apps were available for a long time before iPhone ever made it there.

        Name one that rivals the impact of the iPhone.

        THey’re bringing a robust app store to the desktop (much better than what Apple offers)

        Based on what? Is “robust” a code word for “less apps”?

        This need to pretend that a future competitors product is better than what Apple is shipping right now has always been puzzling. The mere fact that Apple’s product can actually bought and is in use today makes the Apple offering superior.

      • Jurassic

        “Bill Gates unveiling an awesome tablet back in ’02 that no one wanted to buy, an image of Steve Jobs revealing the iPad (very similar looking)”

        You can’t be serious!

        The “awesome” Tablet PC introduced in 2002 by your guru, Mr. Gates, was awesomely unsuccessful. It was also nothing at all like the iPad.

        The Tablet PC was either a Windows laptop with a swivel display on which you used a stylus, or it was a very thick, heavy PC without a keyboard.

        Also Tablet PCs, in addition to being thicker and heavier than similar laptops, were ugly in design (you really need to Google up some photos of them, to overcome your delusion that they looked anything like the iPad).

        Tablet PCs ran the Windows desktop operating, and it used a stylus (there was no multi-touch).

        In contrast, the iPad has an elegant design (i.e. even superficially it looks nothing like Tablets PCs), is ultra thin and light, uses a mobile OS designed specifically for it, and uses unique multi-touch gestures to operate it.

        The yet-to-be-produced Surface is Microsoft’s continued attempt to sell the public on Tablet PCs. It still uses the Windows desktop operating, because Microsoft still sees tablets and smartphones as PCs, and not as Post-PC mobile devices.

        To quote Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.”

      • steve_wildstrom

        This is a business where everybody copies from everyone else, but copying is decidedly not behind Apple’s success. The original iMac, the first major product after Steve’s return, was a dramatic break from then-current desktop design. It was excoriated for eliminating legacy PS/2, serial, and parallel ports in favor of USB. Some thought the MacBook Air was doomed to fail because it eliminated everything, including Ethernet, except two USB ports. Critics attacked the iPad because it lacked USB and SB storage. Apple’s brilliance is taking every design down to its essence, stripping away everything unnecessary, and giving people what they do not yet know they want–but will when they see it.

        • You apparently know nothing about Macs, since they never had PS/2 nor parallel ports.

          • Which is exactly what he said. Maybe you need to look up “excoriated”.

          • steve_wildstrom

            OK, Apple Desktop Bus and LocalTalk, if anyone but me remembers what those were. But the iMac was being compared not to other Macs but to PCs.

        • Neil (not THAT Neil)

          Steve, I’m late to the party but had to comment!
          I remember the impact the iMac had on the industry.
          When I first clapped eyes on that thing I was transfixed. There had never been anything like it before: Translucent case, no tower, only USB ports, no floppy drive, round mouse. It was a marvel. (I still use that puck mouse believe it or not, I appear to be the only person in the known universe that likes it!!!)
          I have a lovely blueberry flavored iMac sitting right here, I can’t bring myself to part with it.

          Can you imagine M$ coming up with the iMac? Not in a million years.

      • Nangka

        The new MS pricing is what I fear for them. In one fell swoop, by copying Apple, MS has wiped out their oxygen supply from Windows & Office cash cows. Get ready for some financial bloodbath in the next few quarters.

        Copy Apple. It’s damn if they don’t, damn if they do. Genius of Apple.

      • Nangka

        The new pricing is what I fear for MS. In one fell swoop, by copying Apple, MS will lose its oxygen supply from Windows & Office cash cows. Get ready for some financial bloodbath in the next few quarters.

        Copy Apple. It’s damned if they don’t, damned if they do. Genius of Apple.

      • AdamChew

        Apple put everything together and it work but the rest copy from the working ideas of Apple , isn’t it sad. Why can’t they do what Apple did not not copy what Apple have put together.
        Can you link to what you described in para two. And the question to ask is why the MS tablet is a big fail.
        Apple best not to look at anything MS otherwise trolls will accuse of them of copying and stealing.

      • Quality Aficionado

        I am tired of hearing that Apple is an amazing marketing company and that is why it is successful. The reason why I buy and use Apple products today is because they are of much higher QUALITY than competing products. Apple’s software, hardware, and services overall are superior and work better together to enable me do more and do it more easily. Apple products are more beautiful, easier to use, better designed, better made, and more durable. When I see and use Apple products, I can tell that they really care about making every aspect of their products great. I actually enjoy using their products and services. I appreciate the way my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Air work together. I made the switch to Apple products several years ago, and am so glad I no longer have to struggle with a poorly-made, plastic mobile telephone, or a poorly-made plastic laptop that was unwieldy to use. What sets Apple apart is quality through and through, not marketing.

  • jbu

    Good read, but quite n after-taste of Kupertino Kool-Aid.

    • Rich

      Instead of using a silly phrase like “Kupertino Kool-Aid” why don’t you point out specifically where you believe the post is incorrect?

      • Heaven forbid, don’t let facts get in the way of a trolling comment.

    • FalKirk

      Jbu, Apple is the business titan of our age. In a rational world, everyone would be amazed at their level of success and grateful for any insight into how they achieved that success. In this world, trying to understand Apple is equated with drinking the “Kupertino Kool-Aid.”

      Mocking Apple and those who want to understand Apple doesn’t advance our understanding of the world. Why don’t you set your prejudices aside and join us in a rational discussion of the pros and cons of Apple. You might be amazed by what you learn.

    • Nangka

      Apple has in a lot of areas gone against conventional wisdom of doing & running a business. Many of such doctrine were devised by management gurus and taught in major MBA schools. Yet they are the biggest company and made the most profit, from a hardware business no less. Heck their OpEx margin were even higher than MS & Google last quarter! Few companies, if any, are big enough, or bold enough to copy Apple wholesale and _then_ start trying to compete.

      Apple is a once-in-a-lifetime Kool-Aid. I’m just glad I get to drink it.

      • AdamChew

        The problem is you can’t differential the good from the bad.

        But then to each his own taste.

        • Nangka

          What’s good or bad is not the point here. But if you can’t see that, you probably wouldn’t understand it anyway.

    • Nigel Ash

      You sir are the archetypal troll.
      Why Apple haters are compelled to comment on every last article that even mentions the word ‘Apple’ is behind me.

  • ppgreat

    Apple is the sum of its parts and interaction of devices and software, something that Microsoft and Google are just now starting to admit and trying to capitalize on. Apple has spent the past decade hard at work to create an ecosystem for its entire product line.

    Since MS and Google don’t know how to do that, they can only play follow the leader in the hardware side of the business and in building the ecosystems to try and match them.

    The problem is they’re still herding cats. MS has to maintain its monopoly to maintain its ancillary business ventures, while Google has to maintain its search monopoly to do the same. The result is fragmentation.

    It was never in the DNA of either MS or Google to do what Apple does. And that’s not drinking the Kupertino Kool-Aid, being a fanboi, or being anti-MS/Google. Those are facts borne out by Apple’s bottom line (market cap, blowout quarters, etc.).

  • no

    When Intel and Microsoft make majority of the profit in PC ecosystem.
    How can anyone expect the 5% margin players to do r&d
    and also come up their own innovation.
    It seems like you are blaming the victims of the WinTel hegemony.

    • You’re correct that the “wintel” industry has a structural problem. The irony of the situation is that for decades everyone was completely convinced the wintel way was the right way and Apple was stupid for trying to create the whole widget! In fact, Apple was a laughingstock because it was ‘doing it all wrong.’

      So now wintel industry participants have dug themselves into a hole so deep they’re unable to climb out because they lack both the expertise and the capital–which flowed almost entirely to Intel and Microsoft–to do so. I don’t have a shred of pity for them…

  • “In 1984, all computers were square boxes and most of them were painted battleship grey. ”

    BUZZ. The Apple II is not a square box, nor grey. (You could say the same thing about Commodore 64, etc..)

    You’re only talking about IBM clones.

  • annoyed

    Than > then

  • Chris

    There is nothing grammatically incorrect about “Think Different”. Think is a verb. Different is a direct object (not an adverb). The subject is understood to be You.

    • steve_wildstrom

      No, “Think different,” is ungrammatical, but brilliantly so. First, “think” is normally an intransitive verb that does not take a direct object. Second, “different” is an adjective, not a noun, so it couldn’t be the object anyway. But this grammatical pedantry can’t take away from the cleverness or success of the campaign.

      • Chris

        But what if IBM began a “Think Blue” campaign. Nobody would suggest they say think bluely. Or how about “Think Apple”? Apple isn’t an adverb.

  • benbajarin

    Good comments everyone. Let’s keep the discussion going.

  • mhikl

    OK Ben, how’s this for discussion.

    If Apple isn’t perfect where may it have gone wrong, and I mean in its most recent history, since the introduction of the iPhone. Where are Apple’s blind spots, its weaknesses from its success, the holes the competition are or may soon be filling. Is being hungry a necessary state for precision strategy?

    Is Apple too wedded to its ethos of simplicity and less-is-best? Has this impeded Apple’s success in iPhone dominance and will the same happen to the iPad as predicted by naysayers? Has Apple forgotten how it came to own the media player market with the variety of iPods it fathered that left little but crumbs to its competitors; has it become enamoured with the profits one iPad form can generate as the competition wrestles with the effects of Apple’s skill at design and integration?

    And finally, other than a revolutionary designed television, what other products might Apple lead us to need?

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